Serving as a Reference

Serving as an Employment Reference

From time to time students ask me to serve as a reference with respect to a job they are applying for. For me to be effective I need:

  1. ...a sense of what you learned and accomplished while taking a class from me. If some time has elapsed since this happened, I may need to go over your grades and/or read code you wrote. If you don't wish to be represented by the one-person project(s) you worked on early in the semester, please suggest which part of your group work is the most "you"...hopefully there are clear boundaries which will let me observe you as opposed to your group.

  2. ...a sense of what the position you are seeking would entail. Would your primary responsibilities be requirements analysis, coding, team leadership, management, customer support, user studies, etc.? What size project would you be working on, in what size group? Which technologies would you be expected to know on Day One? Overall, what would you be doing in the first year, and how will the employer decide at the end of the year how happy they are with you?

  3. expect contact. In general, if some random person calls me up and starts asking me questions about an ex-student, they're going to be disappointed--your privacy is among my concerns, and in some cases I am legally limited in my ability to discuss your academic performance. Assuming I have agreed to serve as a reference for you, it is to your advantage for me to know who will be contacting me (hiring manager, HR department, third-party contractor performing background checks), how, and roughly when. The best thing for you would probably be a call from a hiring manager at a time previously agreed upon via e-mail. HR people tend to expect that since they're in front of their phones all the time other people are too. But I am most frequently either not in my office or in my office but meeting with students, so pre-scheduling calls via e-mail saves everybody lots of time.

Please note that I am not qualified to serve as a reference for every student who took one class from me... it is possible to take (and even do well in) a class without having any shred of contact with the instructor. But many managers will want to hear qualitative ("fuzzy") things about you as a person and may find interaction with me frustrating if I can't talk about you in that way.

If you want me to serve as a reference, please send me a piece of mail briefly summarizing the answers to the questions above, as best as you can.

Background checks (e.g., security clearance)

According to University policy, you and your background investigator should jointly execute the University's "Investigator Request Form"; this involves a latency of at least one business day.

Since the investigator will ask me questions about your character and how you interact with other people, please make sure that I have some insight into those matters. In other words, whether I can meaningfully contribute to a background check on you is mostly orthogonal to how well you might have done in a class of mine. If you are my advisee, but I have only very recently begun advising you, we should definitely meet before you expect a background check to begin.

Also, please see the "expect contact" paragraph above. The contractors hired by the FBI to do background checks sometimes operate on a model of dropping by campus on a randomly selected day and talking to anybody they can find who knows something about you. They usually call ahead the day before, but sometimes call only in the morning on the day they are coming. If somebody calls me up and says "Hey, can I chat with you about Harry Q. Bovik for half an hour sometime today?" the answer may well be "Sorry, but I am booked solid all day". If somebody calls during class I may not even get to listen to the voice mail for several hours. So, if possible, suggest that whoever it is contact me by e-mail at least a day in advance.

Letters of Recommendation (graduate study and/or fellowships)

Please understand that writing a graduate school or fellowship recommendation letter is a substantial amount of effort (if done right, which I assume you'd be hoping for). It cannot be done well in a hurry. Also please understand that the most important ingredient of the process is for you to have previously made a particular sort of favorable impression on me. Merely getting an 'A' in a class I teach is not sufficient; in the other direction, people who have not received 'A' grades in my classes may well qualify. What matters most is whether you have made it clear to me that you have the qualities, interest, and drive to do well in the graduate programs you are applying to.

Take time to make sure you are applying to a plausible mix of schools, and to the right programs at those schools. It is not enough to have "good grades" at CMU! M.S. programs are very different from Ph.D. programs, and many schools have multiple M.S. programs with very different expectations. If it isn't clear to an admissions committee that you are a strong candidate for that particular program, they are unlikely to admit you!

After we have met and discussed your aspirations, I will need the following information from you:

  1. Transcript (an unofficial transcript is ok, but please avoid departmental or university-wide graduation-requirement audit forms, as they often omit key information--please provide an actual transcript that says "transcript" at the top)
  2. Personal statement which will accompany your application (solid draft or final version; text or PDF). Note that if you are applying to distinctly different programs you will need different statements to match.
  3. For the schools you most wish to attend, the reasons why those schools in particular attract you (text is best; PDF is possible).
  4. Also for each school, which degree program you are applying to--some schools make this obvious to recommenders, but others do not.
  5. List of organizations and deadlines, sorted by due date, specifying the due date type: online, postmarked-by, arriving-by. This list should be in the form of a "plain ASCII" text file. Here is a sample. Please try to provide me with the due date for recommendation letters, which is after the due date for your part of the application. In fact, some universities won't even tell you the due date for recommendation letters until you've submitted your part of the application, so it's a good idea to be done two weeks early if possible.
  6. For each organization:
    • Name of graduate admissions committee (something like Graduate Admissions Committee, Ph.D. Program Committee, etc.)
    • Affiliation (Department of X & Y, or Graduate Foo Program)
    • U.S. mail address and FedEx address (which may be different)
    • Phone number of graduate admissions contact person
    • (or: URL of page containing all of the above--please check everything is there)
    This list should be in the form of a "plain ASCII" text file.

