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I noticed that a recent teaching faculty candidate's LORs from an institution outside the US all had not-so-short and shamelessly hagiographic "short bios" appended onto the end. One went on for a whole page, making me wonder who they were recommending, the candidate or themselves.

I've always taken the attitude when I've written an LOR that the reader doesn't know or care who I am, they care about the candidate, my relationship to the candidate, and the up-close observations and evidence I'm able to offer in support of my recommendation, so they can judge for themselves whether this is really a top candidate. (In the unlikely event they do want to know about me, I give them a link to my faculty page.)

So, this was the first time I've seen a short bio at the end of an LOR. Is this the new thing or something that's been going on forever that I've just never noticed?

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    "from an institution outside the US" This is important. You can't assume that the recommender knows what is expected in the US. Maybe it's a thing in their country? (You should specify that country.) Or they don't know better because LORs don't really exist in their country?
    – Roland
    Nov 22 at 15:05
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    @Roland Apologies, but I'm deliberately avoiding identifying detail. Nov 22 at 15:21
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    I suspect this is a cultural thing, whether recent or not. Sort of "and I have the authority and background to validate the things I've written here." You and I are both from a culture that makes LoRs very important, but not everyone is. So, your normal "attitude" is appropriate for US usage, but not everyplace is like the US.
    – Buffy
    Nov 22 at 17:12
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    It's well-known that a certain percentage of people in academia have a huge inflated ego, to the point that their behavior at times is perceived as ridiculous by others. That's the angle from which I would interpret this experience. Nov 22 at 18:08
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    I’ve seen this a couple of times from faculty at universities that do not have very well developed multilingual websites so it’s difficult to verify exactly the status/position of the person writing the LoR… Nov 22 at 22:16
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When writing letters of recommendation, especially for graduate students, I start my letters with a short bio. I do this because I am not a faculty member, but instead work at a government research lab. This helps with context for the letter. I have noticed that some applications ask for me to rank students compared to other students I interact with. However, I only have limited interactions with students. But, the students I work with are almost all high quality. Also, this helps the letter reader see why I think the students will thrive in graduate school (i.e., that both the students and I are doing serious research even if I am not a professor).

Furthermore, I do this as an opportunity to link in the prospective student's research in with my research. And, ideally, their target program by describing collaborations with faculty there or alumni from their program. Here's a paragraph from generic template:

I am pleased to recommended XX XX for admission into YYYY. I had the privilege to <mentor/supervise/etc.> XX (usually first name only) as a <ZZZ then describe situation>. I am my job title at my org. Through this position I mentor undergraduate students and serve on graduate committees <_link to ZZZ>. My primary research focuses on <CCC> and XX has assisted me with CCC.

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    Yes, of course I see the need as well to start with a description of the relationship. For students, it's class(es) they took with me and a summary of the content and how performance was measured, and their duties if I hired them as staff. If I'm writing an LOR for a colleague, it's the class(es) they taught or we taught together and perhaps the committees we served on together. But I would never want to make it so much about me. Nov 22 at 18:40
  • @NicoleHamilton I agree. I could see where cultural reasons and/or ego reasons cause people to write LORs that focus on themselves and not the target, which is too bad for the target. Nov 22 at 20:58
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    Upvoted. I do agree that providing context of the type you describe to the LoR is usually enough (at least should be enough). Nov 22 at 22:14
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In actual practice, who the letter writer is actually matters quite a lot -- maybe not so much when it's a letter for an undergraduate applying to grad school, but certainly when it's for tenure or for promotion to full professor.

Now, we could argue whether that's useful or not, but it is what it is -- though we probably agree that when evaluating someone's qualifications as a researcher it does make a difference whether the evaluator is a senior faculty at a research-active university with a good perspective on the research landscape, or a just recently hired assistant professor at a teaching-intensive university. As a consequence, letters often do contain a brief paragraph about the letter writer's qualifications -- in essence, a short bio.

