Letters of recommendation for job applicants: how important are they?

Go read this post at Female Science Professor.  She writes:

Years ago, a friend of mine had a highly unsuccessful interview for a faculty position. According to the legend, the department chair, who had had the same adviser as the candidate, was upset that their mutual adviser had written in the reference letter that the candidate was the best graduate student he had ever advised. This was humiliating for the not-best professor and he did not support hiring the candidate.

Perhaps I am naive, but I don’t believe that the wounded ego of one professor would be enough to sink someone’s chances at a job if there weren’t other reasons for other faculty to not prefer this particular candidate. The reasons might be good ones or bad ones, but I think there must have been other reasons. I also think in this case that it was true that the candidate was indeed the best graduate student of that adviser; the years since the fateful interview have demonstrated this well.

It’s likely that the adviser sent the same letter to every institution to which the candidate applied and did not modify it out of consideration for his former student who was on the faculty at one of these places. Should the adviser have worded the letter in a different way for that particular institution? Or was he was correct to state his frank opinion, which was surely accurate and not a case in which every one of his students was the best?

We’re thick in the middle of hiring season–and by “we,” I mean not my department, but maybe some of you lucky duckies work in departments that have money to spend on recruiting a new colleague.  Some of you are or were recently on search committees, and have had the opportunity to read hundreds of letters from graduate advisors and colleagues recommending people for a job in your departments.  I think Female Science Professor is right–but I suspect that that fateful letter of recommendation for her friend might also have been a product of laziness and hyperbole, rather than an honest evaluation of the job candidate in question.  There is a famous historian, probably the leader in his field, who teaches at an Ivy League university and who is legendary for his ridiculously inflated letters of recommendation.  He writes to seach committees that each of his graduate students is THE BEST student he’s EVER worked with in his career.  Never mind that three, four, or five of his students might be applying for the same job–they’re all THE BEST.  (Needless to say, few people take his recommendation letters seriously.)

Oh, and that department chair who was allegedly so P.O.’ed that his advisor said that someone else was THE BEST–what a fool.  But the fact that this story undoubtedly comes from FSP’s friend the unsuccessful job candidate makes me doubt that this is anything more than a legend.  By the time anyone becomes a department chair, ze has read hundreds of these letters and knows to take their inflated language with a grain of salt.

In my experience on search committees, it’s been interesting to see how relatively unimportant the letters of recommendation are when we consider the application as a whole.  Maybe my department is just extremely democratic and/or confident that we’re better judges of job candidates, the significance of their work, and their “fit” with us than are the eminent Professor Famousfaces who recommend their students to us.  But, to us what’s more important is how the candidate describes hirself in the application letter and the quality (and admittedly, quantity) of their dissertation and/or publications.  Letters from advisors and colleagues are helpful, but they’re strictly advisory–all we’re looking for is an endorsement that the job candidate is a solid and promising historian.  Superlatives and hyperbole are wasted on us, as is letterhead from FancyPants University.  (Maybe this is why I reacted so viscerally to that strangely proud description of the profoundly immoral search process described in Inside Higher Ed last fall–as did many of you.  It’s not how we roll–but then, my department’s strengths are in U.S. Western history, environmental history, and public history–three fields for which I would not look to the Ivy League to provide us with candidates.)

One thing that always endangers a job candidate is the letter of recommendation that has a better grasp of the details, scope, and significance of the applicant’s intellectual agenda than the letter of application from the candidate.  Please, job applicants:  give your advisors and recommenders a draft copy of your basic application letter template–you will probably get some valuable advice as to where you can sharpen your description of your research.  They need to know where your head is, and I’m betting that most of them don’t want to write letters that get ahead of you.

I’ve also learned a lot from reading letters of recommendation about how to write better and more effective letters myself.  I certainly have learned what notto write, that’s for sure–like the letter of recommendation from a fading once-upon-a-time starlet in his field whose opening sentence was, “this student’s request for a letter of recommendation comes at a difficult time for me, because I’m packing to go on a fellowship at Someplace Really Prestigious in the United Kingdom, . . .”  What a tool.  We don’t care about you, and your letter is dated September, so it looks like your student got hir request in on time for an application due in November.  (And U don’t haz internets Someplace Really Prestigious?  Srsly?)

