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Assume that one is searching for some permanent research positions. I am a bit curious what does an employer wants to see in recommendations letters.

Obviously, recommendations have nothing to do with scientific achievements. For that, they can check the publication lists. As I can imagine, the purposes of recommendation letters could be:

  1. demonstration that the applicant can socialize normally with other people

  2. they want to see recommendations from high-profile people, since these demonstrate that the applicant has established enough connections and potentials for influence in the community

  3. they want to see recommendations from the applicant's current boss, since it demonstrates that the applicant has worked hard and loyally for his/her current employer

  4. they want to see recommendations from people who they want to collaborate with, such that hiring the applicant would help with social connections

  5. (from xLeitix) they would like to see the community's view about the applicant's work -- which means anyone in the community qualifies as a referee.

Are these valid purposes for recommendation letters, and what else am I missing here?

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    Not an answer, but as far as I know (academic) employers actually do want to see letters that talk about research. Not "has written X A papers", but about the deeper stuff that is not easy to see when you are not intimately aware of the community ("gastro's paper on XYZ has shaped how the community approaches this research topic"). – xLeitix Oct 25 '16 at 10:15
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    +1 to xLeitix's comment - bear in mind that an employer may not appreciate the level of an achievement if it's only presented as a title plus journal. Having a trusted third party highlight and explain the contribution to knowledge might be valuable. – Deleuze Oct 25 '16 at 10:33
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    Obviously, recommendations have nothing to do with scientific achievements. — Say what now? In my field, recommendation letters have everything to do with scientific achievements!! To add to xLeitix's comment: Yes, we can read the papers to see what the work is, but people on hiring committees rely on experts in the applicant's subfield to corroborate our judgement of the quality and likely impact of the work, to evaluate the applicant's specific contributions to that work, and to compare the applicant's record to other people in the same subfield at the same career stage. – JeffE Oct 25 '16 at 13:56
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    @gastro Whether or not that's how it should be, that's not how it is. At least for most US academic institutions, recommendation letters are never visible to the applicant. And I have no idea what the opposite of a tailed recommendation would be; any recommendation letter NOT tailored to the applicant's specific achievements/promise would be completely pointless. – JeffE Oct 25 '16 at 14:39
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    This is a Q & A site, not a discussion board. The idea is for people who need help for some reason to come here and find answers. Posts for provocative reasons are not welcome. If you want to argue about recommendation letters with me, Google me and send me an e-mail. – Alexander Woo Oct 25 '16 at 16:02
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I think all 5 points are valid. I would add two more:

  • Due diligence: Institutions want the insurance in case something goes wrong with the faculty in the future, e.g. the person commits scientific fraud or sexual harassment. Of course, there can be nothing in a recommendation letter that would guarantee that the faculty will behave, but in an inquiry, the institution must be able to say they did their due diligence. So, they just need a certain number (typically three) letters on file, not necessarily for their content.
  • Intangibles: They want to see enthusiasm in the recommendation letter. I have heard many times that a merely good recommendation letter is a terrible recommendation letter. If someone's adviser/colleague cannot be bothered to write superlatives for the candidate, it might be a "red flag" that there might be a something intangibly wrong with the candidate.

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