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Is one incentive their ability to communicate their perceptiveness to people in their general community?

Are there other incentives?

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Do you mean, 'do professors get anything out of writing recommendation letters'? Is that your question? –  Ana Aug 2 '12 at 14:25

4 Answers 4

The principal reason for writing any letter of recommendation is to benefit the person for whom you are writing it. If a student is talented, helping him or her get into a good program is its own incentive. I can't imagine writing a letter with the motive of showing off my perceptiveness.

An additional motive is that others wrote letters for the writer once, and he/she can show gratitude by paying it forward. From David Keyes' excellent essay on procuring reference letters:

Everyone in a position to write a career-changing letter of reference is there by the grace of earlier generations of mentors at school or work who poured their lives into today's writer and then wrote about the results in now dusty letters. The only gifts today's authors expect from today's candidates are those "in kind" or better to be delivered to tomorrow's candidates, in one-way cross-generational equity. Writers have their own rewards in the success of their protégés, and though they will moan to each other about the burden, they recognize that reference letters are key components of an imperfect system that nevertheless is on the whole effective in keeping their discipline healthy and growing.

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As others have said, the main incentive is to help the students.

But recommendation letters are also a service to the departments who read them. Your colleagues will read your letters to help them make admissions or hiring decisions.

Moreover, over time, faculty build up reputations for the kinds of letters they write. Faculty that are known to write overly effusive letters (as an extreme example: "best student in five years!" every year) are not taken seriously. On the other hand, a strong letter from someone who is known to write measured but accurate letters has a big impact. So writing perceptive letters is not useful only to the present student, but to future students as well.

The reputation effect becomes more significant (but more entangled with research reputation) as you climb the academic food chain. For graduate admissions, it's fairly subtle. For faculty hiring, it's much more noticeable, because hiring letters tend to come from a smaller pool. For tenure and promotion, where the pool of writers is even smaller, the reputation effect is quite significant.

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In addition to the excellent points others made, it reflects well on a faculty member and a department for their students to be successful. While I primarily write letters for the benefit of the students, it's great to be able to say when recruiting other students, or when talking to the Provost, that our graduates are getting great jobs.

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I guess the best incentive you can give a professor to write you a good letter is to 1) develop a relationship with the professor so that he or she knows something more about you than the grade you earned in their class, and 2) impress them in some way so that he or she has something good to say about you.

I agree with David Ketcheson. My sole purpose for writing letters of recommendation is to help the student. Letters of recommendation are read by committees that read hundreds of them every year, and I want the committee to have a strong impression of the student after they read my letter, not of me.

That being said, my students don't automatically get the "best" or "strongest" recommendation I can write. They get the recommendation they earn. For example, I cannot justify describing a C student as having strong academic potential. I can't write favorably about an undergraduate who signed up for a research project and then never showed up. And, I usually cannot say all that much about students I don't know very well. No matter what, I will take what I know about the student's strengths and weaknesses and try to paint the best picture possible; it just might not be glowing.

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Obviously the letter must be accurate, but I've always believed that if you cannot recommend a student, you should decline to write a letter. A negative letter will typically kill any application. I would never write a letter for a "C" student. –  David Ketcheson Aug 1 '12 at 11:37
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It depends what I am writing the letter for. I wouldn't write a letter for a C student for a Ph.D. program, but I might for a Masters' of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) program. –  Ben Norris Aug 1 '12 at 18:25
    
Right; fair enough! I guess the potential scenarios depend on what kind of school you're at. –  David Ketcheson Aug 1 '12 at 20:40
    
I'd be hesitant to write a letter for a C student under any circumstances. First, like many others I am a generous grader at the low end of the spectrum. For me a C is always below the median passing grade, often well below. Second, students take a lot more courses than they need letters of recommendation. If a C student asked me for a letter, I would explain to them that they should instead get a letter from someone else. If they're still asking, it means they don't have more than a C in any relevant coursework, and I can't recommend such a student to anyone. –  Pete L. Clark Dec 17 '12 at 21:07

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