Readers:  what have you seen on search committees or in the hiring process?  How important are those letters, and what makes for an effective one, in your view?  (And, most of all:  share your stories of recommendation epic FAILS!)

0 thoughts on “Letters of recommendation for job applicants: how important are they?

  1. My sense is that on a committee (especially when you don’t know the field well) you pay attention less to the adjectives, and more to the discussion of where work fits in a field. My experience is that if you’re reading letters in a field, good ones help you map out the territory. It’s sort of Cliff Notes for professors:) So there can be things that are very helpful in letters, but not necessarily in the ranking.


  2. Susan–I think you’re right. They can help a candidate in this respect, and after reading 5 or 10 of them, the search committee gets a sense of what they can (and can’t) do and how to read them to their own ends.

    It’s a peculiar genre of writing, isn’t it?


  3. In my search committee experience, letters were most helpful in cases when we generally “liked” a candidate, but thought hir letter was a bit weak, or seemed off. Having reinforcement from people ze had worked with sometimes helped us go with our instinct. In this sense they aided us in being slightly more democratic, in that we didn’t just throw the not-perfectly-polished letters into the bin. (This issue was especially important when interviewed foreign/ ESL candidates.) I also noticed that most recommenders tended to be fairly circumspect when doing the number evaluation (best graduate student ever vs in the top 5% or 1%). But glowing letters can affect ranking, especially in situations where a lump of candidates seem equal (in terms of the quality of their work).

    I agree that the majority of search committee members and dept members that I know of approach letters in the same way you describe. However, I also know of several people who are *intensely* swayed by letters from Professor Fancypants (sometimes, though not always, in cases when Prof. Fancy is at dept. member’s former grad school). In some cases, I’ve seen entire votes that hinged on this one issue. Kind of scary, but true.


  4. Historiann, I was on an administrative search a couple of years ago and the letters of recommendation were a significant non-factor. The most important information emerged when we actually called recommender and asked hir a stock set of questions that we wanted to know the answers to.

    I am in the middle of writing some letters of rec for students applying for teaching jobs, scholarships, law school, divinity school, and grad school. I really try to address the basics: how well they did in my classes, aptitude for thinking historically (i.e. historiography and research skills); allied skills like public speaking and listening.

    When writing for history programs I also address whether or not the applicant would make a good future colleague. I’m not talking about ‘likability’ or personality here. Instead consider the following questions: Will they be civil to colleagues, interesting to talk to, helpful to their students, and motivated to solve administrative problems? If not, you really don’t have any business recommending them for graduate school. Because if they are not inclined to do this as a grad student, they sure as hell won’t do it when they have tenure.


  5. I pay attention to teaching letters from institutions where the person has been a visitor, adjunct or post-doc and less attention to teaching letters from their own mentors. That is because I teach at a SLAC (my guess is that CC people feel similarly) and a person’s ability to lead a discussion section at Yale or Stamford is less a guage of where they are in the process of learning to teach than, say, a letter from a colleague at Dickenson or New College. One of the advantages of being on the adjunct market, even for just a little bit, is that someone who has no stake in getting you a job can provide this kind of letter. Ask for them!!!!


  6. TR–I think you’re right that it’s good to get letters from other than one’s mentors, who have less of a stake in promoting one’s career. And, speaking for myself, but my graduate advisor had nothing whatsoever to say about my teaching–I never TA’ed for him, so it’s good to get a letter from someone who has observed your teaching.


  7. It seems to me that letters are often secondary to the candidate’s own description and research project. When slogging through a hundred or so applications, it seems people only turn to the letters once they decided that the person was worth a deeper look.

    I have, however, seen some pretty shoddy letters. One went something like: “Candidate X asked me to write a letter of recommendation for hir. I endorse hiring hir. Sincerely, Professor Discourteous.”


  8. I guess ze thought that his name and endorsement spoke for itself? Man, I wish I had the stones to try that! (Not really. I’m too responsible and caring. Message: I care.