These paragraphs were typically at the very beginning of the letter. In recent years, at least some universities have asked letter writers to state their qualifications/affiliations/prizes/... along with how they know the candidate they are writing for, on a separate page at the end of the letter. That's because universities had to contend with candidates who use open records laws to gain access at the letters, and the letters had to be redacted to remove personal information about the letter writer. This is easiest done if all personal information is on a separate page.

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    but surely the letterhead and my professional title provide sufficient information for anyone really interested in my bio to hunt down my career highlights… Nov 22 at 22:11
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    @ZeroTheHero - but the University President (or the Minister for Higher Education(!)) signing off on the appointment might want the information without taking the time to hunt it down. Nov 22 at 22:34
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    @AlexanderWoo The recommender could very well have worked in the US, or studied there, or postdoc’d there, or had a sabbatical stay there… Nov 23 at 1:30
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    @AlexanderWoo Why wouldn't a well-versed researcher in Europe be able to evaluate the research credentials of a researcher in the US? Unless the latter's research area is "Community interactions of rural folks in Central Arkansas in the early 1840s", most research areas are sufficiently international that someone in a different country should be able to put someone's research contributions into the context of the broader field, and assess that person's impact on the field. Nov 23 at 4:33
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    @WolfgangBangerth - a NTT lecturer in the US is a teaching-only position for which a person's research credentials are irrelevant. Usually, a PhD is not even required, though it usually gives the applicant some advantage. You might argue that being involved in research makes someone a better teacher (and I agree with you), but given the position neither provides time nor has expectations for research, the university disagrees. Nov 23 at 4:57
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(I'm in the U.S., in math.) I wouldn't claim that "it's a thing" in math in the U.S., but I have been asked occasionally to provide a brief auto-bio when writing letters in support of fellowships and other things. Not, to my recollection, for graduate admission (in math, in the U.S.).

But/and when I'm on our grad admissions committee, it does matter a bit to me what the context of a letter-writer is. Not so much about their childhood, etc., :) but certainly about their own experience with grad education in math in the U.S. Many people I am vaguely acquainted with, so have an idea of their context, but more-and-more younger faculty I do not know, etc. And, in particular, being faculty at a small liberal arts college, or a branch campus, certainly no longer gives any indication of one's grad school experience! So some explicit remarks (often volunteered in any case within a letter of recommendation) are helpful.

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    but I have been asked occasionally to provide a brief auto-bio when writing letters in support of fellowships - Paul, that's something different in my mind. I have noticed a few letter writers in the US including short bios in rec letters for faculty positions, and I have never once been positively impressed by such a bio. Occasional comments throughout the text may be very helpful (e.g., "I was a grad student at UMN, and this candidate is comparable to the top 25% students there.") However I personally am not a fan of adding short generic bios.
    – Kimball
    Nov 23 at 0:18
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    @Kimball :) Well, indeed, possibly there is a new style of making letters-of-recommendation more about the letter-writer's wonderfulness. :) I've not seen that sort of thing myself. Or, it might be some sort of not-solipsistic, but misguided, misunderstanding about what's going on. (Maybe I should make my own email signature be a mini-auto-bio... it had simply never occurred to me that this was an opportunity...) :) Nov 23 at 0:25
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Presumably the short bio is to convince the reader that the LOR was written by "not just anybody" which, presumably again, should correlate with the quality of the assessment in the LOR (spoiler: the rho does not equal 1). And yet we can usually tell from the LOR itself whether or not the referee makes sensible and or useful comments on the candidates; we don't need their bio. It makes some sense in our world in which academia has exploded exponentially and more often then not I am not sure of the quality of the referee (they may hold X rank at institution Y, but even so I am usually not sure about the quality Y is able to attract on average). But I bet all these bios are telling you that ref is world-class, world-leading, excellent etc.! It is part of a much wider trend of padding and puffing-up, I'm afraid.

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  • Indeed, the short bios I saw were flagrantly hagiographic. Nov 23 at 18:01

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