Requesting letters of recommendation is for many one of the most difficult parts of searching for academic positions. It is socially uncomfortable, much like asking someone for a raise or a loan; much is at stake, we may get rejected, we may take rejection personally, and the request positions us as subordinate.
I could offer standard advice: ask well in advance of any deadlines; provide information about the academic jobs you are pursuing; use a portfolio or career-center service so recommenders can write just one letter; offer your vita, scholarly agenda, teaching portfolio, writing samples, and other relevant materials; ask if and when they would like reminders, etc.
Still, asking remains uncomfortable. So here’s some less conventional advice: Reimagine what it means for a faculty member to write a letter. Certainly, it involves a not-insignificant degree of labor (some faculty even outsource letter writing). However, writing letters is also a responsibility of faculty work. It’s part of our job! Faculty members are mentors and teachers, supporting and promoting students. We expect to write letters during the job-search seasons. Writing letters is also an opportunity for faculty to share with colleagues at other institutions the kinds of work they are sponsoring through their students. And, writing letters is a privilege. Getting asked to write a letter is a marker of status.
So, as you ask for letters in your search for university positions, be as polite and facilitative as possible, but also remember that writing letters really is a faculty responsibility, opportunity, and privilege.
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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