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In Europe, we judge students based on their work and abilities. How are their grades? Do they have relevant work experience (TA/RA, maybe part-time industry work, etc)? What projects have they done? What courses have they taken? And of course the odd recommendation letter is always a nice bonus.

We expect students to write up a summary of all these things (it's called a resumé) upon which they are to be judged, and further detailed inquiry can then be made during a possible interview process.

However, as I understand it, it seems to be quite different in the USA. Reference letters is all that matters. Be a mediocre student, but have a good friendship with Professor Abstract Algebra? You're as good as made. Be a fantastic student, but be a bit shy or having done most of your work independently of the professors? Tough luck.

I am particularly bemused by so many of the questions on this very site where professors come to talk about awkward situations where they are being forced to write a recommendation letter for some student that they don't even know. Who the heck is Robert James? I lecture to hundreds of students, for Christ's sake!

Or when you in turn get students here asking for questions about how to approach a professor they've spoken very little to all year and ask them to write a recommendation letter.

And yes, I get it. One day, one time, you'll get a fantastic reference letter from a professor who actually knows and has worked with a particular student, and that reference letter will give you a better understanding of the capabilities and experiences of this student. I get that. But that's only part of the whole process here in Europe: That's the bonus I mentioned in my first paragraph, but we don't make it our everything. We realize that some people might get luckier with recommendation letters than others.

So why do Americans put so much weight on recommendation letters?

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    (Not American here, so I won't answer. Also, your question is a rant.) One thing I've noticed is that in the USA it's normal to get an A on a course. Getting a B is not good, getting a C is almost as bad as failing. Compared to France for example, where getting 20/20 (100%) is extraordinary and even unheard of for many classes, and getting 14/20 (70%) is already good, this is a very different system. Grades are not so useful to discriminate between students when everyone has an A. So you need something more. – user9646 Jul 30 '18 at 19:40
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    Having myself criticized several times here the practice of recommendation letters (in particular, I don't want that my chances of being hired depend on someone else's capacity for writing recommendation letters and I find the practice of requiring the students to waive their right to see the recommendation letter utterly unethical), I like this question, but, yes, you can probably remove the sarcasm for a better result. – Massimo Ortolano Jul 30 '18 at 19:41
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    I like your optimism that in Europe your CV is all that counts. It's not like nepotism was ever an issue here, right? Right? – xLeitix Jul 30 '18 at 19:52
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    But let's also be honest here: the real reason we Europeans hate the US tradition of recommendation letters is that it forces us to write recommendation letters for our students who want to go to the US :-) Every time I receive an email asking for a recommendation letter I start @#£$§!!! – Massimo Ortolano Jul 30 '18 at 20:07
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    The premise is wrong. Grades and resume certainly matter. Recommendation letters from someone who can speak with some authority about your strengths (and weaknesses) also matter, just as they do when not being hired straight out of school. There is an assumption that people will not write unjustified recommendations, since doing will damage their own reputation; as a result, if an American has nothing significant to say about "Robert James", we probably won't be asked to write a recommendation and in fact would probably decline if asked. You can and should do likewise. Rant resolved. – keshlam Jul 30 '18 at 21:30
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I think Bryan's answer gives a nice perspective on the issue. A perfect system does not exist, and different continents have developed different (imperfect) ways of dealing with the fundamental recruiting problem that it is hard to judge whether a specific student (or employee) will perform or not.

What I want to add is that, if you peek behind the covers, the European and American systems don't actually differ all that much. You assert that in Europe "your CV is all that counts". That is, unfortunately, quite naive. The CV of your average student is simply not expressive enough to be "all that counts" - good grades are at best a weak indicator of research potential, and (despite your counterexample from France), also in many places in Europe many students have very good grades, to the extent of being low-value as a discriminator in hiring. Grades also do little to measure the soft factors such as motivation or being a good team player, which ultimately matter more than whether a student had an A or a B for some largely unrelated undergrad course.

How professors in Europe largely have dealt with this uncertainty is by personally asking the professors that the student worked with before what their impression of the student was - so you still have your "recommendations", but not through written letters but through informal email or telephone exchanges. This was possible because traditionally, students in (at least central) Europe were not particularly mobile - most prospective PhD students did their undergrad in the same university, a close-by university, or a different university where the professors are already in close contact. Applicants from other places were often rejected outright. Now times are (slowly) changing and more and more PhD students come from abroad - and, lo and behold, suddenly formal recommendation letters are becoming important as well.

Another aspect that I am missing in your question that at least central and southern Europe has historically had a problem with rampant nepotism in academia. So I find it particularly curious that you draw Europe as a haven of objective hiring strategies.