When filling out admissions paperwork (or web forms), you probably want to be careful to mark the checkbox which waives your rights under the "Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974" to access recommendation letters written for you. While the law mandates that most educational records must default to being accessible by students, long-standing tradition has it that recommendation letters are confidential so that writers may express their opinions completely.

If you are providing me with postage (not necessary in the case of online applications or a single paper letter, but polite if I will be mailing paper to a large number of places), please don't affix it to envelopes, as it may be wasted if I end up using an alternate delivery method such as FedEx.


Finally, since you're probably doing this for the first time, some advice. Don't be fooled by the fact that application deadlines are in December: doing this right (which, given the amount of work is required, probably makes sense) means doing most of the work in October. Below are some issues you may not have considered.

Overall, I would suggest that in early October you talk to one or two faculty members about your educational goals and do a "solid draft" version of every part of one school's application (maybe two). At that point you'll have a sufficient understanding of the overall workload to plan intelligently.

Proficiency certification letters (e.g., "Green card")

If you took a class from me, and need written certification that you demonstrated proficiency with a particular skill set, I am generally willing to help. However, there are some issues you should consider before requesting a letter from me.

  1. Please do not ask me to certify things which are untrue or which I do not have knowledge of. For example, if you took 15-410 from me, that does not provide me with any basis for certifying that you are proficient in C++ (I honestly have no idea). It also does not provide me with any basis for certifying that you are proficient at "Linux kernel programming"--you may indeed be, and that may be due in part to things you studied in my class, but that topic was not covered in my class, so I can't sign a letter that says it was. Also, if you took a class from me, I will not sign a letter claiming that I was your advisor or research supervisor.

    In particular, please do not ask me to sign blatantly false claims such as "as a faculty member I have full knowledge of the university curricula". There is no human being at CMU who has full knowledge of the curricula of all CMU classes. If you found that language somewhere on the Internet and it wasn't reviewed by your lawyer before you asked me to sign it then you should probably show a draft of the letter to your lawyer right away. If your lawyer asked you to get somebody to sign that statement you should seriously consider getting a different lawyer. Regardless, I will not sign letters containing blatantly false claims.

  2. Please do not ask me to certify things that don't make technical sense, for example, that you completed coursework "involving APIs". Unless one is writing assembly code on a bare machine, all programming "involves APIs". If, while at CMU, you took a Software Engineering class that covered how to design interfaces for reliability and evolvability, it might be possible to certify that you attained skills in "evaluating and dessigning APIs". Please be careful here. Former students often send me language apparently written by lawyers who have no understanding of Computer Science. It is your responsibility to avoid asking a fellow computer scientist to sign something that a lawyer (or a legal assistant, or anybody else) dreamed up that makes no technical sense.

  3. Please do not ask me to certify that you have attained an indistinct list of skills, drawn from a random list. For example, please do not ask me to certify that you completed "coursework involving databases or temporal logic or automobile maintenance". If you took a database class, it is likely that I (or your instructor in that class) can certify that you attained skills related to databases. But if you didn't study logic at all while you were at CMU, please don't ask somebody here to sign a letter about logic–that makes no sense. Please don't ask people to sign things that make no logical sense.

  4. Please do not ask me to sign letters which contain obvious grammar or spelling errors, which misspell the name of the university you attended, etc.

A particular "pet peeve" is being asked to sign inaccurate and incoherent skills-certification letters prepared by attorneys pursuant to employment-related immigration proceedings. While I am pleased to support your career progress and welcome your desire to contribute to the economic development of the United States, I am not willing to serve as a volunteer proofreader for a lawyer who is billing somebody (you or your employer) $200 to $400 per hour for work on your case.

So please negotiate as necessary with the relevant parties so that the first version of any letter you ask me to sign is factually accurate (in every detail!), makes claims I am in a position to verify, makes sense, and is mechanically correct. Please do not send me a list of bullet points that your lawyer typed up before you carefully read every word of it and make sure it is completely correct.

Further Guidance

After writing and revising the above, I came across Brian Kernighan's Letters of Recommendation page. I mention it because it's another description of the considerations and mechanics of obtaining a recommendation. If it sounds similar, that's probably because it addresses the same problem!

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