How many references do you write in a week?
This is a little moan about writing references. But let me make one thing clear right at the beginning: 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.
Lets get the scale of the problem. Although the number goes down at other times of the year, between October and the end of February (the peak post-graduate, milk-round and research fellowship recruiting season), I write on average something like 10-12 references a week; in January this year it was more like 15-16. The time it takes to write and process each one varies...from say an hour and a half if you are writing something from scratch (and it would be longer for a complicated and unusual job) to fifteen minutes for something simple for a student whose reference you already have on you computer (whoops, is that or is it not against the data protection act?)
Overall then, it is an average of about 30 minutes a reference, or 8 hours a week at peak times.
Now in the old days when I did fewer (this is a task that naturally gets bigger as you get older and have more ex-students wanting jobs, chairs, research leave, promotion), the system was a lot more homogeneous. Before email, you would get a written request from the student, asking if you would mind them using your name -- and you would then get a letter from the employer or the college or department asking you to send it. You would pile these up on your desk and work through them one by one. For even the most untidy or scatty reference writer, it was hard to forget them or mislay one.
Normally when you had sent the reference off, you got a thank you letter from the potential employer. I remember that when Henry Chadwick was Master of Peterhouse he used to send beautifully hand written thank you cards (which made you feel good, and made you take care the next time).
It isn't like that now. In fact it's a nightmare.
For a start students email you to ask if you will do it -- and as often as not you are supposed just to send the thing off, without any other request from the employer or university. Even if your email inbox is in a lot neater state than mine, the request can easily disappear up the opened messages and you simply forget about it (not like when it was sitting there looking at you on your REAL desktop). I now say to people who want me to write for them that it is their responsibility to make sure that I have done it. But I still panic in the middle of the night that I have forgotten one -- and sometimes I have.
The next problem is that many educational institutions now have some version of online reference submission. Just occasionally this works a treat. You get a password, it opens up into a clear easy to use form, you get an acknowledgement when you have finished -- and on the best systems the computer send you a reminder a few days before the deadline.
But not often. Sometimes the password doesn't work. Sometimes the system is "down". Then all you can do is sent frantic emails to whatever contact address the system allows you to have. It took me several days to submit a reference to the British Academy a few months ago -- and I only managed it after someone in their office had pointed out that the colon in front of the password I had been sent was actually part of the password (not as I had assumed the colon in front of it). It's all a race against time too. Because if you're late they disable your password and without a tearful series of begging emails, and a few fibs about having been ill, they wont enable it again.
Sometimes the whole electronic system just seems jinxed (or what they call in the trade "compatibility problem with your Mac"). After Christmas I was trying to fill in a Cambridge reference form which the student had sent me by email, and then print it out so that it could be sent, as instructed, in an envelope. I could fill the damn thing in OK, but when it came to printing it out, it simply deleted all I had written. Several times over. That's irritating enough when you are just doing one, when you have another ten in the queue by tomorrow, it makes you cry,
Not that the modern non-computerised system is any better. No longer do you often send it off directly to the university concerned. No, that means that they have to employ someone to match up your reference with the student's application. 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. It's hardly enough to keep an enterprising applicant with a kettle from finding out what you've written... and the times I've been doing it at home and failed to find any sellotape are too many now to count.
Nor is there much Chadwick-style personal gratitude on display. The best you can hope for is the automatic computer message "Thank you very much for submitting your reference. It will be most helpful to the college in the selection process". You are more likely simply to read on the form, "As the college receives so many applications, it is impossible to acknowledge individual references". (Well actually I bet it took the well-trained Chadwick several evenings to write all his thank you cards.) But the one's I really cant stand come from rather brash HR departments. They don't just say, "sorry we cant acknowledge", but they impose an impossible timetable and a measure of blackmail too. Typical would be an email on Monday lunch time, saying they have just shortlisted Dr X and get your reference in by Thursday, otherwise Dr X's chances of the job will be seriously diminished.
But the planet that HR departments inhabit is, as we know, not the same as ours.