Wait a minute, Mr. Postman, look and see–is there a nightmare in your bag for me?

postmanInside Higher Ed has an article this morning, “Getting the Letters Right,” with advice for people asking for letters of recommendation, and nudging grad students and junior scholars to mentor your mentors into providing quality letters of recommendation on time.  It’s good advice, and it all boils down to providing your letter-writers lots of details about you and about the job/s or fellowship/s to which you’re applying, and giving them plenty of notice before the letters are due.  In my experience as a junior job- and fellowship-seeker, nothing was more anxiety-producing than wondering whether or not those letters of recommendation were sent on time.  Now, with digital systems, letter-writers are prompted to submit letters on time by the institutions to which their students or colleagues are applying–at least, that’s been my experience with some recent letters I’ve written on behalf of professional colleagues.  But–what they say remains (or should remain, I suppose) a mystery to the applicants.

In my experience as a faculty member and as a veteran of several search committees, I’m happy to report that the vast, vast, vast majority of letters of recommendation arrive punctually and they do their job of fluffing the job candidate thoroughly and fulsomely, if not also extravagantly.  People who have the honor of training Ph.D. students recognize that the successes of their students will reflect on them, so that’s usually sufficient motivation for most grad advisors and committee members to do their duty.  However, the occasional loser of a letter comes across the transom–one that sticks out in my mind came from a middling Flagship State U., and was written by a person in my field(ish) who has a reputation for being rather vain and temperamental.  (He wrote some contentious stuff early in his career for which he received a lot of attention, but the rest of his career has been kind of a fizzle.)  The first two paragraphs of his letter were alternating complaints and bragging about how “this request for a letter of recommendation comes at a very difficult time for me, as I’m packing up to move to [foreign lands] to take a [prestigious fellowship]. . . ”  (Since the student had evidently asked for the letter of recommendation shortly after the job was advertised, ze could hardly be blamed for the fact that Professor Jerkface was “packing up to move” when he wrote her letter!)  It was all about him, and nothing about the student whom he was putatively recommending for a job, except for a grudging couple of paragraphs at the end of the letter–as if he could hardly be bothered to talk about someone other than himself.

Fortunately for that job candidate, his reputation preceeded him, so I was able to advise the search committee that this letter shouldn’t be held against the student.  (On the other hand, even if I weren’t on that committee, I’m fairly confident that a letter as bizarre as that would have been read as evidence of narcissistic personality disorder on the part of the writer, and not held against the poor graduate student at all.) 

What are your experiences with letters of recommendation, either as a young scholar requesting them, or as a faculty member reviewing letters of recommendation on a search committee?  What fresh hells have you witnessed?

0 thoughts on “Wait a minute, Mr. Postman, look and see–is there a nightmare in your bag for me?

  1. Ouch! “Not held against hir” is better than “definitely held against hir,” I guess, but there goes one of maybe 3-4 pieces of a part of the package that is supposed to be doing some of the heavy lifting. Even letters that adhere to all of the conventions of the genre can end up feeling like cotton candy: The fifth one from the same luminary you’ve seen in as many years [this would refer more to fellowship competitions than jobs, unless a search crashed four times] describing yet another discrete person as “one of the three best students I’ve taught in thirty-two/three/four/five/six years at this institution”; ones that cite arcane books or interpretive debates, if you’re not a/the core member of the committee; basic inelegancies of that sort.

    The best ones, from a recipient standpoint, I think, are the ones that in addition to the requisite and expected “fluffing,” inconspicuously isolate something about a candidate that might be seen as a negative and turn it into an asset by being honest and direct. I remember one where the candidate had a lot of interesting things on the c.v. but the package overall wouldn’t have seemed to quite “fit” the pattern. The letter made you feel as if you’d be asking yourself for the rest of your life if you didn’t at least meet this person. I bit and lobbied hir onto the interview list. It didn’t turn out greatly come interview time, but the letter definitely did its job.

    I think sometimes that letters themselves–unlike the state, so far, anyway–should just “wither away” from the process itself. Kind of a “fiction in the archives” thing even if they are true. But, other than follow-up calls to listed referees, its hard to know what would replace them. And this latter mode disadvantages less experienced as opposed to more experienced candidates.