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    Note that what you're describing could be construed as a backchannel reference and are generally somewhere between 'frowned upon' and 'class-action lawsuit worthy' in the US which might explain why the explicit LoR is used instead. – Jared Smith Jul 31 '18 at 11:31
  • I think the traditional model in many European countries was more like "it's CV and research plan that count". When the PhD applicant already has a Master's degree, they should be able to produce a reasonable research plan. External reviewers were frequently used to fight nepotism. These days recommendation letters are often used as a faster alternative to external reviewers. – Jouni Sirén Jul 31 '18 at 20:55
  • "Rampant" is such a mild adjective for the nepotism we have here. – user21264 Aug 5 '18 at 7:49
69

Do you have any actual data to support your assertions like these?:

it matters less who you are and what you can actually do, but more how many professors you are able to suck up to. Reference letters is all that matters

Recommendation letters are valued because it is difficult to objectively assess the other criteria you mentioned:

  • Grades vary greatly by institution, and in many cases have become inflated to the point of meaning very little. Because so many students get "A" grades, a GPA only points out the occasions when someone does not receive an "A" which may be because they are a terrible student, because there was a course they chose not to prioritize, or because they had a professor who disagrees with grade inflation and attempted to give objective grades with reasonable variance at the top. Reading a GPA doesn't tell someone anything about which of these possibilities is true.

  • Test scores are only very vague predictors of future success.

  • Research projects are hard to evaluate. You could base it on publications, but for someone with a short career, like an undergraduate being evaluated for graduate school, minor setbacks that are normal in research can have a huge impact on publication productivity. You could base it on how many projects someone says they worked on in their personal statement or on their resume, but how do you know what their actual impact was? Maybe they are taking credit for everything that happened in a lab where they washed the dishes.

Reference letters are also flawed. There is often an expectation that references be incredibly glowing and praise-worthy, so a more honest letter might come across as critical when it is really just meant to be honest. Any admissions committee worth their salt knows about all these flaws, and therefore uses the combination of all the information they have to make decisions. Inconsistencies are just as important, and can let a committee identify possible weaknesses to address in an interview.

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    +1 for item "B," but I'd go further still: test grades and one's aptitude for research are nearly orthogonal. I've met and worked with several students with mediocre grades who are awesome at research because the skill sets are so different. – aeismail Jul 31 '18 at 19:54
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    While I agree that test scores are not always a perfect indication of aptitude, that doesn't mean that recommendation letters are any better (as they are inherently subjective). You're trading the inaccuracies of objective values for the inaccuracies of subjective values. A recommendation letter, especially when relied upon to the degree that they are, are effectively no more than a verbal curriculum score instead of a test score. If professors wrote feedback next to test scores (similar to elementary school report cards), that would effectively supplant the recommendation letter. – Flater Aug 1 '18 at 15:49
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    @Flater I think I make it pretty clear in my answer that both are problematic, and I at least somewhat agree with aeismail's stronger stance. Test scores might be an objective measure, but they are an objective measure of how well you did on a test. They are not an objective measure (except at low thresholds) for readiness for research. Also I'd point out since it's not clear in your comment whether you are on the same page, but when we refer to test scores we mean standardized tests like the GRE used for admissions in the USA, not coursework exams. – Bryan Krause Aug 1 '18 at 16:06
25

How are their grades?... What courses have they taken?

Good questions! These are relevant everywhere. Of course, one institution's A is another institution's B-. Ask any professor, in any country, whether undergraduate grades are a reliable indicator of graduate performance. Graduate school admission is not a reward for getting good grades.

Do they have relevant work experience (TA/RA, maybe part-time industry work, etc)? What projects have they done?

Also good questions, but you can't take the applicant's word on them. Okay, this applicant said he wrote an operating system from scratch as an independent study project. But if you haven't heard from the professor who oversaw it, how can you know whether that's as impressive as it sounds, or whether they wrote a buggy real-mode kernel and a buggy CLI and squeaked by with a "pass"? Or that applicant said she spent a summer helping revolutionize the efficiency of desalination plants, paving the way to turn the Sahara green. Awesome, but only her supervisor can tell you whether she was actually involved in the process and effective as a researcher, or whether she just made posters all summer because she wasn't competent enough to do anything else.

Academia, at its very core, is collaborative. You stand on the shoulders of giants, and do your best to help the next generation see a little further. Part of this is helping the right people advance in their field, both because they're promising in their own right, and because they can potentiate the contributions of others. A formal letter saying "Lisa has a real knack for experimental design, and you should ignore her organic chem grades because she was working through some stuff that semester" is a lot like an email saying "You should consider switching to acetone as a solvent, toluene never worked for us." It's one researcher collaborating with another.

