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IX. Educating Your Letter Writers About Your Academic Brand

Sep 10, 2017 by Dr Sally

Effective letters of recommendation grow out of well-cultivated professional relationships. Maintain professional networks of people who know you and your accomplishments, choose your letter writers carefully, and guide them to write effective letters that support your goals and academic brand.

Select Your Letter Writers

The most effective letters of recommendation come from people who know you well. Maintaining and growing your professional network will be a task you continue throughout your career in academia. Successful academics create and maintain networks that contain contacts belonging to three different groups:

  • Mentors
  • Peers
  • Mentees

The people who write you letters of recommendation for your job search are the mentors with whom you have and will want to cultivate relationships for the long haul. Emailing, being collegial, maintaining contact are the responsibility of the person who seeks the letters of recommendation.

If you are a graduate student, or if you are less than five years out of the PhD gate, you need a letter from your PhD dissertation chair. If you are a postdoc in the social sciences and sciences, you need a letter from the primary investigators (PIs) with whom you have worked on research. If you do not have either of these types of letters, job search committees will wonder why. It does not necessarily mean you are out of the running for a job, but your other letters will need to make up for the gap.

Choose your recommenders based on the particulars of the job posting. To be ready for job opportunities when they appear, have the following types of letters ready to go on Interfolio or another dossier service: a letter that speaks highly of your teaching ability (two letters if you are applying for a teaching position), a letter that speaks highly of your dissertation, and a letter that speaks highly of your research abilities (two letters if you are applying for a research position).

Direct Your Letter Writers

Do not assume that a recommender knows and remembers everything about you, your successes, and your ambitions. If the only thing a faculty member can say about you is that she remembers you in a course and that you were a “fine student,” your chances at getting a job interview for a faculty position are not improved. Provide recommenders with the information they need to write a thorough and compelling letter directed at the type of position you are most likely applying for. The best letters are those with positive details and specific examples. It is up to you, the job seeker, to help your recommender remember those details and examples.

When you ask a colleague for a letter of recommendation, make sure that part of the conversation includes the blunt, but necessary question: “Will you be able to recommend me highly for this kind of academic position?” Follow up with, “If I get material to you by June 1st, will you be able to upload your letter to Interfolio by August 1st?” Nail down deadlines, but do not choose the last possible day the application is due. Recommenders very often get busy and fail to meet your deadline. Leave room for you to remind your letter writers if they miss the deadline.

In general, and if possible, give your recommenders two months’ notice for letters of academic reference. Allow them the time to write a good letter. Letters of recommendation for academic positions are one to two pages, single-spaced, about the same length as your cover letter.

You want to positively influence the letters your recommenders write by sharing your academic brand with them through the following materials:

  • A cover letter to the recommenders with a clear statement of what you need from them (e.g., the importance of your research to the field, your potential to become an innovator in the methods that you employ), a clear statement of the academic brand you are trying to convey, and a bulleted list of what you are providing them.
  • Your job cover letter, research statement, and teaching statement.
  • Your most recently updated CV with important accomplishments highlighted. Recommenders also may need to be reminded of your fellowships, awards, scholarships, papers, collaborations with students and/or faculty, and even unusual obstacles that you had to overcome.
  • Most recent transcript showing courses and grades.
  • A separate list of courses you took with that recommender, the grades you earned in the courses, and the topics of any papers you wrote or research projects you undertook in the course.
  • Details about what kinds of jobs you will be applying for and why.
  • Deadlines, addresses, forms, envelopes, URLs, logins, etc. Envelopes that are preaddressed and stamped, forms that are already filled out with applicant information, and a list of deadlines for the letters are essential.

Remember that you want recommenders to write letters about how mature, organized, and professional you are, and the packet of information you provide them needs to reflect this.

Ensure Your Letter Writers Provide What the Job Search Committee Needs

Job search committees look for positive and honest assessments.

Recommendation letters need to be more than a repeat of your cover letter and the experience that your CV details. Good recommenders draw conclusions and use your experiences as evidence for these conclusions. Your academic successes should serve as examples in their recommendation letters.

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