  2. I had an open file at my university’s career center, which was handling my job applications. Though I could see the file, I hadn’t actually bothered to go read the letters from my faculty advisers. When I finally did, I discovered that one letter, from someone on my dissertation committee, completely misstated my research, placing my work in an entirely different country! I suspected ze had confused my work with another colleague’s work, as both of us were at best tangentially related to hir own area. As I was not getting job offers (this was many years ago, and it was a particularly slow time for any job openings), I did wonder what effect such a letter might have had on search committees. They might have thought my faculty supporter was a little spacey, but ze was very well known, and I thought that at least subliminally it could only have made them think that I was an unusually forgettable person doing seriously inconsequential work. Not the case, as the ensuing years have shown, but I still think that one erroneous letter had a negative impact on my chances. I did contact that faculty member and ze immediately submitted a corrected letter, but by then over a year of applying for jobs had already passed.


  3. By the time I went on the job market, I’d heard a ton of stories like these. So when I used a career services dossier thingy, I also had all the letters sent to a friend to read. She advised me to ditch one. I did the same thing for her later. And once, my wife and I steamed open an envelope to read a letter of recommendation, if only for the pleasure of having done it.

    Small fish get eaten/forgotten/slammed by bigger fish all the time. You can’t change the letters, but you can watch out for yourself.


  4. A former Big-Time Historian-Colleague of mine refused to write letters of recommendation for his advisees who were applying to the same job. (The fact that said BTHC worried much about his reputation had something to do with his actions.) I’m still not sure what to think of this type of thinking. I see it as pre-empting the search committee’s and department’s responsibilities. And, after all, those entities know better what they’re seeking in the way of a candidate.

    It’s rare that my students competed for the same jobs but in such situations the students brought different strengths and weaknesses. I’ve made it a point not to rank students in my letters (one of the best three, for example), but rather to discuss specific, representative instances of intellect, skill, superlatives and expect the search committee to figure out what the candidate actually has. That’s why, I think, more and more search committees are relying on writing samples, telephone interviews, and other sources.

    I have to say that the one thing that gets my dander up is the use of a female candidate’s first name throughout an advisor’s letter. More often I see a male candidate being referred to as “Mr. Last Name.” Men aren’t “bright” but women are, etc., etc.


  5. Indyanna and Brian–I think letters are still useful. Some of the more effective letters are well-intentioned, even if they don’t win the candidate an interview. For example, they indicate that the grad advisor has a better idea of the scope and significance of the dissertation than the candidate has articulated. That’s a useful thing from a search committee’s point of view. But in the end, you are correct to imply (as I think you are) that the candidate’s record should stand on its own. I can’t recall an instance in which a letter of recommendation–for good or for ill–made more of a difference than our read of the application letter, the dissertation or book outline, and the writing sample.

    Kathie and Lance–your experience suggests that it was a good thing to sneak a peek. I’ve never been comfortable with that, though. Friends of mine have done the dossier-swap Lance mentions, but I haven’t. I don’t know why I have that scruple, when you found objectively wrong and possibly damaging information in your files. (Steaming open the letter seems beyond the pale, though–why not just ask for a copy of the letter?)

    Maybe the damaging information is also correct in some cases (if not in yours). If I don’t think I can write a strong and unqualified letter of rec. for a student, then I tell them I can’t do it. (It happens rarely, but it happens.)

    HistoryMaven, I’ve seen the same differences in letters written on behalf of women compared those written for men. There is a “soft bigotry of low expectations” implied in the language some letter-writers choose when recommending women. I’ve also noticed–not in job letters but tenure-review letters–that even strongly positive letters for candidates will also include several comments about the work’s limitations, or problems that the author has with the scholarship if it’s for a woman candidate. But men candidates for tenure–well, no doubts or objections are expressed. It’s as though the authors of these letters on behalf of women candidates try to discipline and control women scholars even through instruments they’ll never see. (And I’ve seen this equally distributed among male and female authors of review letters. It’s the sex of the candidate that makes the difference, not the sex of the author of the review.)


