Monday, November 05, 2007


Letters Redux

An occasional correspondent writes:

After many years as a full-time faculty member at a community college, I have decided to apply for tenure track positions at four-year colleges. My question is about letters of recommendation. Who should I ask for letters? For several reasons, I do not want my current dean to know that I am "on the market," which means I can't ask him for a letter of recommendation. Are letters from faculty colleagues ok? What about former students? What are hiring committees looking for in letters of recommendation?

I've gone on record as opposing letters of recommendation generally. And as the recent blogfire over at Dr. Crazy's has demonstrated, there are still plenty of folks out there who are willing to punish people for looking. It's perverse, and thoughtless, and petty, but there it is.

In my experience with searches, letters never helped anybody. They hurt a few. The arms race of effusive praise has rendered them pretty much useless, except when you can read between the lines of faint praise. (There may be a limited exception to this for spanking-new Ph.D.'s emerging from the tutelage of Monster Superstar. At cc's, that's generally much irrelevant.) There's no training in how to write letters of recommendation, and there aren't any generally accepted industry standards (other than brevity). Fear of litigation – whether founded or unfounded – has fostered a bias toward leaving out anything distinctive. Inadvertent cultural bias can creep in easily, as in the case of international applicants coming from traditions in which praise is less effusive.

Worse, anybody beyond the 'first real job' stage is placed in a compromising position by asking for them. At least the newly-phudded are supposed to be looking. Once you've landed somewhere, though, asking for letters involves letting it be known that you are looking, which many people are more than willing to punish.

From this end of the desk, I've found more value in simply asking for a list of three references and contact information, and stipulating that they won't be contacted without the candidate's permission. Once the search committee has picked the top one or two people, then I contact those references to see if there are any red flags. (Again, praise is deeply discounted, but any criticism is taken very seriously.) So the references have no bearing until the very end, and then, only if something unexpected, bad, and relevant pops up. And the candidate doesn't have to give anybody a heads-up until the possibility of an offer materializing is substantial.

All of that said, some places continue – for whatever reason – to ask for actual letters.

I'd personally shy away from using former students as references. If you have some sort of useful statistical breakdown of student evaluations, and they're both comprehensible and flattering, go ahead and use that. But I'd assume that anybody with significant teaching experience has at least one student who liked her, so it would strike me as odd if you had to prove it.

You don't mention the 'tier' of four-year college to which you're applying, but I wouldn't be surprised if you ran into some snobbery about community colleges. Anything you could do to defuse that would be likely to help. Have you collaborated on projects with anybody at a four-year school? To the extent that you can do it, recruiting some writers from your 'target tier' or higher might help. Departmental colleagues are obviously great, but only if you can trust their discretion and/or the enlightened attitude on your campus. If you get the impression that anything you ask for can and will be used against you later, you might want to look someplace else.

I suspect that my wise and worldly readers have much to add on this one, so I'll throw it open. Wise and worldly readers: in my correspondent's shoes, who would you ask to write? And is there actually an argument for letters of recommendation, or should they be consigned to the dustbin of history?

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I gotta tell you -- though I haven't got much of a practical reason for reading your blog -- least not yet (I'm an English PhD stoodent) -- I still do. Cuz it's awful good. Cheers.
Another reason letters are not helpful: At the R-1 university where I work, letters of reference can not be used in judging the applicants. This is due to affirmative action policies that were created because minority applicants may have weaker letters from biased referees.

