MARGY: Managing Academic Recommendations Gratis Yay

By David Faraci

There has been a lot of discussion over the past few years of the unfortunate state of the application system for jobs in philosophy (not to mention other academic disciplines). It is widely agreed that the best system, at least from the point of view of applicants, would be centralized—something like what Academic Jobs Online (AJO) offers. Yet if anything the trend seems to be moving away from such centralization, with more and more departments demanding that applicants use their proprietary systems, often (the anecdotal evidence suggests) because of pressure from HR.

Most of this is merely annoying; it wastes applicants’ time. But there is a more serious issue here. Most jobs ask applicants to include letters of recommendation with their applications. Because these letters are confidential, someone other than the applicant typically needs to be involved in the process, either uploading or emailing the letters to the hiring department.

Many departments do not have faculty or staff who can take the time to handle this for their students. This means that applicants have to find someone else to manage their letters for them. The most popular option, currently, is Interfolio, which charges around $4 per delivery per letter. That means that a student with 5 letters, who applies to 60 jobs, could easily end up spending $1,200 to have their letters delivered. This is an absurd amount of money for applicants—many of whom are living on graduate student stipends—to have to spend on a process that could and should be free.

For hiring departments that allow letters to be submitted via email, one solution is to automate that emailing. Recognizing this, I recently created MARGY [hard ‘g’] (Managing Academic Recommendations Gratis Yay), a free, automated system for emailing confidential letters of recommendation. Letter-writers upload letters to MARGY’s secure server; applicants tell the system where to email those letters. Confidentiality is maintained via a whitelist; the system will only send letters to email addresses that have been confirmed as being maintained by a relevant hiring entity.

The trouble, as discussion elsewhere brings out, is that more and more schools are using proprietary systems that require someone to actually upload each letter. This is much harder to automate; it may even be impossible. As such, dossier services like Interfolio continue to be necessary for the majority of applications.

What can we do?

Well, first, as a stop-gap, I’m asking that people help myself and co-developer Graham Leach-Krouse to beta test MARGY. Play around with the site and the email system, or look directly at the source code, and help us debug and increase usability. The more people who help, the faster MARGY can be officially released, and the sooner people can start saving time and money, at least for those jobs that accept letters via email. You can post bug reports and feature requests on GitHub. If you have questions or comments, please email admin@margymail.com.

Here are some further suggestions for those in hiring departments (partly inspired by conversations on other blogs):

  • If your school does not require you to use a proprietary service, use AJO or Vitae. They aren’t perfect, but they’re no worse than most proprietary systems (in my opinion, AJO is a bit better).
  • If you don’t like those systems, at least make sure that applicants have a free way to get letters to you (e.g., set up an email address and encourage applicants to use MARGY).
  • If your school does require you to use a proprietary system, find out exactly what they require. Some schools require applicants to fill out an official application, but don’t require that all application materials be submitted through the official system. In those cases, use something like AJO or allow applicants to submit via email.
  • Even if your school requires that application materials be submitted through their proprietary system, see if you can get around this for letters of recommendation. (Arguably, soliciting a letter from a reference is part of gathering further information, not part of the application itself. Analogously, I assume HR doesn’t have to be involved every time you go to an applicant’s website.)

We should also be doing what we can to put pressure on schools to help avoid this problem. I’ll offer one suggestion in closing: The APA/PhilJobs should charge more for ads if the school doesn’t provide a free way to submit letters. Perhaps the extra funds could even be used to offset applicant spending.

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David Faraci works in theoretical and applied ethics. In addition to his research, he develops online projects aimed at serving the academic community. To date, this includes MARGY; Philosophical Trajectories, a database system aimed at getting philosophers better information about the publication process; and Populus (in development), an online journal with a novel, crowd-sourced model for peer review. David is currently a faculty fellow at the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Markets and Ethics.

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