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My nephew, a recent graduate, is applying for a fellowship at CERN, and he is providing the usual letters of reference. He has in the past done some work for me (I work in the same field he is studying), and I know him quite well, professionally speaking.

If, in addition to the other letters of reference, were I to write one for him as well (explicitly noting our relationship, being relatives), would that most likely hurt or help?

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I strongly advise you against writing it.

In this answer by ff524 you can read a few reasons on why your letter may be considered strongly biased. But let me add one more point, a cultural one (you never know the background of the selection committee members).

Even though you can be objective and honest in assessing your nephew's skills, and even though your letter would be just an additional one, you have to think that in some countries (e.g. Italy and Spain, but I'm sure these are not the only ones) the academic world has faced for a long time accusations of nepotism and corruption. Therefore, by many people who have grown up in such kind of culture, your letter would be probably considered as yet another case of potential nepotism.

I might be overly pessimistic, but do you really want to risk this?

Let me add a remark in view of HEITZ's comment below: When applying for a position, follow the instructions. That is, if the call requires, say, 3 letters of recommendation, your nephew should send 3 letters, not 2, not 4. Why? Because anything that is not compliant with the instructions will likely annoy a selection committee who has to assess many applicants, because they will have to decide how to handle unwanted special cases.

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    Provided the candidate has the necessary confidential/unbiased letters already, is there really harm in adding one more, especially if the conflict of interest is explicitly stated? – HEITZ Sep 1 '17 at 23:47
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    Yes there is. The person doing the first pass of selection might read your letter first, and immediately reject the application on the grounds of nepotism. Note, the first selection pass can sometimes have extreme time pressure, if there are a large number of applicants - i.e. only one or two minutes available to scan each application. That may shock you, but welcome to the real world! If you are going to select 10 people from 1,000 applicants, you will reject a very large number of good applicants whatever process you follow - don't make it too easy for you to be one of them. – alephzero Sep 2 '17 at 0:15
  • Thank you, the explanation of the process helped, you may want to add it in the body of the answer – user Sep 2 '17 at 3:21
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    @HEITZ Let me put it the other way around. Provided the candidate has the necessary confidential/unbiased letters already, is there really benefit in adding one more? If they have enough already, why do you think an extra one (from anybody at all) would be useful? – David Richerby Sep 2 '17 at 8:56
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    For bonus marks, the etymology of "nepotism" is from the Italian for "nephew". – David Richerby Sep 2 '17 at 19:25
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Writing the letter yourself is indeed problematic as others suggest - or may be perceived as such.

What I believe you should do is have your nephew contact a relevant third party and ask that s/he write a recommendation based on his/her assessment of your nephew's work.

If there is job such relevant third party, and nobody can tell what your nephew has contributed other than you two, then it's even more suspicious for you to make the recommendation.

  • I already said my letter is an extra one, in addition to others already being written – user Sep 2 '17 at 20:46
  • @user: But are the other letters about the same work that was done for you? – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Sep 2 '17 at 21:47

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