  6. I have to say, this is something my graduate program absolutely got right. One senior faculty member had taken on the “get us ready for the job market” work, and she had us all give the career center instructions to send copies of our letters to her. They remained confidential, but she made people rewrite letters because of typos, nevermind just being useless or wrong.


  7. One big issue is “recommendation inflation”, and differing customs in different countries and fields. In the biosciences, any letter written by a US academic that doesn’t include language like “truly outstanding” and/or “one of the best I have ever seen” is counted as a negative. And if the letters say anything whatsoever that can be construed as negative, it is considered a strong downer.

    In contrast, Europeans tend to be much more measured in their praise. And particular individuals also are known for being relatively loose or stingy in their praise.

    I have been in search committee meetings where the discussion of a letter of reference has included comments like, “The last twenty post-docs to leave her lab have been ‘the best she’s ever had'”, or “That other post-doc who she wrote ‘would probably make a decent textbook salesman’ just got elected to the National Academy of Sciences.”


  8. CPP–good points. Inflation leads to its own hazards. I’ve heard through the grapevine that a scholar at an Ivy in my discipline regularly writes letters for several of his students each year, each of which is somehow the best he’s ever seen in his (long) career. Like the complaining/bragging guy I wrote about in the post, sometimes one’s reputation preceeds the inflated letter of recommendation…

    Julie, you went to an unusually scrupulous graduate program. That’s a great idea! And good for “helping” lazy or inattentive proffies snap-to.


  9. Julie — wow, that is an amazing story. I was a little shocked, actually, when I first was on the other side of the desk reading letters. Some of them are so shoddy (although, Historiann, the “this is a difficult time for me” one takes the cake) and just leave me feeling outraged on behalf of the innocent student or applicant involved; getting a peer-critique from time to time would really cut down on a lot of laziness, self-absorption, strange passive-aggression, and truly empty praise, I would think.

    To be fair to my disciplinary colleagues, however, what I have seen more often are letters that actually do a better job than the student or applicant in question in contextualizing / highlighting the importance of their project or work. Those always impress me tremendously — and I think the shoddy writers don’t realize how much letters of reference illuminate the character and intelligence of the reviewer as much as they do that of the reviewee.

    Finally, I have never understood the impulse to see one’s own letters! The thought makes me cringe, it’s like thinking of one’s parents getting it on or installing a window in your stomach to watch your food digest. Some mysterious processes are better left obscured. Am I the only person who feels this way?


  10. This whole recommendation thing can become a fiasco.

    In my (now-former) grad program, 1/2 of all the profs who could write a letter for me are now gone–either retired or quit–both groups out of touch, have long-forgotten me, or will most likely refuse to help me because I am from the bad place.

    The other 1/2? I wouldn’t ask them to write letters because I literally worked for them one semester. Or took one class from them (that was outside my specialty). Or I knew beforehand not to trust them to write a good letter.

    I am even anxious about asking my former mentor for a letter because, although ze says ze admired my work, etc. etc., ze did very little to actually help me before I quit in disgust (ze even passively participated in a bad work experience).

    Part of me thinks that letters should be written immediately after a class or TA-ship or RA-ship and placed on file with the program director for each student. Even one page, on file, ready for ANYONE authorized to look at, might be a better way for newly minted degree-holders to get some sort of referral for a job. The letter-of-recommendation model really only worked when the faculty at a school was a stable, which it isn’t so much any more at a growing number of schools.


  11. I’m honestly not sure how to evaluate “top 1%” or “top 5%” or whatever the rankings are on recommendation forms. I write about the person and leave the ranking up to the committee. If a student happens to have performed exceptionally in courses, then I check my record books and quote them (scored X% in a class of Y in which the average final score was Z%, or some such).

    I sit on a variety of scholarship committees and am surprised at how little some of my colleagues seem to think about the role they play in writing these letters. How can someone be so silly as to think we don’t notice that it’s the same form letter year after year with only the name of the student and the date changed? How can it seem like a good idea to scrawl “outstanding!!!” across the text box after each question, wrinkle the paper up a bit, and hand it over to the committee? I could go on. When I’ve known the offending letter writer, I’ve made it a point to find a casual way to clue hir in to the disservice this does to a student ze apparently likes.


