Blog

Requesting letters of reference for alternative academic pursuits

Ask a Candidate | Topics in Higher Education

This post continues our series by a onetime academic job seeker, now academic-at-large, on requesting letters of reference for non-traditional pursuits.

Once you’ve decided you want to apply to alt-ac jobs—that is, not-quite officially academic jobs but those that still have a scholarly scope, such as at nonprofits, libraries, museums, newspapers, high schools, or in business—you may wonder whether you need to seek out reference letters at all. Some of these jobs (like a high school teacher at a private school) will certainly want you to have academic recommendations. Others may not require it, but may be open to receiving letters that attest to your readiness to step into the kinds of non-academic positions you want. If you can collect such letters now, while the people you worked with in grad school remember you best, do it.

Here’s how to go about getting the best alt-ac recommendation letters possible, whether you want to ask for a standard letter or one tailored to a particular position.

If it’s still early in your grad career, cultivate people outside of traditional academia who can speak to your good qualities.

Standard advice for preparing for a faculty job search is to spend your grad-school years seeking out collaborations and relationships with people who may be able to write letters for you when the time comes. On an alt-ac track, you should do the same, but it may be a little bit less obvious who to target.

Ideally, throughout your grad school years you’ll have sought out a variety of experiences:

  • Internships
  • One-semester assistantships
  • Tutoring positions

They can all help you develop skills you think you might like to use in an alt-ac career. Then, when it comes time to apply to jobs, think broadly about the kinds of letters you could request. Just because you aren’t applying to work in a library doesn’t mean that your supervisor from that year of work at the archives couldn’t speak about your organizational skills or your sense of initiative. And the fact that you had that experience in the first place shows that you are interested in a number of different work settings, and can function well outside of a traditional academic context.

If you’re already at the end of your years at school, and it’s too late for all that, consider asking friendly academic advisors for an alt-ac letter.

Some grad students or recent grads may be wary of requesting alt-ac letters from their academic advisors. This is because—unbelievably, considering the state of the academic job market!—there is prejudice in some departments against students who openly air their alt-ac ambitions. You may fear losing access to departmental resources if you’re out of the closet (so to speak) when it comes to the alt-ac path. And given the fact that a requirement to submit letters may not be as standard for alt-ac jobs as for faculty job searches, you may not want to risk it.

However, if you do think you can go ahead and ask advisors for a letter, do it. They may be well-placed to testify to the ineffable qualities you hope to translate into an alt-ac position. If you have been your advisor’s research assistant, he may have a great sense of your diligence, organization, and resourcefulness. If you were head TA for her big lecture course, you were effectively her employee, and you proved your own managerial skills, punctuality, and attention to detail.

As with any other letter you request, make sure to tell your academic advisor as much as you can about the position(s) you’re seeking.

They may be a little bit less confident of their ability to write a letter for a position that (unlike Assistant Professor) they’ve never held, so it will be good to be extra-specific in your request.

If you’re going for a particular job, include the job ad, and let them know just how you think your experiences will fit the bill, so they can hammer home the point in their letter. If you want to have a letter on hand for the future, tell them what kinds of jobs you might be seeking, and what qualities you want to highlight for employers. That should make the process easier on them, and result in a better letter for you.

Interfolio’s Dossier enables scholars to collect, curate, polish and send out their materials at all stages throughout their academic professional path. Learn more about Dossier here.