"Would you please write a letter of reference for me?" During your academic careers, you will at some point ask this question, and it probably won’t be easy. Worries abound: Am I burdening the recommender? Does s/he know me well enough? Will s/he speak well of me? Whom should I ask? How many letters will I need? When should I ask? How do I ask?
These concerns are important, and they (understandably) foreground you. In so doing, however, we may inadvertently overlook a more foundational question: What do readers look for in letters of reference?
Although specifics vary across academic positions and institutions, readers generally look at who wrote the letters and what they say about you as a potential colleague, teacher, and scholar.
Readers use letters to reaffirm or disprove their other impressions of you, and to answer questions about your candidacy. Sometimes letters sway readers in your favor (or not) during final decisions. Ideally, letters should amplify—not repeat—your other job materials, offering a more comprehensive sense of your research, teaching, service, and collegiality. Approach the letters as a set, with each one reflecting a unique relationship you have and showcasing a different strength you can offer.
Letters can open doors, but not always. Letters from prominent members of your discipline or those otherwise known to search-committee members can help your candidacy, but only if they are genuine letters. Many readers look at adjectives to see whether a recommender is coding negative impressions of you, speaking neutrally because they do not know you very well, or providing the highest recommendation for you.
Perhaps most important, though, is to consider who is reading your letters for any given academic positions. What strengths are they particularly looking for? What networks intersect with theirs? These more reader-centered questions may help clarify more about what you want to achieve with letters of reference.
Denise K. Comer has over a decade of experience serving on multidisciplinary search committees.
Disclaimer: Material in this column is not drawn from any specific experiences or people, and following this advice does not guarantee employment with the writer’s institution.
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