  12. My favorite job candidate story involves a conscientious thesis advisor whose three students were applying for the same job a middling research I school. The chair of the search committee called him to say he was confused. He had received three letters from said referee and they were all very different! The referee replied, “yes. They are very different people.”

    I think the really interesting question is how to tell a student or colleague that I might not be the best person to write the letter. Sometimes I will tell the person that I would feel obligated to bring up something un-positive but honest. It’s often difficult to persuade the person to look for another referee. It’s not my intent to screw anyone, but I have my reputation to protect, too.

    I, too, hate the “percentage rankings” but some people think that way, so I try. I’ve even gone so far as to figure out how many people are 5% of students I have taught and whether the student really compares with others on the top of my list. THEN, I go on to write why this student is a real winner in my book.

    The only time I ever wanted to see a letter was when I was denied tenure. It was a small department so I knew who voted against me…he also sat on personnel committee and did not recuse himself (but that is an issue for another day). To this day, I wonder what he managed to put in his letter.


  13. truffula: I think I have the same approach (and the same confusions) that you do. I always try to give letter readers information I would want to know. Knowing that a students was one of three individuals to earn an “A” in a class of 75 tells me more than knowing just that s/he was “excellent.” And if the student ranked this high because hir papers were exceptionally well written, well than I’d love to know that, too. In this age of spread-sheet grade books and on-line course sites (which is where we keep our grades), is it really that hard to look up some of this info? I think letters and scholarship applications always have to have qualitative assessments as well, but I figure that it can only help the student for the prof to be specific in multiple areas.

    Cassandra: your post raises a question I have been pondering lately as my own doctoral adviser hits retirement. When do you decide to start branching out and getting rec letters from individuals you didn’t work with as a grad student? And how exactly do you do this? I have one regular letter writer who wasn’t on my diss committee. But even in this instance, I first met this scholar while s/he was a postdoc at my grad institution. So I have yet to approach anyone as a “grown up” and ask for this favor, so to speak. It’s a bit mystifying, I must admit.

    Historiann: I may know the scholar you’re talking about! At least, I know someone at “Elite Ivy” in my field who seems to graduate the “best student s/he ever had” every single year. But it may not be specific to this individual. One of my undergrad advisers (also at an “elite Ivy”) sends out these letters every year. (One year, s/he had 12 “best student(s) I ever had” apply for the same job and all get the same letter. The search committee was not impressed.) And I have a colleague who described hir letter writing philosophy thusly: “I follow the (Elite Ivy where s/he got her PhD) model. Every student is the best one I’ve ever had.”

    People: it’s a smaller world than you think. This isn’t really fooling anyone.


  14. Thinking of my own little boat in these confusing waters, a prof I once asked for a letter of reference sent a copy to me when he “discovered” it in some files he was clearing out a few years later. I was floored (and pissed off). It was the most left-handed letter imaginable. Paraphrasing: “she’s bright and will do well at work in the office.” I had applied for a field work position. The letter clearly didn’t hurt, I was offered the position anyway, but I sure learned my lesson. If you think he’s a misogynist, he probably is and you probably shouldn’t ask him for a letter. Funny thing, he really thought it was a positive letter. The copy he sent was enclosed with a fundraising request. Hey doll, quid pro quo.

    These days I ask for letters from a range of folks, former advisers, peers with whom I collaborate, and other faculty at my institution. This may just be a sign that I’m aging. It takes a good deal of trust (on both sides) to ask a local for a letter but they have a better vantage on your teaching and advising than anybody else.


  15. I have to admit that DV has always been the best, most supportive person in the world when it comes to letters, and I try to follow in his footsteps.

    First, he never wrote letters for two students for the same job. I was almost always on the market with one other student, and zie and I would work together to decide which jobs we wanted to pursue, with DV giving his advice when we both wanted to apply for a job. I know this sounds like micromanaging, but the other student and I had very different strengths, and it was nice to have someone who knew a bit more about the jobs giving an opinion. It also felt good to hear that he was really thinking about us and would not write a letter for the person he thought was not the best candidate he could put forward.

