This is one of a series of infrequent posts by a onetime faculty job seeker, now academic-at-large, on the job market.
You can procrastinate while writing seminar papers (coffee), putting together conference presentations (but don’t count on that plane wifi—take it from us), or completing group projects (just don’t ruin any friendships in the process). But try not to procrastinate when it comes to one grad school task: asking faculty members for recommendation letters. These are the relationships you can’t afford to mess up.
Ask for recommendation letters early
So, ask in a timely manner: as soon as you’ve decided to apply, or at least a month or two before the deadline. In your admirably early email, make sure to include a link to the description of the opportunity (job or fellowship or grant) you’re applying for. To that email, or in a follow-up sent well before the deadline, attach as many relevant documents as you can provide. The writer should see what kind of a case you’ll be making to your potential employers—or to funding bodies, in the case of grants and fellowships. You could show your recommenders drafts of a cover letter, project statement, or teaching statement, all of which would give them a sense of which qualities to emphasize in their own letters. (Some kind faculty members will also help you edit these drafts, if you produce them far enough ahead of time.)
Consider your writers
Ask the right people—the faculty members who know your work the most intimately. If you aren’t quite sure whether your target recommender knows you quite well enough, everything we just said about providing context counts double.
Also, supply the writer with as much information as you can: the year you took the seminar; the gist of your final paper; the subject of the in-class presentation you did. Don’t assume this borderline recommender will recall your brilliant seminar comments in a class you took two years ago, or the work you did for a departmental committee your first year in your program. If it’s appropriate, attach copies of the writing you did that the professor really liked, and follow up by describing how that work fit into projects you’ve done since the class concluded (“I took this research I did for your class and turned it into a journal article on Helen Hunt Jackson; here’s a copy of that article”). That’ll help the professor get a full picture of your evolution as a scholar.
If you’re asking a recommender you know well to write recommendation letters for a wide array of jobs during your faculty job search, create a spreadsheet for them to access, with all of the relevant information for each job: contact info, deadline, a link to the job ad. Arrange the rows in order of deadline.
Remind your letter writers
And now that your recommenders have all the information they need, with plenty of time to put it to use, don’t forget to remind them to write. You can ask them when they’d like to be nudged, or you can take matters into your own hands and send a reminder ten days or a week before the deadline arrives.
Keep in mind, some of your recommenders may be writing recommendation letters for you for years in a row, and will then become trusted colleagues in your home field. In this situation, a little professionalism goes a long way.
Interfolio’s Dossier enables scholars to collect, curate, and send their materials anywhere—including storing reusable recommendation letters, kept confidential from the requester—in application to faculty jobs and other academic opportunities. Learn more about Dossier here.