    This is the kind of thing that really pisses off a search committee. The search committee’s I’ve been on have worked hard to make sure a letter like that wasn’t held against a candidate–we realize that some people’s advisors are better letter writers than others, so we try to read through them (as Susan suggested above).


  9. Oddly enough, I have seen a few letters from applicants’ department chairs. Obviously not all candidates are going to ask for that–they want to keep their job applications on the DL, etc. But in those few instances when a candidate was comfortable asking for one and a chair was comfortable writing one, it was tremendously helpful. I felt like I got a sense of the candidate not just as a scholar (other letters spoke to that, and I was able to read hir book/articles on my own), but also as a teacher and especially as a departmental citizen. That’s not the determining factor in hiring someone (research first, then teaching a decided second), but it is nice to know if a candidate is actually well-liked by colleagues. (Of course, maybe I was fooled by the “I would hate to lose hir as a colleague,” but it sounded like they wanted to keep hir from leaving!)

    The two most interesting letters I have ever read were written by the same adviser. We had an open-rank search, and s/he had two former advisees who had applied. S/he gave a pithy summary of each students work (including its importance in the field) and then gave a relative ranking: “I have written letters for this candidate (A) and candidate B. If you choose to hire assistant, candidate A is the best person. If you choose to hire associate or full, candidate B is the best person.” There was no “This is the best student I have ever had”–s/he had enough respect for us to realize that we would in fact read both of the letters he wrote.


  10. this is such a helpful and entertaining post! i’m a current grad student, and i’ve been asked to write a few recommendations by the students i’ve taught. (i always tell them they’d be better off getting a letter from a prof, as a general warning, but some still insist.)

    i think it’d be a good thing for advisers or grad programs to instruct grad students on how to write letters of rec, since it does seem to be a genre all its own, and something that many/some/a few of us (depending on who finds jobs!) will be asked to do with some frequency.


  11. John S.–I’ve never asked a department chair for a letter of recommendation, but I have had colleagues write letters for me. I think it accomplishes the same thing–i.e., THIS APPLICANT IS NOT A MALCONTENT. I think it makes sense, even if you’re not on the DL, to ask a colleague who knows your work or with whom you worked closely on a committee, rather than the department chair necessarily. Department chairs may or may not be the best person to vouch for an applicant as a colleague.

    Unless some of you think it matters one way or another if the department chair writes a letter (and if so, why?)

    witheramp: I wrote letters for u/g students as a TA too. I think the question of whether it’s better to get a letter from a professor or from a TA depends on the size of the class. The students I TA’ed were in classes of anywhere from 200 to 360 students, so the professors had no direct knowledge of the vast majority of them. As someone who has read applications for grad school, I’d prefer to get a letter from someone who actually knows the candidate, hir capabilities, hir writing, etc., and at large unis that might be a TA rather than a professor. So, do your best. You might ask the professor you TA’ed for to review your letter of rec.–that would be a way to get some tips on your strategy.


  12. As someone who’s been on searches almost entirely at schools that emphasize teaching over research potential, the standard letters of recommendation don’t do all that much for those committees: the dissertation is usually adequately described by the candidate. What really is a benefit, usually, is discussion of actual interactions, which tells us something about the candidate as a potential colleague, and descriptions of teaching experiences which corroborate and expand on what the candidate is (or should be) telling us.


  13. I’m with Susan. (Good) letters put a candidate’s work in a particular area of specialization into a broader disciplinary context, something that is very helpful if the search committee is not a specialized one.


  14. The latest search we had involved more crackpot letters than I’ve seen before, but now I can’t remember the details of what was so off. In a few cases, I really wanted to be able to tell the candidate not to ask that person to write letters any more.

    I do find it odd when a recommender for a faculty candidates talks much, if at all, about the student’s classroom performance. Unless maybe they are clearly and explicitly tying that to their ability as a researcher or teacher, I don’t care what they were like as a student in class. We’re long past that now, and I want to know what they will be like as a colleague and professional. (same reason why I don’t understand why anyone would require a transcript at the faculty level, other than to demonstrate that you have actually graduated).


  15. (same reason why I don’t understand why anyone would require a transcript at the faculty level, other than to demonstrate that you have actually graduated).

