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Letters of Recommendation

When applying to university in Britain, one has to prove that one is reasonably proficient in the English langauge. This is understandable, of course, but it still feels like a waste to cough up 2100 for the test. I have, after all, used mainly English textbooks for the last six years, several of my subjects have been lectured in English and I regularly speak English with foreigners here at NTNU. I have also had an oral exam in English, because the teacher didn't speak Norwegian, and I am actually writing my Master's thesis in English. I will go so far as to claim that if you are able to finish a Master's degree in physics in Norway, then your English will not be a hindrance for further studies abroad. And the same proably goes for a lot of other subjects.

However, language testing is not the only stupid thing you have to do in order to apply to British or American universities. You also have to secure two artifacts from the feudal times, The Letters of Recommendation.

A Letter of Recommendation is quite simply a letter from some member of the academic staff at your university, where they state that they know you personally, and wether or not they belive that you will be able to obtain the degree you are applying for. Personally, I see two problems with this procedure. The first is that such a letter is not standardised or anonymus, and dependent upon a host of factors, such as the referee's personal opinion of you and their idea of what such a letter should say.

Another problem is that unless you have some dirt on someone, you have to know them personally to recieve such a letter. For a master student with reasonable social skills, it should be unproblematic to obtain at least one such letter from your supervisor, but most universities asks for two letters. Oxford of course insists on being wierd in defficult in this, as indeed in all things, and demands three. Still, as a master student you have probably attended some classes with rather few students, and have thus been able to get to know the teacher a little bit.

For a bachelor student, the problem is much worse. At least in Norway, it is perfectly possible to be a brilliant student, and obtain a Bachelor's degree with straight A's, without ever exchangig two words with a professor. Still, it is probably possible to get to know a teacher, at least those who are not to busy and irritable, by showing up at their office and asking questions about a subject they teach. However, a persons ability to appear intelligent while pestering someone with questions seems like an arbitrary thing to look at when considering their application.

-Tor Nordam
Camilla likes this


Kristian,  24.11.07 21:53

Since no one else is commenting, I have two comments on your article. First, you say that letter of recommendation is a feudal artifact, well, as Habermas point out, there is currently a tendency in modern society which he named refeudalaztion. So, I believe things like letter of recommondation will be more and more important in the future, while your formal grades will be less so. Second, I am wondering where you are applying right now?

Camilla,  25.11.07 00:01

The point is that a letter of recommendation is worth nothing as long as there is no guarantee that the person writing it actually knows the person he is writing about, and that all students have access to such a letter-writing person.

Kristian,  25.11.07 00:12

Exactly, it is an advantage for people having contact with professors, and that makes sense in a more feudal world; if the student do not know somebody he/she is worth less (in this sense).

Camilla,  25.11.07 00:16

But that is no reflection on their ability to be a brilliant scholar, and as such is a completely nonsensical requirement.

Kristian,  25.11.07 00:52

Your starting statement is correct within some boundaries, but your implication is... well... also correct, but you miss the point. The minor objection is of course that ability to actually form contacts with persons, as professors, tells something of your ability to be a brilliant scholar (in a modern world, where science seldom is a one-man show).

The major objections is that you seem to presume that the ability to be a brilliant scholar alone decides who should get accepted. In a perfect world, perhaps, but not in the academic world. The individual decision-makers, will have many things in their mind when deciding who to accept. The most brilliant-looking scholar might not be the one which benefit themselves and their institution the most. It is not without reasons that many important academic positions are only announced in the back of some below mid-important magazines. I do not support these tendencies, but denial serves none.

Camilla,  25.11.07 18:59

That is a rather dim view of the future of academia: we can only go on in a committee?

Kristian,  25.11.07 19:17

Haha. Progress, in most fields, of Science needs cooperation in the future. It is simply too much for an individual, Science is very very big. It might be different in other forms of academia, I would not know.

A couple of months ago, I was talking to a dark-matter experimentalist, he was expressing concern that his field began looking more and more like high-energy physics, where groups of 100 people and more where cooperating.

Anyway, this situation is really a clear sign that science progressed very far, but of course this situation is not without its challenges, which your choice of words seemed to imply.

Camilla,  25.11.07 21:19

You make me thankful I am not a physicist.

Kristian,  25.11.07 21:51

Well, I believe, that in all of academia and society in general, feudal tendencies grow stronger. Sometimes this makes some sense, in other instances it just about the usual stuff; prestige, money and power.

Are,  25.11.07 23:34

Great discussion.

This sense of feudalism in academia is one of the reasons I chose to join business at this point, as opposed to staying at university and doing research. I hadn't really thought about it like that before now, but your discussion made me realise that it was one of the things I subconsciously considered.