As for the difference between the US and elsewhere: I've definitely noticed in some countries that grades are extremely important and evidence of relevant extracurricular work (such as on a CV or in a letter of reference) is much less so. I suspect that's correlated with how historically standardized university examinations have been in the country. I guarantee you, though, that in many/most European countries, references are just as important as they are in the US.

13

The original question is, indeed, snarky. Take, for example, these claims:

Reference letters is all that matters. Be a mediocre student, but have a good friendship with Professor Abstract Algebra? You're as good as made.

Nope. Sure, you may have a great relationship with Prof A.A. But astute readers of reference letters can read between the lines of the recommendation letters--that's plural for a reason. One good letter and two tepid letters are not going to elevate a mediocre student to admission to a top graduate program.

Furthermore, the assumption that the letter is the only evidence of a student's ability is odd. Most programs will examine, among other things, grades (including the rigor of the courses that were taken), the GRE examination scores, and other evidence of motivation and potential. Few phenomena in the social world are monocausal, least of all graduate admissions.

Be a fantastic student, but be a bit shy or having done most of your work independently of the professors? Tough luck.

Some programs--at least, in the United States--seek to train potential scholars who will work in the lab or in the field, or with data, and in the classroom. Ultra shy students whose teaching potential seems limited may not get a strong letter. But my experience is that letters matter at the margin: two students with near identical records on paper are hard to differentiate without the reference letters. So, as a tie-breaker, letters can be very helpful indeed. And we do counsel students who want to go to grad school to work to make a good impression on their faculty, so that their referees can write useful letters for the application dossier.

We expect students to write up a summary of all these things (it's called a resumé) upon which they are to be judged, and further detailed inquiry can then be made during a possible interview process.

I thought the Europeans called what we call a non-academic resumé a CV. Anyway, we ask for similar materials as part of our application packets.

One day, one time, you'll get a fantastic reference letter from a professor who actually knows and has worked with a particular student, and that reference letter will give you a better understanding of the capabilities and experiences of this student. I get that. But that's only part of the whole process here in Europe the United States.

Same thing here. We can tell the difference between a heartfelt and useful letter and a perfunctory one. And most of us won't even write these letters if the student is utterly unknown to us aside from a face in a lecture hall. I urge the OP to see the pile of paper we read when we serve on graduate admission committees. It's a bit taller than a stack of reference letters.

11

As suggested by the OP, I've been on several hiring committees for postdocs and selection committees for graduate students at a US university and recommendation letters are always carefully considered (although they might be considered in Europe too). Recommendation letters matter because we are hiring people, not robots. When I am hiring a graduate student or postdoc, the recommendation letters carry a lot of weight for me because I'm going to be working with this person almost every day for a few years.

Grades, previous research experiences and publications tell little about how the person is to work with and can be misleading about what their strengths and weaknesses are. In my experience, there is not much correlation between grades and research productivity. Even if a person is first author on a paper, it's not clear how much of the work they did or how much was done by the advisor.

Recommendation letters tell you what a person's strengths are and (often implicitly) what their weaknesses are. Perhaps Candidate A is first author on a paper in a prestigious journal and Candidate B is first author on a paper in a less prestigious journal. With that information, you might consider the first candidate to be better. However, if the recommendation letter for Candidate B says something like "Candidate B came up with the idea for the paper independently, performed the experiments using method X, and wrote most of the paper themselves. I only offered a bit of counsel on the research plan and the organization the paper," then this would provide strong evidence of Candidate B's research skills.

On the other hand, let's say a person has worked in three labs previously. By itself, it may look like they have a lot of research experience. However, let's say they do not obtain letters of recommendation from any of their former supervisors and instead I get letters of recommendation from professors who barely knew them. Without some kind of explanation, I will assume that they have poor personal relationships with their former supervisors. Maybe this person is ambitious and productive, but is difficult to work with? It would make me think twice about hiring them.

I often see comments like, "Candidate C's spoken English may appear weak, but their written English has improved significantly over the last year and they have become excellent at organizing and writing scientific manuscripts" or "Candidate D is expert at experimental method Y, but needs to work on their scientific writing." This is invaluable information that can't be gleaned from a CV. If I hire them, I already have some idea what I need to work on with them.

6

Recommendation letters are indeed a double-edged sword, they're meant to cover a void that isn't shown in GPA or a regular CV. For example, a friend of mine who teaches in the chemistry department of my university has a very bright student, she is in a research group and they just won an award to do some research in Standford next year. Now, she wants to be a researcher, and this opportunity is great and all, but she has a GPA of 2.0 because she got pregnant, abandoned and had a lot of financial difficulties. There are many who face big difficulties that tarnish their grades, and legitimate recommendation letters are a way to express those kind of situations.

