I have completed 2.5 postdocs in the US. In all of my applications plus a Green Card application, letters of recommendation were a great deal. In all cases (overall, about 10 letters signed by professors at top US universities), I was asked to write the draft and my supporter did not change more than a sentence or two.

I wonder if anyone really reads the letters of recommendation. And if yes, the judgment is simply based on my words about myself.

My interest in the answer is that I am applying for Assistant Professor position now, and my references asked me to prepare the draft. In the past, I thought that it was because of a special trust in me and I wrote the letters with modesty to respect their trusts. Now, I found it is the norm and professors/PIs do not have time to write such letters (there are about 20 postdocs in my current lab). How should I write the drafts of three different letters of recommendations for myself (sounds funny)!


I hate that this is a legitimate question, but it is. Yes, letters are weighted heavily, in my experience. The fact that you (and many others) are often asked to write their own letters is very troubling. For one thing, it's biased. Secondly, confidentiality is absolutely violated despite most such letters being assumed as such. Now you are in the awkward position to have to write 3, and feign separate ghost writers.

It is impossible to defend this from any logical or ethical standpoint, particularly if confidentiality is assumed.

The best course of action is to thoughtfully ask the recommender to write his/her own letter. But you can make it easy on them by providing a CV, papers, manuscripts, etc. Give them the information you'd like to highlight but not the words.

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    I'd add: as a reader of letters of recommendation, it is usually easy to detect the "voice" in such letters, so that one can detect self-written letters, rather than letters composed by more-senior people who're willing to take the trouble to write things in their own voice. Thus, the real issue is to find senior people willing to take the trouble to write a letter themselves (thus, in their own voice). And, yes, I read letters of recommendation very seriously. Perhaps more seriously than I read peoples' self-statements about research and teaching, since these will inevitably be naive... – paul garrett Jul 25 '17 at 23:17

I wonder if anyone really reads the letters of recommendation.

I've served for about 15 years on my (top-10 US computer science) department's faculty recruiting committee, including three years as its chair.

Yes, we really do read recommendation letters. In detail.

We also compare multiple letters written for the same applicant. Letters that all cover the same strengths are suspicious, especially if the same list of strengths appears in the applicant's research statement. Letters from different authors that contain common turns of phrase are deeply suspicious, especially if those turns of phrase also appear in the applicant's research statement.

We also directly compare multiple recommendation letters written (at least ostensibly) by the same recommender. If someone writes a significantly stronger letter for applicant X than for applicant Y, we are generally more likely to interview applicant X. Letters (ostensibly) from the same author with significantly different writing styles are deeply suspicious.

(On the other hand, if we were convinced by a strong letter to interview someone a few years ago, and that interview out to be a disaster, we're much less likely to trust a new letter from the same recommender this year. Similarly, if someone writes "This is the strongest student in Area Z in the last five years" every year, we don't believe them.)

We also look for evidence of the (ostensible) author's expertise in every letter, not as an expert researcher, but as someone who understands the faculty job market better than the applicant. We prefer letters that offer direct, well-informed comparisons between the applicant and other researchers in the same field, past and present, at the same career stage. (But again, multiple letters offering the same comparisons are suspect.)

We also occassionally contact references directly to clarify points raised in their letters.

Any suspicion that a recommendation letter was not written personally by the person who signed it will almost certainly kill the application. It will also undermine any other letters "written" by the same author, and possibly other applications from the applicant's department (or at least their research group/lab). Applicant-written letters risk the professional reputation of the applicant, the ostensible author, and anyone else for whom the ostensible author is a reference.

professors/PIs do not have time to write such letters

Nonsense. Writing recommendation letters is a professional duty.

How should I write the drafts of three different letters of recommendations for myself

You shouldn't. You should provide your references with all your other application materials, including your research statement, which already spells out your judgement of your research record. You may want to provide bullet lists of accomplishments that don't fit into your statements. But you do not have the necessary expertise to write an effective recommendation letter yourself.

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    I will never understand how you can really accept (proudly) a system where your chances of being hired depend so heavily on someone else's capacity for writing good recommendation letters. – Massimo Ortolano Jul 26 '17 at 3:46
  • How do you keep track of the letter writers? Thousands of people could have written such letters for your applicants. Do you know all of them to avoid their letters in the next committees? I assume you may remember the name of people who are famous or you know personally. But I anticipate you always trust those people. – Googlebot Jul 26 '17 at 14:12
  • But I anticipate you always trust those people — Sadly, no. – JeffE Jul 26 '17 at 16:56
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    @MassimoOrtolano Conversely, I will never understand how you can really accept (proudly) a system where your chances of being hired depend so heavily on the narrow expertise of the hiring committee. We ask for letters from external experts for the same reason that editors ask for referee reports. No committee has the internal expertise to evaluate the depth, importance, and impact of the several hundred applicants for each faculty position. – JeffE Jul 26 '17 at 17:00
  • Jeff, the recruiting system in my country is completely flawed. I'm certainly not proud of it, I criticized it here at various times (e.g. here and the comments below), but there's nothing I can do about it: the recruiting system is decided by the government and each new ministry added issues to issues. But, yes, in general I prefer the expertise of a good hiring committee to recommendation letters. – Massimo Ortolano Jul 26 '17 at 19:05

I find this very troubling. I have also had to write many of my recommendations. It is difficult to just find "senior people willing to take the trouble" if it is the norm across your dept and EVERY person you have worked with had their students write their own letters. I am not sure why the applicant should be penalized for their advisors and/or collaborators refusal to write a letter. Not to mention, the suggestion of just "not write it" doesn't take into account the much talked about student-professor power dynamic. I know I am not alone in that I have a relationship with my advisor that only goes well when I never challenge. I was able to play a bit with that earlier in my PhD, but when on the market and trying to graduate the LAST thing you need is damage the relationship of the ppl who are supposed to endorse you.

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