Crowdsourcing a recommendation letter

29 October 2012 by Akshat Rathi, posted in crowdsourcing

Bradley Voytek, like thousands of other postdoctoral researchers, wants a tenured professorship. Like many other aspirants, his résumé showcases: Plenty of papers, teaching experience, well-respected doctoral supervisor and such. But he has something that few others can boast. He is a master communicator of neuroscience. For the past three years he has been blogging at Oscillary Thoughts, answering questions on Quora and regularly tweeting about his subject.

He has quietly built a large audience: 750 blog subscribers, 5000 Twitter followers, 400,000 blog views, one of the top writers on Quora and a TED-Ed video that has over 60,000 views.

Any science blogger would be jealous of those statistics. But numbers say little to the dons in ivory towers who will interview Dr Voytek for the professorship. He has to show them that his work beyond the lab has had a real impact. And to do that he asked his own followers for a favour: "If anything I've done online has had an impact on you, please let me know." His aim was to include those testimonials as part of a recommendation letter for his teaching skills. And letters flooded in from all over the world:

A clinical social worker said, "I have used information, from Bradley Voytek, to help children and families in my practice. The fact that he shares the latest information helps me in dealing with real life front-line issues."

An official from Britain's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority said, "I find your blog helpful to read as I am particularly in following Parkinson's research and you explain things clearly. Your blog is a stepping point to go and explore further."

An Indian professor wrote: I heard your TEDx and Google talks which were well organized and thoughtful and sufficient enough for couple of brainstorming session with colleagues and fellow students.

He even received an email from Quora that they would, as a company, write a letter to support his application for professorship.

The power of crowdsourcing ideas, funding and support is not a new one, but it is being exploited to do new things. This letter from the Internet to the dons at a university may not have an impact on his application just yet. But as an Italian professor wrote to Dr Voytek: "He has great skill in communicating science [to the public], something that will become increasingly important for the future generation of professors."

Image credit: O'Reilly conferences

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