Straightforward advice for job candidates in search of a professorial recommendation
by Adam Chapnick
It is one of the most critical steps in a graduate student’s path to permanent academic employment, yet ironically it’s also one of the most mysterious. Asking a professor for a letter, or more likely many letters, of reference can be stressful, and rarely are students instructed on proper etiquette. Fortunately, the process doesn’t have to be intimidating.
The first thing to keep in mind is that the vast majority of professors understand that writing letters of reference is part of their job. Even better, most take pride in being able to help their students succeed in their academic careers and understand that students might not know how to best approach them. Some even go so far as to post instructions for students seeking letters on their websites. But if yours doesn’t, here are some helpful tips on how to get the references you need.
Not every professor will make the best referee, and some are better for certain applications than others. Although there is little specific research on this issue, anecdotal evidence from academics who have experience on selection committees suggests that you should choose referees based on three criteria (in order of importance):
Since professors are asked to rank their students’ past and future abilities in any letter of reference, it makes little sense to solicit a recommendation from someone who cannot say that your work stands out. Convincing letters also give the reader a sense that the professor knows the student well. More recent knowledge is therefore more credible. Finally, a professor who is well known to a committee is particularly credible. Aim to create a list of potential referees five to six weeks before the letter is due and make sure that your list includes at least one or two more names than you need (in case professors are less impressed than you are with your record or simply are not available to write).
The moment you’ve decided who to approach, find out whether any of those professors have reference letter policies. If they do, follow their directions. If not, approach your professors in the way that you are accustomed to dealing with them. If a potential referee has always been slow to respond to e-mail, then make an appointment to speak in person. If you know that a professor prefers to work from home, a well-written e-mail is appropriate.
In your initial approach, make sure that each professor:
Full disclosure up front should prevent a reluctant yes. And when it comes to letters of reference, an unenthusiastic recommendation can be worse than no letter at all.
Be prepared to provide any referee with a package of information about you immediately.
It should include:
Ask your referees if they would also like:
Thank you etiquette
Always let your professor know whether the application has been successful. If you anticipate asking for additional letters, send yearly updates about your progress. No further signs of appreciation are necessary but, if you insist, a kind, detailed e-mail that your referee can include in his or her teaching dossier, is a good idea.
Adam Chapnick is the deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College and an assistant professor of defense studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.