Thursday, June 28, 2007

Letters of Reference

Now that I have my PhD and am "on the market" I have to ask people for letters. I understand the point, but it's times like these that I envy my husband and others in his profession who only have to provide contact information for people who will serve as references.

That seems so much easier and less anxiety provoking than asking for letters. I often worry that my references won't send their letters on time; they are busy academics afterall. I also think it gets old contacting my references everytime I see a position I want to apply for. I know everyone just writes one letter and sends the same one out to all the places I apply to, but there's got to be an easier way...

One easier way would be if my references sent me a bunch of signed letters in unaddressed envelopes that I could just send out when the need arises. If they are worried about the confidentiality of their letters they could sign over the seal on the back of the envelope. Of course there would be nothing to stop me from opening an "extra" to see what my letter writer says about me.

What is the letter writing protocol these days?
I grew up operating on the assumption that if someone writes a letter for you, you should send a thank you note. I do this for anyone who writes a letter on my behalf. I've written letters for my students but have never received a formal or informal thank you note from any one them - even for letters I produced on short notice. Is this custom now passé?

Another thing I have noticed is that many of my letter writers have shared their letters with me. It's very rewarding and encouraging to read those letters, and it certainly helps me to become a better letter writer myself. Why don't more people do this?

Maybe they do. I'd be interested to hear other academics' experiences with letter writing. How common is it for references to let you read their letters? And, do you share your letters with your students? Why or why not?

I don't share mine. I have never really considered sharing my letters and I would certainly be taken aback if one of my students asked me if s/he could read my letter. How rude! These things are supposed to be confidential, aren't they? Maybe these reference letters are less confidential at the PhD level. Who knows, but it is curious that so many of my letter writers have let me read their letters. I think sharing supportive letters with PhD's applying for academic positions is a really great idea for the reason that newly minted PhD's don't have as much experience writing letters. Having access to model letters would be very helpful.

It's frustrating that at this point in the game I don't have a position lined up for the fall and given the way academic hiring works, I won't have a teaching position for the upcoming school year and won't be applying for the next academic year's positions until October-November. At leats now I have a PhD in hand so I can apply for a bunch of positions I wasn't eligible for before. That's exciting! But it also means I'll have to ask for those letters all over again...


hypatia said...

SO I can only speak to a couple things from personal experience. FOr the most part, all my job apps were due at the same time and I had a fair ammount of lead time. So I made up a packet listing all schools with envelopes etc for each school and notes about special things about each job. And then gave my committee the whole packet about a month and 6 weeks before the first search closed. Then I only had to add a few more in piece meal.

I don't write and don't expect thank you notes for letters of recommendation.

I never read the letters people wrote for me - although I agree that they would presumably be a way to build confidence etc.

DancingFish said...

I am not yet a PhD but have done the letter dance for applications to schools and grants. I have never written actual thank yous for letters but do make sure to thank them profusely- usually as part of my final reminder a few days before they are due.
No one has ever offered to let me read their letters but all mine have been required to be sent straight from them- not as part of a packet from me.
I wouldn't worry about bothering them for letters too much though. Writing letters is one of my advisors favorite things to do and he really takes time to tailor each one!

ScienceWoman said...

In my field, some schools want letters up front, while others only want contact info and will request letters from short-listed candidates only (the latter is much preferred by me because I'm a procrastinator).

In my experience, letter writers will produce a basic letter that then gets tailored a bit for each place you apply, because a R1 school wants a different emphasis than a SLAC (for example). Or maybe the position description has a slightly different emphasis (esp. relevant for interdisciplinary people like me).

I never wrote thank yous to my letter writers, but I always thanked in advance when requesting and sent a follow-up email about a week before the deadline and thanked them again. If I didn't hear from the writer that the letter was sent, I continued to pester them until it was confirmed. When I got interviews (and after I accepted a job), I wrote all of my letter writers and thanked them for their help.

Anonymous said...

I don't think writing thank you notes is necessary, as writing recommendations is something we all pay forward over the course of our academic careers.

We had to use the career services office to send our letters out, and they were completely insensitive to the way the job market worked. Even if we requested a rush on a letter, because we wanted the letter to get there before the next round of pruning, they often would take their own sweet time getting things out. It was frustrating not to be in control of that part of the process, a process which determined one's future.

TenureTrackNewbie said...

Don't worry about asking for letters. I applied to 28 SLACs last year while at a visiting position, and the crux is that the announcements are not advertised simultaneously. I felt I was a nuisance to my referees, when I emailed a list of addresses every other week.

When last Spring the students at my previous SLAC overwhelmed me with requests for letters, I was more than happy to spend many hours writing those letters. Some write thank-you-notes, some even give chocolates - which I won't decline -, but nothing is ever expected.

Regarding reading your own letter. I had the chance to read one from one of my referees. It feels strange reading it. This is how someone thinks of you on black and white. I even heard from friends who have been asked by their advisors to write their own letters and to make them as strong as possible.

Best of luck with the applications!