    I’ve heard of departments that didn’t check on that and got burned.


  16. I’ve heard that too, Ahistoricality–the tale of the unscrupulous imposter who didn’t have a Ph.D. or not from the university he claimed, although I don’t know if that’s more an Urban Legend than anything. (Snopes.com, anyone?)

    I never understood the call for transcripts in the initial application until I sat on a few search commitees for public history positions in my department. In those cases, it was useful to see if people had any actual formal training in public history–as it would be in cases where a department is looking for a very specific set of skills or areas of expertise. If we had any questions, we could look at the transcript and see “musem studies,” “public administration,” “archives,” etc. listed on the transcript. (Or not!)

    So, I would say that in some searches, they’re very useful. But for most history searches, they’re probably not providing any truly decisive information.


  17. The imposter who didn’t have a Ph.D.? We did have one here, well before my time. It was extensively documented after the fact.

    With regard to letters, they’re more helpful for candidates early in their career. Someone who is still ABD (we’ve hired those because we search in pretty specialized fields of primary language, focus and willingness to live somewhere considered remote from civilization) benefits from detailed and thoughtful letters. Hyperbole should be reserved for the letters that go to grad award committees who seem to be unwilling to look at any candidate who doesn’t have letters attesting to their ability to walk on water on a weekly basis.

    Once you have some teaching experience and a research path established, however, letters seem mostly helpful as attestation of character. At least until we get to letters for tenure and promotion!


  18. On the imposter: some years ago, I had a grant at Faraway Library for a year, so we rented our house to someone who had a fellowship at one of Shoreline’s Centers. When we came back, the person who ran that Center asked if we’d had any problem. No, we said; well, it turned out that the person — who’d previously had a prestigious postdoc at Gayprof’s BMU — never had finished his Ph.D. He’d published a book, but not finished the diss.
    He got thrown out of the fellowship mid-year. But he kept paying rent, so we didn’t know!


  19. Letters of recommendation that contain a discussion of how a candidate’s work fits in a research field and how the candidate would fit in the profession make me happy. I especially appreciate those recommenders who offer instances in which the candidate displayed professionalism, rather than tack on, at the end of the letters, a personal assurance that someone would be a good colleague. Being a good advisee/student doesn’t necessarily mean said person will be a good departmental citizen.

    At my last university, members of my department at a regional campus hired a person who claimed to have an MPhil and a PhD from Big-Time, Really Auncient British university. No one checked, and the person was hired and lasted about three years before being outed as a fake. The person gave a talk at a faculty seminar and several colleagues were dismayed at the person’s poor performance and grasp of the research. The person also appeared on an American university’s Website as having been accepted for graduate work in History at the same time s/he accepted the job at the regional campus. Fast forward: colleagues there began to suspect something, and a little digging uncovered that not only did this person not have a doctorate. S/he had also been bounced by Auncient U. for having plagiarized the Master’s thesis.

    For the life of me I could never figure out what letters the person could have used: were they faked as well?

    The person left, still claiming the doctoral degree, and was hired at another university, only to be unmasked again. At both institutions students protested, but the key to the person’s strategy was to play the nurturing teacher.


  20. I can’t take any more job stuff for a little while, but I’m on a uni-wide promotion committee, and my first tasked assignment, tomorrow morning, is to take a bunch of files over to the HR office and search for a) a letter of appointment to the faculty, b) transcripts c) elapsed years on the payroll, d) updated flu shot record (just kidding on d). Because it would be seriously embarrassing if we recommended for promotion someone who it turns out had never been hired in the first place. Someone who, say, wandered into the Geomorphology Office one hectic September day, said “hi, I’m the new gy,” was given an office by a distracted staffer who didn’t realize that there hadn’t been a hire or a search, opened up a direct deposit account, and taught here for six or seven years without being tripped up. This is what we call serious quality control around here. I think it’s kind of over the top myself, but what do I know? I got elected by one vote. This seems like one of those left-handed smoke-switcher assignments, actually. I’m not sure why we can’t just ask HR to verify this stuff, but maybe they’re in on the scam.

    Sorry I missed this whole thread. A big batch of primary sources came in this afternoon.