    Next, he had us provide the job descriptions for each job, and wrote recommendations tailored to the institution and to why we would do well there — I’m sure that he, like me, had several letters in the ADM application file that he tweaked, but I can’t say enough how important his letter-writing was in showing me how to write my cover letters. It also taught me to ask my students and colleagues to let me know as much about what they are doing and the position or fellowship as possible, so I can also tailor letters properly.

    Other friends and colleagues have not been quite as assiduous, but have always been very generous, and even when I’ve not known about a position in time to give them adequate notice (I suggest a month), they have written me letters and usually copied me (I’ve never seen one of DV’s letters, although he has given me the gist).

    For what it’s worth, I have also refused to write letters when I cannot in good conscience recommend a person, or written them with caveats to the requestor that I barely know them, and so can only give a limited recommendation. I can’t imagine writing for someone I couldn’t really support.


  16. Kathleen wrote, “I think the shoddy writers don’t realize how much letters of reference illuminate the character and intelligence of the reviewer as much as they do that of the reviewee.” Spot on. They all convey at least as much information about the writer that they do about the putative subject of the recommendation letter.

    As for advisors who will only write one letter per student applying for each job: that to me IS micromanaging and trying to psych out the search committee without any basis in reality. My grad advisor was always recommending rafts of students for the same job, but because we’re different people with (very!) different research interests, he knew that committees could make up their own minds for their own selves.

    As to John S.’s question about when to go beyond your grad advisor: it’s never too early! I was doing this my first year out of grad school, in part because of my research interests, but also because I wanted to show that I was connected to and well regarded by senior people who didn’t have a stake in my success the way my grad advisors did. I think it’s important, especially by the time you’re writing fellowship and grant applications (if not job applications) for your next project.


  17. I came from a grad program where two conventions prevailed–at least among the professors I worked with. 1)Professors put a generic letter in the career center file for “emergencies,” but made it clear they preferred to tweak the letter for each job. That also meant they knew what jobs I was applying for, and who else among their students was applying. So they avoided saying all three of us (for example) were the single best student they’d ever taught. And I’m with Historiann on that one. Recommending just one student per job sounds like the bad old days when senior men placed their young men in the right job through the old boy’s network. 2)Periodically, I’d get a copy of the letter they’d just sent. That meant I could correct errors (rare), but it was also a boost to sagging spirits to read the praise of someone I respected so much. Does that make me pathetic? I hope not. I’m pretty resilient in the face of rejection, and I was fairly successful on the job market. But gee whiz, some weeks were tough.


  18. Cassandra’s point reminds me of when I began applying to graduate school. My (incredibly supportive) advisor left my undergrad institution between my junior and senior years for parts unknown. I made various attempts to track him down, and eventually found him listed on the website of a non-profit in a foreign country which somehow didn’t have an e-mail address (of any kind), or a direct phone/fax number. Aside from him, I had only taken more than one class with two other teachers, one of whom was a phys ed teacher. She was a very good phys ed prof, but she wouldn’t have been able to speak to my ability within the field.


  19. I’m looking at applying to PhD programs for 2011, and the reference letter requirements are a source of stress (more even than the GRE!). My MA advisor has offered to write me a letter (I finished my MA a looooong time ago), though zie is retiring soon; my other committee members have long retired (or are not people I’d ask to recommend me!). I’m working on considering who else to ask. I really appreciate this discussion.


  20. Digger–I think you said that you teach as an adjunct somewhere. You must have people at the uni/s you’re at now who can write a strong letter for you, no? Someone has probably observed your teaching at some point, and you might have participated in a seminar or cultivated faculty there over coffee to talk about your research interests. (If you haven’t, get on it! Start cultivating!)

    I think it’s perfectly reasonable–even advisable–to have letters from people you have worked with more recently, precisely because you’re not coming straight from an M.A. program, and presumably you’ll want to show what you’ve been doing with your time. (That is, to show that you’ve been active in the field through teaching, etc., and not just watching soap operas and eating bon bons, or whatever.)

