How Do You Get Academic Reference?

Recently, a reader wrote to demand of me a very difficult favour.  He needed a reference as part of the requirements for a master’s degree application.  The writer, who only described himself as a fan of mine since I started writing, had left university some ten years ago.  Most of his lecturers are on retirement.  Not many had died but they were not growing any younger.  The few who are still there do not remember him.  Like me, he wasn’t outstanding in any particular subject and didn’t hold any post.  He just walked through the institution and managed to graduate with a second class.

Why would anybody ask me for an academic reference when I am not an academic?  I have steered clear the academic path for good reasons.  I have never attempted to write a character reference for anybody, let alone an academic testimony.  I haven’t even mastered the compunction to punch-past my strongholds to write a character reference for myself, unless I am certain I would be sincere, for once.

My fan reader is one of many who abandon otherwise important academic pursuits because of references.  Incidentally, at the time I received his request, I was also making telephone calls across the globe, scouting for references from professors who didn’t remember what manner of man I was.  Luckily, one of my old professors remembered me and asked: “So, you graduated in 1998?” “Yes Sir, Prof”, I would quickly reply, gratified at the prospect that he was getting close to making me out.

Then he came even closer: “Were you short and skinny?  You graduated with a distinction, right?”  He was right about my height and size but not the distinction.  He had obviously confused me with another short guy.  He would later warn that I risked wasting my professional life if I continued to live in a foreign land: “Most of your mates are in big positions here while you are globetrotting. Don’t you talk to them? You sit there jumping from university to university.”  I couldn’t go on with the request.

The other professor I called was even more exciting.  He had taught me in my undergraduate years (between 1995 and 1998).  He asked me my full name and some of the lecturers who taught me.  I eagerly supplied the names of a few Drs. and who had since become professors, actually emeritus professors. So, as I said Dr. this, he quickly corrected me “You mean professor that?” “My son, you see, a lot has changed since you left this department.  We have even relocated to another site.”

I would later learn that the entire department is now housed in a new modern facility miles away from where it was when I dosed through my lectures in Semantics and Pragmatics.  By their bookish nature, professors always have something to profess.  He moved: “So after all these years, what have you been doing with your life?  Where do you work?” “Sir, I am in Canada and work with a private energy firm.  We are into green issues, public information and education.”  He surged: “What do you need a PhD for?”

There, I knew I was in for a lecture, so I was ready for a piece of advice on how unrewarding a career in academia was, but I was wrong.  Instead, he asked:” Did you do your masters in this department?” No Sir, I did it in England,” I answered. Then came the stinker: “Then why am I even wasting my time on you? You should get a reference from your university in England,” he said, quite professorially.

The university lecturers in Ghana had just resumed from a long strike, so I decided the professor may be tired.  And frankly, he sounded quite tired.  I would later learn that he went on pension but the university had re-engaged him to help out in a greying department.  I decided to try one of my lady professors in England.  By nature, ladies have a softer spot, and of course a breast – filled with the milk of human kindness.

Well, not this one.  She had weaned her breast of all the milk or any kind of liquid for that matter: “Is that professor Cory Jenkins?” “Speaking, what can I do for you, darling?” Mind you, in England ‘darling’ does not connote any affection at all; it is dished out to every twit, and sometimes to dogs and cats, who incidentally, prove to be better darlings than their selfish owners.  But, at least, I was a darling for starters.

After what would pass for a rehearsed rendition of my reference story, she politely asked: “What is your student number?” Ahh, I had no clue, not even now. “I don’t remember, Madam.” “Well, if you don’t remember your own student number, how do you expect me to remember your face and your performance?” Damn right, she was. It had been only 4 years and I had already forgotten that I was only a number when I was student at the university.

Indeed, that is all we are when we register to take courses in our universities: lifeless numbers in files, and these days, on computer screens.  Well, if you graduated from University of Ghana before 1998, then you are not even on a computer screen yet; you are still a number hidden in old files packed in a cupboard somewhere in a certain room. You necessarily need to be sorted out, and that takes time–understandably.

Getting your own transcripts is a ‘Golgotha,’ especially if you are a Methuselah of an alumnus.  You would think getting an academic reference would be the crucifixion.  Well, not Legon professors.  They know that a lot could change in between time.

Do not believe stories that lecturers gladly accept to write references for students and later contemptuously toss their forms into rubbish bins.  So, as the students sit in the cold in London expecting their references to be posted to their dream universities, their lectures had already started in a rubbish bin in Ghana.  Well, you may believe it.

Did I get any references for my PhD application?  It doesn’t matter, because I am in my ninth month already, almost due.  I mean we are pregnant; my wife and I.  Our concentration has shifted from a career in academia to family biology.  As for my fan reader, he got one from Prof. Badu, whom, unbeknownst to the student, had written in a nicely sealed envelope that the applicant did not have the intellectual capacity to do a PhD.

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