Here. He argues that they are the true bane of young academics’ existence. It’s true that it’s always awkward to ask for those letters, and my view is skewed by the fact that my letter writers have been kind to me and clearly wrote good things to get me jobs I’ve liked. And it’s also true I’ve read reference letters for others where the referee clearly had no clue how it read to its recipient. Some people are just terrible reference writers, which is a skill unto itself. But looking ahead to reviewing the applications for MUN’s tenure track hire waiting for me, they help fill in a picture that publications, etc., don’t. Even looking at grad applications, we got a glowing letter for a candidate from someone I trust and know wouldn’t BS us on the quality of a student–that matters.
That said, I think the day where reference letters for new academics matter so much as to terrorize people (see my last post on “academic a**holes” [AA]) is nearing its end. New PhDs are being judged on publications more than ever and that goes first (not speaking here of our own search, but generally). But Harman’s point should be taken to mean: please God don’t build your graduate life around getting So and So to write you a good letter, if it means working with an AA. I was lucky in grad school–I couldn’t ask for a better experience–but I have heard enough stories to begin a good script for an academic horror movie. Besides, these days that AA can’t get you a job anyway. So why do it to yourself?