    Mamie, I don’t think you’re pathetic–the most vulnerable times in our lives are the late diss. state/pre-employment months or years!


  21. “Digger–I think you said that you teach as an adjunct somewhere. You must have people at the uni/s you’re at now who can write a strong letter for you, no? Someone has probably observed your teaching at some point, and you might have participated in a seminar or cultivated faculty there over coffee to talk about your research interests.”

    Historiann, your naivete is almost funny in that you think that adjuncts EVER get observed in class. I don’t mean this as a slam, or a violation of your posting codes…more just to point out that some academics really have lived and worked under dramatically different professional circumstances than (potentially) the vast majority of us out there. In no department where I adjuncted or TA-ed was I ever made to feel part of the department community (except at the mandatory-attendance pre-semester orientation where everyone is fake-gung-ho…and then disappears when there’s a problem at midterm).

    I have taught (or TA-ed) at least 35 different sections of courses (I’ve lost count). I have been observed exactly twice. In neither instance was I given any notes, or a letter of review, or even a conversation about how to do anything better. In fact, the second observation was only performed after a classroom blow-up and the prof in charge wanted to know if I was doing anything odd to instigate the craziness. Since it was all student presentations, I didn’t do much other than introduce presenters and topics and keep time.

    Could I have requested more observations? Hadn’t thought of it at the time. I think your advice is excellent though: Start cultivating those recommendations now!

    Also, to you tenure-stream faculty out there: Be kind to an adjunct this semester and offer to observe a course and provide a letter. If the adjuncts know someone may give a damn, we might be happy to feel we aren’t imposing with the request.


  22. I suggest that my grad students have their letters sent to the career center, and give me permission to look at them. I will honestly recommend if any should not be sent out. I have also taken to sending students copies of my letter — if they want it. Some just don’t want to see it and that’s fine too.

    I will also give advice to students on who to ask for letters — I have some lovely colleagues who do the minimum on rec letters.

    There has been an array of research on the implicit bias in letters for women v. men. Women as students, men as scholars, women has having potential, men as rising stars. Not to mention race: I’ve seen letters completely inappropriately referring to a candidate. The most notorious: a renowned scholar talking about a candidate as “the best black student I have ever taught.” Uh, thanks?


  23. The dept I adjunct in is actually very welcoming and supportive of their adjuncts, and there is someone there I will approach for a letter. I was observed once, near the beginning. Teaching evenings is kind of weird though; I’m one of the ghosts the regular faculty and staff never see, but who cleans out her mailbox and cashes her paychecks on a regular basis. I’m working on more visibility, but it’s hard with a regular job. That third letter though…. Thought about asking at work, but I’m not certain announcing my intentions to jump ship a year before the jump, in this economy, is necessarily wise.


  24. I also put a generic letter on file in my students’ dossiers for emergencies, but prefer to write individual letters tailored for each job. The student gives me a spreadsheet with a list of the schools, addresses, job descriptions, and due dates, which they update periodically, and I highlight the ones I’ve completed and send it back to the student so they know it’s done and can remind me if it’s not. This also helps me write appropriate letters if more than one student is applying for the same job. They all have different strengths and I don’t want to second-guess the committees–let them choose which one(s) they want to interview.

    Normally when more than one student is applying for the same job I try top make both letters as strong as possible. However, sometimes one student fits the written description better than another–ad lists a preference for a specific subfield in which one student works, or job is at a SLAC and one student has SLAC teaching experience. In that case, I tell Joe up front: “I’m going to write in Jane’s letter how good a fit she is for this particular job, and I won’t be able to say that in yours.” But I will still write a strong letter for Joe, and maybe the committee will decide that his enthusiasm for teaching and innovative syllabi outweigh the fact that he doesn’t have SLAC experience. Let them decide.


  25. Ruth and Sharon–thanks for your thoughts here. I think your policies are generous and humane (not to mention honest!) Sharon, I really like the idea of vetting your students’ letters–brillian!

