Number 125, Spring 2000
Writing Letters of Recommendation for Academic Jobs
MAURA IVESIN A highly competitive academic job market, letters of recommendation are subject to greater scrutiny than ever before. Search committees faced with large numbers of qualified candidates turn to letters of recommendation as an independent means of gauging the applicants' character and real potential. Job candidates know that letters carry a great deal of weight, so much so that some worry whether the benefits of confidential letters outweigh the risk of unknowingly allowing a damaging letter to remain on file.1 Faculty members writing letters have their own worries about the possible legal dangers of recommendations, a topic that I am not able to address here, except to remind faculty members that there is really no such thing as a confidential letter.2
With so much at stake, one would think that it would be easy to find some useful published discussions of recommendation letters, but there seems to be very little written to guide faculty members in this difficult and crucially important task, although the MLA Guide to the Job Search offers sound advice to candidates requesting letters (Showalter et al. 28-29).3 My attempt to fill the void has grown out of several years of working closely with job-hunting MA and PhD students and with faculty members who were called on to write letters of recommendation for them. I've also read a fair number of dossiers in the course of departmental searches and asked colleagues at my campus and elsewhere to help me identify what makes a letter effective (and what doesn't).
Most of the people I've talked with, though by no means all, share my definition of an effective and appropriate letter as one that helps the candidate without compromising the writer's professional or personal ethics. It disturbs me when colleagues lament the disappearance of negative comments in letters, as if a discussion of a candidate's flaws would somehow assure us of the writer's honesty. Are we only telling the truth when we are saying something negative? What makes us think that the only believable way to present the candidate's strengths is to balance them with a laundry list of weaknesses? And what if, as is sometimes the case, there really are no weaknesses? Letter writers are chosen by the candidate, not the hiring department; it seems to me that when we agree to write a letter, we agree to produce a document that is by definition positive, in that its purpose is to set forth the applicant's relevant qualities and skills. (There is, of course, a case to be made for the other side of this question; see, for example, Malek, who argues that "letters of recommendation are intended to help potential employers make informed [that is, discriminating] judgments about applicants" .) My suggestion does not mean that a recommendation should be dishonest or offer inflated praise; it simply means that everyone involved--the candidate, the letter writer, and the readers of the letter--should understand that the letter writer's job is to explain what an applicant has to offer, leaving that person's imperfections to be discovered through other means. Of course, I am merely describing the system that is now in place; it is not necessarily the best way to go about things, but until someone proposes a useful alternative, we must work with what we have.
The focus on the positive in letters of recommendation is one of the conventions of the genre as we now know it, at least in the United States. There are others. The content and format of the recommendation letter are strictly delimited, dictated by the situation and the audience it addresses. Most recommendation letters have a conventional beginning (introducing the candidate and the writer) and ending (an affirmation of the candidate's credentials and a promise to offer yet more information about the candidate if its readers so desire). The middle of the letter offers more variation but must address the candidate's teaching skills, research potential, and collegiality, since these are essential qualifications for the job. If it cannot discuss all of these, it acknowledges and explains the lapse of protocol. By adhering to these unwritten rules, the letter writer establishes his or her credentials as a person who understands the needs and expectations of the hiring department (and who can therefore be trusted to judge a candidate's suitability). Yet some originality is necessary to convey what is distinctive about the candidate. A letter that sounds just like every letter in the pile is a certain failure.
It is, and it should be, hard to write a good recommendation letter, and this is why it is important for us to refuse sometimes. Last-minute requests cannot always be honored, though most of us will do what we can. But no amount of time will enable us to write a good letter for someone we don't know well. Of course many of the crucial things about a candidate can be discovered by reading the vita and a writing sample. That may or may not be enough; it depends on the other letters in the dossier and the kinds of jobs the candidate is applying for. Still, there are situations in which No is the only answer. If a candidate's credentials are not appropriate for the kind of job being sought or if you just plain don't like the candidate's work (or the candidate), you should not write for that person. The candidate is not likely to gain anything from a letter written under these circumstances. A polite but lukewarm letter won't add anything to the dossier; a negative one can do great damage, even in an otherwise positive file. If at all possible, however, accompany a refusal with an honest explanation of the reasons for it. A candid discussion is called for if you think a candidate's expectations are unrealistic.
A similar conversation is necessary if you are asked to write a letter for someone whose background or current situation is atypical or otherwise troublesome. If you cannot address an unusual situation in your letter without injuring the candidate, it may be better for you not to write the letter. Some situations that call for explanation might include a PhD student who has taken an unusually long or short time to complete the degree or a junior faculty member who is leaving just before or shortly after tenure review. In the latter instance, you might quote positive comments from the tenure review or explain any circumstances that mitigate or throw light on a negative outcome (such as late publication of a first book). If you say nothing about a candidate whose record invites questions, the search committee may well assume the worst. You should take care, however, not to reveal any information that the candidate would prefer to keep confidential. Never offer details of personal hardships or workplace conflicts without seeking permission from the candidate. In these cases it is a particularly good idea to show the letter to the candidate.
