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A person I know applied for a time-limited position (i.e. a post-doc) somewhere in western Europe. Xe gets invited for an interview. The next day, xe receives an informal e-mail, We will recommend HR to send you a formal offer.

However, we are still waiting to receive recommendation letters from your references before we can do so.

And I thought the content of recommendation letters were essential. In this case they are apparently a formality. Is this indeed very unusual, or is it more common than I think?

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    Why the downvote?
    – gerrit
    Jan 31, 2015 at 19:45
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    Yeah, I think this is a difference in academic culture. In the US recommendation letters are huge. From what I've read on this site and elsewhere, it seems that in other places they are not really considered and often contain little of substance Jan 31, 2015 at 22:09

2 Answers 2

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Hiring for a limited-term position like a postdoc is a much lighter decision than making a tenure-track offer. Often, there is an urgency to the hiring as well, as many postdocs are tied to specific contracts with specific tasks that need to be executed on a fast time-frame. As a result, "ordinary" postdoc hiring can sometimes run a lot more like corporate hiring than academic hiring: a fast process where it's more about the person's ability to fill defined responsibilities and less about their long-term potential as a researcher. In a case like this, references are still important, but are more like a corporate hire, where they are confirming the candidate is what they appear to be, rather than causing them to be noticed in the first place.

It sounds like this is the case for your acquaintance. That's great, if the position is one that they want. Nothing is certain, however, until the offer is in hand: just as easily as an informal offer can be extended, so can it be retracted if the circumstances change.

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In the UK, or at least at my University, recommendation letters are not used in the hiring process of tenure track positions. For some reason after a department decides to hire someone, HR requires recommendation letters. For PhD students, we request and use recommendation letters. HR is not involved in that process and they are not employees.

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  • Does that mean the recommendation letters might as well contain meaningless gibberish?
    – gerrit
    Jan 31, 2015 at 17:42
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    @gerrit no idea. We have never had HR say we cannot hire someone, but potentially if the letter was really bad, or blank, or gibberish, they might overrule our decision.
    – StrongBad
    Jan 31, 2015 at 17:44

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