    Cassandra, I’m sorry (but not surprised) that you’ve felt so marginalized in your work environments. But in my department at Baa Ram U., all of our adjuncts are observed annually in class by a regular faculty member, who writes a letter evaluating their teaching. And although I certainly think that we could do a *much* better job of making our adjuncts feel a part of the community, I know that I and other regular faculty have had coffee with adjuncts, have reached out to adjuncts with similar research interests, and we have written letters of recommendation for our adjuncts, and many have jumped to tenure-track jobs.

    In any case, I think my advice to Digger (or anyone else looking to return to grad school) is sound, in that while it may be up to her to initiate contacts for more of a collaborative/collegial relationship, it’s worth a shot, especially since that’s the academic environment she’s working in now. I hear you, Digger, about wondering whether that letter from a current boss or colleague in your day job is worth the risk. I wonder: is there someone else you worked with in your M.A. program who might write on your behalf, other than your advisor? Did you work as a T.A. for another faculty member, or did you do particularly well in a class with someone else? I’m just brainstorming to help you get up to that magic number of 3 rec. letters.


  26. The benefit you get from having someone from your current job write for you may not be worth the risk; the kinds of letters people write in the business world are often not very useful in grad admissions. Here’s what our department FAQ says:

    The department looks for intellectual ability and promise as well as background in the particular subject area. The letters and writing sample that best display that ability and promise are the best ones to send. If you weren’t a history major (or even if you were!) it’s a good idea for your personal essay to demonstrate that you know what the study of history entails and that you have sound intellectual reasons for wanting to do it. Recommendations from professors who have taught you often do a better job of speaking to your potential as a historian than recommendations from employers outside academia, even if the latter are warm and positive.


  27. Thanks for the tips; I may approach others who left the company I work for to do their PhDs, and ask how that went over. It’d be nice, I think, to have letters reflecting school, work, and teaching… but perhaps that’s not what the admissions committee gives a crap about?


  28. Digger–I think your instincts are right, but keep in mind Ruth’s warning. Two out of three letters should come from academics, but it’s fine and appropriate to have a letter from a boss or co-worker, especially since it sounds like your company is familiar with academe (with so many former coworkers who have returned to grad school.) Getting in touch with these folks sounds like a good idea–you can find out whether they had someone from the company write on their behalf, and how that went.

    What about getting a co-worker who left for grad school to write a letter on your behalf? That person would be in a good position to assess your ability to do the same.


  29. There are certainly different schools of thought about how best to write a recommendation.

    I’m an American, but a PhD student at the University of Oxford in the UK. I want to get a job in the US but, though it’s what I really want, I sincerely doubt that it will be an academic job just because of the differences between the two systems. This was recently hammered home to me when I applied for an NSF grant for some fieldwork (I study geochronological methods in archaeology) and was asked to re-submit this coming year. The comments from my reviewers were uniformly that because my supervisors were not familiar with the US system, they were unable to write me the kind of recommendations that they were looking for. I remember one of my supervisors being baffled by the form from the NSF asking him to place me a percentage of students he’s taught over the years… it struck him as a completely subjective exercise and didn’t understand how it could be used.


  30. I have found that senior historians tend to write the worst recommendation letters. They seem to have a template, and often forget to change key facts. It’s as if they are convinced that simply by having their name on the letter, that particular applicant will be vaulted to the top of the list.


  31. AndrewMc–good point. I think you’re right that the briefest letters of rec. I have read have been from “big names,” but in general, the way that people get to be “big names” is that they do right by their students.

    bix–I wonder if the linked article in this post will be of any assistance in getting your recommenders to write U.S.-style letters of recommendation? It strikes me that if you really think the rec. letters you have on file aren’t helpful and you really want to return to the U.S., you will have to do some “mentoring of your mentors.”

    For the record: I generally ignore those dumb percentile rankings, and instead write a descriptive letter that attempts to bring the applicant to life. I think my department’s evaluation form for our grad program has those percentile charts, but we generally ignore it. (I think it’s something the grad school requires.) I wonder if this is a science versus humanities split? Maybe scientists (including social scientists) actually use those things, whereas I don’t know a single History professor who gives a crap about checking boxes versus the qualtitative information in a letter.


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