I recently posted on Twitter about how much I dislike asking people for references. This isn't the first time I have thought about academic references, see here.
However, I was comforted by Twitter to know that I am not alone! My somewhat neurotic nature makes dislike asking for reference because I fear that:
a) they won’t remember me
b) they don’t like me
c) I am inconveniencing them terribly
Trust me, I know that these are ridiculous thoughts! Supervisors and examiners are well-used to being asked for references, and once written they keep them on file to use in the future with minor tweaks and adjustments. The effort is a one-off one!
But it raised some thoughts for me. I understand the importance and value of written references in academia but question the need for written references to accompany each and every academic application. It is true that many applications require a generic reference which the referee can pull from their records and tweak with minimal effort. But there are applications, especially funding applications, which require referees to rewrite a reference into a specific format, thus taking up a considerable amount of their time.
This is a highly inefficient system considering the success rate for academic jobs. In Oxford, for example, a Junior Research Fellowship can receive 100s of applications, each requiring 2-3 written references to accompany each application. Hypothetically, if there were 300 applicants for 1 position and each applicant required 2 written references, that means that 600 references were written and received for that post. That is actually a lot of time an effort put into an endeavour with such a low success rate!
Now, imagine that you ask applicants to provide the name and contact details of referees, but reviewed the applicants based on their CVs and research statements. The pool can be narrowed down to maybe 50 candidates, at which point you may wish to request written references. That means only 100 total references needed! Indeed, you could be more efficient than that and only request references for the top 10 candidates.
Or, you could go full private sector and only ask for the references of the candidate you have chosen!
I jest, academia works in different ways! But there is something for universities to learn about efficiency from other sectors. References are just one example of needless time-wasting and paper-pushing which could be streamlined.