Letters of rec have been on my mind a lot recently because I have both requested them (poorly) and read my first ones in the past month. This post is aimed at grad students and postdocs who will be requesting letters of recommendations from people who know them fairly well.
The letters I requested were for a faculty position. I guess this would be the year I’d be applying for jobs, except I’m not willing to relocate. So there was just this one position I applied for. The job announcement asked for names and contact information for three or more references. But when I filled out the online application, it became clear that the institution actually wanted the letters themselves. Since I had submitted my application on the due date, I was panicked. The number one rule of asking for letters of recommendation is to give your writers time to do a good job writing them. And I was about to completely break that rule. I emailed (and called) four mentors and asked for letters ASAP and explained what had happened. One, who had never written me a letter before, declined due to not having the time to do so right away. I also emailed the contact person for the faculty position to explain what had happened and that my letters of recommendation would be coming in soon. The reply was encouraging.
Nevertheless, do not do as I did! If you’re applying for a faculty position, assume that they want actual letters, not just names, unless the announcement explicitly says otherwise. (Twitter folks have told me that something like two-thirds or more of positions want letters up front, even if they don’t explicitly say so in the announcement.)
And again, give your letter writers time to write for you. Three to four weeks is a good rule of thumb. If you happen to know that one letter-writer is particularly prone to doing things at the last minute, give them a false due date of a day or two ahead of the actual due date. That way, you won’t stress as much about whether the letter gets in on time. Most letter writers will tell you when they’ve submitted their letter. About a week before the due date, gently remind those who haven’t yet.
Other tips when requesting letters of recommendation:
- Asking the same people to write you recommendations for different things is helpful. The most effort goes into writing a letter the first time; subsequent times, the letters can just be adjusted to fit the position in question. So don’t feel bad about asking for multiple letters of recommendation from the same person.
- When asking for a letter of recommendation, send the writer your CV, and explain very clearly where their letter should go. Give them the link if they should submit it online. Give the due date (and adjust a few days early if you’re paranoid). You should also give your letter writer a sense of what you would like to be in the letter. For example, if you’re applying for a highly technical position, ask your letter writer to stress your technical abilities. If this letter writer has unique knowledge of a particular accomplishment you want to be highlighted, ask them to do that. It can also be helpful to provide the position announcement, so the letter writer can get a sense of how you fit the position.
- Most positions ask for about 3 letters of recommendation. Think about how those three letters might complement one another. Perhaps one letter writer is your advisor and knows you well all-around, another letter writer is a collaborator or committee member who can speak to a particular research skill, and another is someone you’ve worked with to develop your teaching or outreach skills. Let the letter writers know what parts or angles of your work you would like them to highlight.
- Ask your primary letter writer (likely your current advisor) to tell your story. This is something I only just realized reading letters for the first time. Letters are read in random order, and it wasn’t until I read the main advisor’s letter that the context for some of the other letters became clear. This is because these letters gave the career arc of the applicant — how they started, what changed along the way, and where the applicant is now in their career. Other writers talk about a piece of the story, but knowing the whole story helped put the pieces in context. Make sure one of your letters tells your story.
- More is not always better. If a position announcement says you can submit “three or more” letters of recommendation, don’t assume that more letters is better. Letter readers get fatigued and once they feel like they have a sense for a candidate, their interest wanes. Since letters can be read in any order, it may be that letter #4 is the first one read and is the least enthusiastic. Consider that that’s the reader’s first impression! The only reason I can think of to submit more than the minimum number of letters of recommendation is if you need that many to cover unique angles of your story.
Finally, don’t forget to thank your letter writers when they’ve submitted your letter. And definitely don’t forget to tell them if you get the position! It feels great when someone you’ve written a letter for gets what they applied for.