Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Lisa from LA on Making Rec Letter Requests A Little More Responsible.

Am I doing this all wrong?

I'm in a tiny department where nearly all of the departmental graduate students require a never-ending set of rec letters.

Once I realized I was inundated, I started asking them to provide me with this:

  • A short personal statement regarding their teaching.
  • A short personal statement regarding their scholarship.
  • A short personal statement regarding their interest in the job / grant / fellowship they are applying for.
  • Sample scholarly papers written while at my institution.
And now they've stopped asking. Is it really so much trouble to help your rec letter writer understand what their commitment is?

Now, I didn't want to turn them all off. I want to help them get jobs or whatever, but I want them to help me understand why I should.


  1. Of course you're doing the right thing; of course they're going to be pissed about it.

    I'd welcome the stoppage of requests.

    But, asking them to help you understand their plight makes sense. Stick to it.

  2. All of those things will help write a solid letter.

    My only question would be, can/should you really comment on teaching if you haven't observed it? The other stuff you should be able to reasonably assess whether you can write something supportive or not.

  3. If they can't be bothered to supply you with these things, too bad. Wait till they get to hiring, promotion, and tenure time, when they'll have to submit huge dossiers in order to get anyone to give them anything.

    Lazy little buggers.

  4. You required them to put some skin in the game. Smart move. I see a bright future for you.

  5. Sounds reasonable to me. I actually wish my recommenders had been willing to work that closely with me. Even the option of choosing one of two versions of a basic latter -- one teaching-intensive, one research-intensive -- would have come in handy, though it would have made more work for the person handling the dossiers.

  6. Yep, definitely wise and fair. In fact, if they were really smart, they'd send the materials soliciting any advice you had on improving them!

  7. When on the job market, I sent all of these to my letter writers without being asked - the only exception is that I don't explain why I was applying for EACH job in detail, but rather how I was positioning myself in my own letters in each of the fields I might be asked to teach.

    but for grants, fellowships, etc. - all of this came as part of the request-for-a-letter package.

    I've been pretty successful thus far on all fronts.

    I wouldn't stop asking for them - if they're too busy or put out to do this . . . well, I imagine they're going to have a hard time of it on the market.

  8. That's exactly what I ask my students to give me when they want to apply for graduate school. Maybe 10% of them come back with the material.

    Which eases my burden considerably.

  9. I ask my students for similar items - a vita, their personal statement, a list of the courses they have taken with me and when they took them, and a general statement about their career goals and why they are applying for each program or job. They are undergrads. You are doing the right thing.

  10. I would echo Cranky: if you haven't seen them teach, you shouldn't be commenting on their teaching. It is unethical.

    Beyond that, seeing the project statement/application letter is obviously a prerequisite to writing a letter of rec. I'm surprised they can get one from anyone without those. Of course once you've got a letter on the hard drive for a particular student, the game changes somewhat. I'm presuming you aren't asking for a new trifecta of materials for each iteration of letter writing, only the first or first couple.

    But hey, if this is getting you out of writing, then be happy.

  11. Absolutely, they should be giving you this material.

    I say this -- "I've found these letters work best if what I am saying matches up with what you are saying in your application material. So I need to see X, Y, and Z." I am consistently amazed at how you can say that you WANT to act in their best interest and they STILL fail to take you up on it. Hilarious!

  12. I don't know. From the side of someone applying to everything under the sun, the idea of taking an extra few hours to rewrite a shorter version of the stuff all of these international organizations are asking me to write anyway just seems like fucking with me. We're under so much pressure as it is, and the referee I've been working with for 5 years needs it in writing?

    If you don't already know them well enough to assess their teaching/scholarship/interests, maybe you shouldn't be recommending them for anything.

  13. When I wrote a letter for a student who I spent two years supervising, I did not need stuff from him. When I write a letter for the gumdrop sparkle snowflake unicorns I've had for two terms in a classroom, I need some help.

  14. Academic Monkey, send the long versions, then. Because guess what? Maybe I've been working with you for 5 years but I have 15 other students and no idea what you are telling the fellowship committee about why your work fits their mission. You want a good letter--by which I mean not a useless glowing one but a CONVINCING one? Then take the time to put into your recommenders' hands everything they need to write one.

    I have read some hilariously mismatched recommendation letters. Trust me, it's worth your effort.

  15. Don't they have to send this to the people who will be hiring them anyways?

  16. A great idea. Thanks for the suggestion, I will now adopt this policy too.


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