When you do agree to write a letter, be prepared to invest some real time and effort. Begin by requesting that candidates provide you with detailed information about their job search, including a draft cover letter, a vita, a teaching portfolio, and a writing sample; then schedule a time when you can talk about the jobs they are applying for. This enables you to provide some extra feedback and often allows you to discover new information that can be useful in your letter. Although it is common for faculty members to complain about inflated recommendations, packed full of empty superlatives and clever phrases, such letters are easy to write, easy to spot, and just as easily discounted. But it is hard to ignore truly good writing, in large part because it signals the writer's sincere commitment to the candidate. The most important overall characteristics of an effective recommendation letter are carefully chosen words, well-constructed sentences and paragraphs, and, above all, thoughtful and detailed discussion of the candidate's strengths.
Short cuts cast a bad reflection on the letter writer as well as on the job candidate. Recommendation letters must not show signs of haste or sloppiness. Always ask someone to check a letter for mechanical errors and stylistic glitches before sending it on its way. Most of the problems that arise in recommendation letters are inadvertent (an omitted word; an unintentional double meaning). Boilerplate letters are also deadly. If you are writing for several candidates, make a special effort to keep your letters (and the candidates) from sounding alike. Don't start every letter with the same introductory sentence; don't carry stock phrases from one letter to the next. Anyone who has served on a search committee can tell the story of the committee chair who wrote the same (or almost the same) letter for multiple students, all of whom ended up applying for the same job.
Some circumstances may call for short (one- or two-paragraph) letters. Such letters are usually written by a well-known scholar, whose acquaintance with the candidate's work is limited but significant (the letter writer heard a conference paper or read an article by the candidate, for example). The reason for the letter's brevity should be made clear, so that the length is not taken as an indication of weak support. In most circumstances, a recommendation letter should be one and a half to two pages long: long enough to present the candidate's qualifications in detail, but short enough for the committee to read fairly quickly.
Some special attention should be paid to the tone of the letter. The extremes of icy formality and off-the-cuff colloquialisms can give a bad impression. More important, however, is to keep the focus of the letter on the candidate and away from the letter writer; as James Malek comments, "Some referees seem to forget that reference letters are supposed to be about their students" (36). State your academic rank as well as your name in the concluding signature, so that the search committee has a sense of your experience and the perspective from which you evaluate the candidate. Elsewhere, any reference to your own research, teaching, or academic service should be directly relevant to the case you are making for the candidate.
You should provide a clear picture of the relationship between you and the person you are recommending. Often the first paragraph will explain how and when the writer got to know the candidate, how long they have known each other, the kinds of research projects and committee assignments they have worked on, and so on, but any discussion of the candidate's personality and character needs to relate specifically to job performance. Emphasize personality traits that make the candidate a good colleague and teacher or a successful researcher. Your purpose is to address what I call the mailroom factor: that is, to explain why this person is someone you would want to see in the mailroom every morning for the next few decades, someone you could assign to the department's most difficult committee, someone who solves problems instead of creating them, someone, in short, who can get along with people and help them get along with each other.
While it is good to provide the kind of detail that gives the committee a sense of the candidate's personality, make sure that anything you say about someone's personal characteristics reinforces his or her stature as a potential colleague. Not saying anything is preferable to saying too much about your acquaintance with a candidate. If you are in the habit of paying graduate students to help with personal errands, remember that a letter of recommendation is not the place to discuss someone's babysitting skills or ability to move furniture. And while it is good to indicate that job candidates are sociable, it is unwise to dwell on the nonacademic aspects of your relationship with them or to refer pointedly to a candidate as a friend, especially if the candidate is a current or former student. At worst, such references can suggest an inappropriate relationship; at best, they call the letter writer's judgment into question.
In discussing the candidate's qualifications, a letter should help the committee place a person among his or her peers. Where does the candidate stand in comparison to this year's group of PhDs? What about the last five or ten years? Is this person one of the top 1%, 5%, or 10% of all the students you've taught? Such statements--when they represent honest and careful consideration and when they are expressed appropriately--can be very helpful to the candidate and to the search committee. But don't offer a quantitative evaluation if you aren't willing or able to back it up. How many graduate students do you work with in the course of a year? A faculty member who teaches a required course and who therefore sees many if not all of a program's entering students usually has a good basis for making comparisons; someone who rarely teaches graduate students does not. If you are going to call someone your best student, explain what that means (the best in the department? the best in a particular area? the best this year? the best ever?), and be careful that you don't make this claim for more than one student, as sometimes happens (Malek 36).