You have to notice that most of the time recommendation letters are sent directly to the university of the applicant with their template, this way they're usually more honest. Some abilities and aptitudes are better explained by teachers and coworkers, such as teamwork, leadership, confidentiality, soft skills in general.

I live in a very corrupt country, so I understand your concern, but most of the nepotism actually takes place either in person or by other means of communication. Letters of recommendations can be a part of nepotism it or a way to "legitimize" it but they're in any way the core of the problem.

5

Ignoring the tone of the question, addressing a couple points:

How are their grades?

This is extremely hard to normalize, and assumes that grades, which test being good in class, translate well to research potential. They don't, and I can think of several examples of students who were middling at best in classes, but excellent researchers. Additionally, letters may help put those grades into context in a way where the letter grade might not.

Do they have relevant work experience (TA/RA, maybe part-time industry work, etc)? What projects have they done?

It's interesting that you assume these things are not associated with the same soft skills (getting along with a professor) that you assume drive recommendation letters. I would suggest this is not the case.

There's also some issues with bias in research experience - in the U.S., that's often students who don't have to hold things like summer jobs to pay for tuition who can afford to buff their CV instead. A letter lets a professor talk about someone's intellectual curiosity, keen insight or engagement in class, etc.

Reference letters is all that matters.

This is just patently false. We have GPA requirements. We have GRE requirements. I read people's cover letters critically.

Be a mediocre student, but have a good friendship with Professor Abstract Algebra? You're as good as made. Be a fantastic student, but be a bit shy or having done most of your work independently of the professors? Tough luck.

Only if Professor AA can speak to your abilities as a researcher, and you have the evidence to back it up.

If you've done independent work that's interesting and stands up on its own? Talk about that, and I'll take a look at it. You know how I know? Because I've hired people who have done exactly that.

And yes, I get it. One day, one time, you'll get a fantastic reference letter from a professor who actually knows and has worked with a particular student, and that reference letter will give you a better understanding of the capabilities and experiences of this student. I get that. But that's only part of the whole process here in Europe: That's the bonus I mentioned in my first paragraph, but we don't make it our everything. We realize that some people might get luckier with recommendation letters than others.

Context is important. I've had letters that explain circumstances that, looking at a CV, are odd or worrisome. I've had letters talk about someone's potential, how much of their research project is truly theirs, etc. I've had them speak to the shortcomings of a student, so I can evaluate how much that matters to me, or if that's a potential for growth in my lab. It lets them talk about passions that are hard to quantify (outreach, teaching, etc.).

It's part of a holistic process. I also weight grades, and research experience, and career opportunities. I'm keenly aware of the bias issues that sometimes arise in letter writing, and actively look for them to make sure I'm not weighing them heavily.

-2

Speaking from an American industry perspective, as opposed to an academic one, I've been on several teams that hired regularly. I was given an copy of the resume (CV) several days before the interview, or sometimes an hour to before, but never ever saw a letter of recommendation. On some teams we'd meet the applicant as a team, on others we'd meet one on one.

We'd ask questions about activities we saw on the resume and attempt to gauge the applicant by how competently they answered the question, plus over all impression of the applicant.

As someone already said, there is no perfect system. And certainly trying to judge a person's character in a single interview is prone to failure. We certainly hired more than one who did not work out in the end.

But once again, we never ever saw letters of recommendation. Again, this might be different from industry to academia, but to me letters of recommendation are totally irrelevant.

James

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    Yes, this is different from industry to academia. Your experience in industry does not apply in Academia in the US. A kind reminder, this is Academia SE, not Workplace SE. – scaaahu Aug 1 '18 at 3:07
-3

I think it's partly a historical thing. From what I remember reading in my history classes, recommendation letters were big during the industrial revolution. I seem to remember a passage where the historian talked about it literally being a case of job or no job for a laborer moving to a new city. Think about it: they weren't looking for real skills or talent, since anyone could work a machine. They probably cared more about your willingness to work stolidly and follow orders reliably, since you were easy to replace but having to do so could slow down production. They would want to know you were committed and wouldn't cause problems, and the best way to confirm that would be the word of a past employer. Nowdays, skills and experience are far more important since we do more specialized work, but employers still want to get a reading on your character before they spend the money to make you part of their team, as it's very costly to hire a new person and then have to terminate them and hire again when they can't adapt to the new workplace.

  • 7
    This seems vaguely plausible but seems rather generic, and not taking into account practices in academia which is what the OP is presumably asking about – Yemon Choi Jul 31 '18 at 22:44

protected by Massimo Ortolano Aug 1 '18 at 5:47

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