Typing away last night it struck me how futile a letter of reference is despite its ubiquity early in scientific careers. A former student had asked me to provide one for him, which I was only happy to do, especially since (1) the student was really good and (2) I had already written a letter for him a while back for a different but related opportunity.
This time it was for a degree program at a prestigious university. I had to log on to a website provided by a third party, enter my personal details and upload a letter. There was no information on the nature of the program, nor on the qualities sought in applicants. No preselection of candidates took place before letters of reference were requested. It was rather absurd and a massive waste of time.
The administrators of the academic program were in effect leaving it to me to select criteria by which to judge a candidate. They should of course have created a shortlist of promising candidates first and then contacted only their referees and asked specific questions. That way much tedious work could have been avoided, and the letters of reference would have been meaningful.
But meaning is not what is expected of them. Generic letters of reference serve nothing but administrative (and possible legal) purposes. Before I was allowed to continue my employment at Imperial in July, in the same environment and, disappointingly, at the same salary despite changing focus from research to management, the procurement of letters of reference was of the greatest concern.
To the box-tickers in HR it was irrelevant that I was the only candidate for a job designed to run for three months only, a job created to keep essential instruments and procedures going while a new manager was being recruited after the sudden departure of the previous holder of the post.
There were procedures to follow, and it didn't matter that I had already worked for the hiring manager in the past and, temporarily, in that function. Specific qualities and past achievements were irrelevant. Instead, two other professors' time was wasted. They had to copy and paste empty phrases that were then dutifully filed with the recruitment paper trail. I doubt any of it was read.
The student who had asked me for a letter of reference was acutely aware of the dual gravity and pointlessness of it, and helpfully provided me with keywords without which a letter wouldn't be complete. No one would want to pursue higher education without "scientific curiosity, passion, determination and persistence". The student went as far as to suggest entire phrases that he felt would make him stand out.
In all likelihood, all other applicants will do the same. If they choose their referees wisely, the letters will blend seamlessly into an ocean of vacuousness. Doing without them entirely would have the same effect but save a lot of time writing and, just possibly, reading.