Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Writing references

At Cambridge, Mary Beard blogged recently about the reference-writing burden. Here's a quote:
evaluating students, ex-students and colleagues is an important part of my job; I'm not complaining about being asked to do it (so no need to feel remotely guilty about asking me) -- I'm complaining about the cumbersome, inefficient and sometimes downright obstructive infrastructure.

Regarding academic references (for students applying for postgraduate study), Beard notes that some departments
To save themselves money and to maximise your irritation, many departments now have feeble, barely secure systems where you hand the reference back to the student in an envelope, signed across the seal and then covered with sellotape.

From recent experience, having produced a bunch of references for students applying for MSc study, I can reveal that Cambridge is by far the worst offender in this respect. At York and Edinburgh, they email you a URL, you go there, and upload the reference in PDF. At Oxford, it's bit worse, they email you a URL, username and password, you login and have to provide details of your contact info, affiliation and next of kin (I exaggerate slightly) which gets checked by "inspector" software, then you finally get to upload a PDF. At Cambridge, the student has to come by your office with a reference form in triplicate (you don't often get to use that word these days) and you have to print and sign three copies of the reference (one for each reference form) then you go through all the amateur cloak-and-dagger stuff with the signature and sellotape.

The point is, I guess, that Cambridge (and to some extent Oxford) are the only universities that can afford to be so obstructive to potential customers. The trouble is, they are mainly wasting the time of the referees, not just the students, and referees are ethically obliged to cooperate with whatever stupid system is being used. But I will complain to them about their system, and report here on any response I receive.


Anonymous said...

When I was applying to graduate school four years ago, I applied to Cambridge, even though I had no intention of going there; in fact, I had not even submitted an application.

I did show the Cambridge instructions to my letter writers. So they gave me their letters - signed across the seal - and I went home, opened them, and read them at my leisure.

This is a true story, by the way.

Paul Goldberg said...

That looks like a good reason to give up on this signed sealed envelopes idea.

BTW, I never got a reply to my complaint about their application procedure; maybe I should have submitted it in writing.

Another data point: St Andrews present the referee with a MS Word form to fill in and return to them, but in practice it seems OK that I just uploaded a reference letter I'd written earlier.