The heart of an academic recommendation is its discussion of a candidate's teaching and research, in whatever order seems most appropriate to the candidate's profile and the kinds of jobs that he or she is seeking. Comments about research must be detailed enough to convince the search committee that the referee is thoroughly familiar with the candidate's scholarship. Praising the givens of a research project--its soundness, competence, or mastery of existing scholarship--will not do much good. Focus instead on what sets each candidate's research apart from that of others; indicate how the work contributes to the field; talk about additional projects that are likely to spring from an individual's research program. Assurances that "this dissertation will change the way we think about [fill in the blank]" should be backed up by specific reasons why the work is important.
Not every letter writer is able to discuss a candidate's teaching experience; if you absolutely cannot address this topic, say so (and make sure that you advise the candidate to solicit a letter from someone who can talk about teaching). If you ignore or gloss over a job candidate's teaching ability, you might give the impression that teaching isn't valued in your department or, worse, that the person you are writing about is a dismal failure in the classroom. If you haven't had a chance to see the candidate teach, ask to sit in on a class and make sure to mention your classroom visit in your letter. Detail is important here also: discuss the candidate's specific skills and indicate what special traits make this person stand out as a teacher. What can you say, for example, about the candidate's ability to design courses, to compose effective and interesting assignments, to convey difficult material, to hold the interest of a variety of students (not just English majors), to foster discussion, to manage large sections?
All these things--studying candidates' records before writing, focusing on their qualifications, identifying their particular strengths and describing them in detail--are necessary to produce a strong letter of recommendation, a letter that answers the questions a search committee is likely to have about the candidate without raising the sort of questions that they ought not to have. Yet to make a letter truly stand out, you must add something to the mix: a detail or a phrase that describes this, and only this, candidate. If you draw a blank, it may be that you are trying to write an outstanding letter for someone who is only competent, in which case it is time to quit. The very best letters ought to be written for the very best candidates. Do as much as you can to support the people you have agreed to write for, but don't overreach.
I could sum this all up by saying, Don't write a letter if you cannot put yourself in the place of the candidate. But I shouldn't have to say that, because in a very real way, we are always writing for ourselves. Our own professionalism is on the line every time we sign our names to a piece of writing, whether it is an article for an academic journal or a letter of recommendation for a colleague or student. Still, unlike a journal article, a good letter will only be seen by a few people; it won't make you famous, it won't get you a raise or even a pat on the back, and it takes time away from the things that will. But it may still be one of the most important contributions that you will ever make to the careers of your colleagues and students.
The author is Associate Professor of English and Associate Head, Department of English, at Texas A&M University, College Station.
NotesI owe a special debt to Jim Barcus of Baylor University. Although prior commitments prevented him from accepting my invitation to cowrite this article (which was inspired by remarks he had made at a panel discussion organized for graduate students seeking academic jobs), Jim offered helpful suggestions on an early draft and pointed me to some useful sources. I would also like to thank my colleagues in the English department at Texas A&M, especially Dennis Berthold, Douglas Brooks, Mary Bucholtz, Bedford Clark, Kate Kelly, Jimmie Killingsworth, Larry Mitchell, Larry Oliver, Nancy Small, and Larry Reynolds, who responded generously with comments and sample letters when I asked them for help with this project.
1Nakamura suggests that students ask an adviser or "administrator friend" to "look at [their] file and give [them] an honest assessment" (19-20). More than a few job candidates simply have the file mailed to a friend or family member and read it themselves.
2According to Heiberger and Vick, "The proper handling of letters of recommendation is dictated by law, and letters sometimes play a key role when suits charging employment discrimination are brought. As a result recommenders are becoming more careful and, to some extent, more positive about all candidates." Smith also suggests that "legal controversies" have led to "evaluation evasion" and "evaluation inflation."
3Showalter et al. advise departments to "warn against vague generalities and undue stress on minor weaknesses" in letters and even suggest handing out "anonymous and suitably edited letters from the department's files, illustrating both valuable and useless recommendations" (70).
Works CitedHeiberger, Mary Morris, and Julia Miller Vick. "How Important Are Letters of Recommendation?" Career Talk: The Chronicle of Higher Education Career Network. 25 Sept. 1998.
Malek, James. "Caveat Emptor; or, How Not to Get Hired at DePaul." ADE Bulletin 92 (1989): 33-36.
Nakamura, Lisa. "The Application Process." On the Market. Ed. Christina Boufis and Victoria C. Olsen. New York: Riverhead, 1997. 17-21.
Showalter, English, et al. The MLA Guide to the Job Search. New York: MLA, 1996.
Smith, Carl. "Beware the Pitfalls of Letters of Recommendation." Chronicle of Higher Education 20 Mar. 1998: 56.
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