I do not even understand why we are allowed to ask for letters if we are not allowed to use them.
Like DD's correspondent, I'm trying to change jobs from a sort of odd adult-oriented institution to a more traditional one. My strategy has been in general to have my letters echo the points I make in my own letter. Fortunately, most of the jobs I apply for ask (as DD suggests) just for names of people who can write.
I'm with DD in thinking that the important thing in this case is to show you actually swim in the same pool as folks at 4 year college. Whether it's teaching advanced courses, or presenting at national conferences, those are the things that will signal your position. And those are the things you want your letter writers to be able to address.
Oh -- and because I've had a fraught relationship with higher administration, I have used colleagues instead of the Dean when they have asked for "a letter from your current employer".
I am in the second year on the job market and the first year of a post-doc looking for a TT position. I try to limit my applications for positions that request letters up front. I try to keep it under five total. If the position fits perfectly with my interests, school size, and location, then I will ask my references to submit letters to the search committee. If the position is an ok fit on paper, but they ask for letters up front, I skip it. I know my references are busy and if I make it through the process to a point where the committee wants to check my references, then they can call or request a letter.

It seems to me that the committee 1) wouldn't want to deal with extra paperwork coming in, and 2) how much can you really gain from this kind of letter. I am in the biological sciences and I know that positions can get over 100 applicants, 300 in some cases. If the committee needs to whittle the pool down to a manageable size anyways, wouldn't there be enough information in the other documents in the application packet be enough? I guess one positive to requesting letters up front is completeness of the application. If you have 300 applicants and you need to start removing packets, those that are missing a letter or other document can be removed right away.

One of my references always gave me the letter first before submitting it. He would tailor each sentence. If you just have contact information, wouldn't a phone call provide more information? Without the ability to tailor things and just provide praise, couldn't the search committee ask questions that evoke the true feelings of the reference regarding the candidate? Specifically voice inflection and limited time to respond to questions.
Be careful about not sending letters of reference if the ad calls for them. In our department, we would not consider those applications because they are incomplete.

Also, the phone call approach is problematic because at the point you are making phone calls, you have to make the same phone calls for everyone in the stack, not just a select few. Given the time constraints, that means not doing calls until you have a very short short list.
j's comment bears repeating: if letters of reference are required, you'd better send them; otherwise, there's a good chance some evil HR person will not forward your application package to the hiring committee.
To echo the previous two comments: make sure to send everything asked for. Usually it's HR or the Dean who decides what all searches can/must ask for, but committee members may simply reject someone who hasn't submit everything because they didn't follow the rules. Silly in a way, but also potentially indicative of willingness to play the game as a professor and colleague.
Sorry, "submitted."
Frankly, I don't see how letters work at any level except, maybe, for a newly minted PhD. Why?

Well, I'm in the process of applying to grad schools right now, and most schools ask for 2-3 letters. Thing is, anyone applying to grad school at all (even if they're not a particularly good fit) can, I'm sure, find 3 professors who liked them well enough to write a letter on their behalf. If they can't...well, chances are they didn't like undergrad much, and wouldn't be interested in signing up for a few more years on campus.

Plus, the stuff that someone who has supervised your work or has had you in class that might actually be significant ("John Doe is a little prick. Smart as hell, but you don't want him around", etc, probably won't even get into the hands of a prospective grad school. The same holds true for a propective employer...

Also, let's be honest: how much does a 500 word statement of purpose help anybody? (probably more relevant to the applying to grad school thing, but still) I mean, if you're not stupid, you'll pretty much just be telling the committee what you know they want to hear. The people who write your letters are gonna do the same thing, probably: " John Doe is a wonderful teacher/student/researcher. Any department would be lucky to have him...blah blah blah"
I'm chairing a search right now. We don't ask for letters of reference, just contact info for references. Our file of reference letters for people who haven't (yet) applied is bigger than any of our candidate files. A lot of graduate faculty are expending a lot of hours writing letters for no apparent good reason.
In my field, there is one big guy and then a few folks under him. If you can get a letter of recommendation from him, this takes you a long way toward a tenure-track position (because he is "the guy"). That being said, getting one probably means that you went to MIT where he teaches, so I'm guessing that doesn't hurt either.
I was asked to send letters of reference, then resend the contact addresses of professional and academic references, AND also include student references.
So this doesn't always apply. And yes, they are checking the references by phone.
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