  21. @the tale of the unscrupulous imposter . . .

    Don’t need Snopes. Happened recently at Small Urban U–though not in my department or college. Got caught; got fired. (TT, but not yet tenured.)


  22. Um, History Maven’s story sounds very much like something that happened here too a few years ago, although we didn’t do any of the unmasking. Rather, it was the student newspaper at Next State (Over) University. And only after ze left there voluntarily to go to Nun Such Place back here in our fine commonwealth. It was a sad story; ze didn’t give a sketchy talk, but a quite fine one, and was a tremendous teacher and a promising colleague.


  23. Oh, yeah. Small Urban U recently set up an all-online job application process. Applicants are to provide email addresses for their references, who are then contacted for emailed letters of recommendation. Great! Now fishy applicants can provide gmail or hotmail addresses for famous professors and forge their own recommendations!


  24. Yeah, but who’s going to accept a letter from wellbehaved@gmail.com as being from Laurel Ulrich? I guess the absence of institutional e-mail should be a sign. . .

    Amazing tales of real life imposters. So, now we know why they need graduate transcripts! (When I was on the market, I provided a photocopy of the transcript, because original copies were very expensive. No search committee ever asked me for an original–but I was prepared to order one for them. (I wonder if digital documents has made this particular requirement less expensive? Probably not.)

    Susan, I guess there is honor among thieves, if dude got bounced from the fellowship but continued to pay rent to you. (I guess ze had to live somewhere, right?)


  25. More on transcripts…A couple of years ago when my mid-western uni was up for accreditation, all faculty who did not have transcripts on file had to submit them to HR. When the accreditation team arrived to do their site visit, the first place they went was the HR office to check the files….

    I am applying for promotion this year. My promo committee (at a school in the same system as Indyanna) wanted my contracts from previous employers to show that I actually had the number of years in service that I claimed and was appointed to political science departments (since my degree in in that field). It was a huge hassle, but I suppose necessary in this day and age.


  26. I’ve found that the best way to keep the bureaucracy at bay is to feed the beast! Bury them in paper. No one will really read it all, anyway. But it’s there, in case some bored state legislator wants to try to score political points about how left-wing and liberal your department is. . .

    The Political Science department at my uni was under attack by our previous R Governor, Bill Owens, for being too liberal. Funny how he and the other complainers who felt they had so much to offer our students don’t bother to do the bare minimum required to be considered for a faculty position here–like, get a Ph.D.!


  27. We had a recent search in a small sub-field with less than 40 applications. One letter writer ended up writing for 5 of the candidates (let’s call the letter writer X), four of hir own students and one from another university. Because no one on the committee was remotely a specialist in the field we relied on the letters a little more – BUT one of my colleagues was absolutely obsessed with the letter from X for the one non-student. The letter indeed ranked this person’s research above all of hir own students. But then we got to the conference interview – the candidate was a total tool. But my colleague was still obsessed and insisted that this candidate be brought to campus (we only invited 2 people). And the candidate was again a hideous tool (mostly to me though and I think there were some serious gender issues going on there). When the department voted on the two candidates the vote was everyone but 2 people for the non-tool candidate and still my colleague was devasted that we weren’t going to hire the tool – and all because one ‘authority’ in the field said this person’s research was ‘the best.’


  28. Actually, at my last employer I had to provide a transcript for accreditation. Sigh. Then my grad school sent my brother’s undergrad transcript. Not cool.


  29. What happened to Susan happened to me: some bored work-study (I’m guessing) in the Registrar’s Office at one of the schools I’d attended sent an entirely different person’s transcript in response to a request for transcripts so that I could get hired. It got sorted out, but as Susan says, not cool.


  30. While other materials such as writing samples are more important, I have found that letters can be used rhetorically during departmental debates.


  31. I am in the process of applying for faculty positions. I have got good recos from my previous contacts. I have got a good letter from my present postdoc PI as well.

    I have got a call from one school.

    I am concerned that my postdoc PI will not be happy if I say that I will have to leave him (I have completed 1 year of my postdoc). I worry if the University call him personally, he may not strongly recommand me.

    How to resolve this?

    I am confused…


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