Moving beyond the grad committee

Those of you on the job market for either a first or a second tenure-track job may be interested in the following question:

For how long might a job applicant include letters in a credentials file from a graduate advisor, committee member, or other professor from one’s graduate institution?  I thought that once I found my first tenure-track, post-grad job, that it was up to me to cultivate senior scholars as mentors and allies on whom I could call for letters of recommendation.  (Besides, the direction of my intellectual interests and the fact that I didn’t end up publishing my dissertation as a book meant that people at my graduate institution wouldn’t have been very good interpreters of my new work, in any case.)

It seems to me that there isn’t probably a hard-and-fast, one-size-fits-all numerical answer to this question.  If your advisor really is among the only people in the world who can explain the importance and value of your work to a search committee, then keeping a letter from an advisor might be reasonable until your book comes out.  On the other hand, I personally like to see that job applicants are networking, conferencing, and reaching beyond their intellectual cradles (so to speak).  It’s a sign of intellectual and professional maturity that I like to see in a potential future colleague. 

What do the rest of you think?  Have any of you faculty-types ever refused to write a letter for a long-since-former student, or even gently suggested that you’re no longer the best person to write on hir behalf?

34 thoughts on “Moving beyond the grad committee

  1. My first job was a 2 year post-doc, and I still asked my dissertation co-directors to write letters for me when I was in that position and looking for my first TT job. However, I also got letters from senior people in my field at my post-doc institution.

    When I was in my first TT job and on the market again, I stopped asking all but one of my grad school profs to write for me. One of my diss co-directors was super-famous in my field, though, and I maintained a close relationship with that person, so I thought that person’s letter was still very helpful. I had had the good fortune to develop relationships with several senior scholars through publishing projects and the like, and those people, plus a colleague from a different, though related department at first TT school, wrote letters for me.

    In my third tenured job now, I hope I will not be on the market again any time soon! The people who wrote letters for me when I applied for this job included “big name” folks with whom I’ve developed relationships through publishing and editing projects as well as a colleague from the school where I had my second job who left before I did.

    For what it’s worth, I never had a letter from a colleague in the department where I was currently working, and I certainly never had one from the chair / head of the department where I was working. I see this issue raised on the Chronicle forum sites frequently, and some people claim it’s the kiss of death not to have a letter from one’s current chair. That was not the case for me.


  2. Nancy–congrats on your new job, and I hope the move went well for everyone in your household?

    I agree with you that letters from a Chair are unnecessary, at least in History too. I’ve never had a letter from a Department Chair, and I don’t think they’re necessary. (Especially if one is trying to leave a department in part BECAUSE of a scheming, nasty, scumbag Chair, asking for a letter of recommendation seems suicidal!) When I applied for my second TT job (and current job), I included a letter from a friendly colleague who had observed my teaching and could testify that I wasn’t a malcontent. I thought that was prudent–I think it’s especially important if one is applying for a job after less than 1-2 years on the job. Sometimes it’s a completely reasonable thing to do–but it’s nice to have a letter from a colleague in that case testifying to your strong committee work, excellent teaching and advising, commitment to the students, etc.


  3. At every level, it’s what you’ve done most recently that matters, as well as what sorts of job one is applying for. If one is applying for a job that’s mostly about research, and one is several (or seventeen, in my case) years out from the dissertation, one’s letters need to be able to speak about the work on has been doing recently: the best people for that are the experts in that field, whether they were your grad. teachers or not. If you are applying for a job that is mostly about teaching, you need letters that can attest to that skill–but recent teaching will carry more weight than older teaching, of course.


  4. At TT job number 2, applying for number 3 this year, and I still use a letter from my advisor. But not really as my advisor. Our relationship has evolved in the 10+ years since I got my PhD. And not only is she one of (if not the) leading scholars in my field, but we have collaborated so much that she knows my work better than anyone.

    I did have someone justify an NEH rejection because one of my letters came from my advisor, who couldn’t be impartial. I’m not sure if there’s anything there or not.


  5. I agree with the general drift of your analysis, Historiann, but in some cases, at least, the same person can write very different kinds of letters for the same person at different stages of their evolution and still be credible. If one purpose of the recommendation process is to measure (continued) growth, someone who you’ve successfully networked with on the way to version 2.2 of yourself may not have many baseline insights, beyond saying something like “we knew ze was someone to watch since that first article came out and ze has borne us out, etc.,” which is not irrelevant, but also not exhaustive. The other thing that occurs is that the senior person you’ve gotten to know down the line may seriously want to help you, but have ranges of other kinds of obligations to other potential candidates, some of which it might not be appropriate to share with you. Different recommenders handle these potential conflicts differently, but it’s not irrelevant to be aware of them. In my relatively limited experience on the other side of the file, the best letters are the best letters themselves, with their authors being at the next tier. State of the art boilerplate formulaica from a major practitioner who really really *does* want to help you but who just tends to write that way may be less powerful at the cut down stage than the blindingly off beat but relevant insight from someone else. The best letters I’ve seen and also tried to write couch themselves as trying to help the committee understand what’s unique about the candidate. But none of this is very useful strategically, given how hard it would be to imagine which potential recommenders would rank high on which variables. All that said, what you say above:
    material evidence of a scholar’s having been able to move beyond the culture of their first institution, can’t help but be noticed favorably I would think.


  6. I think it depends a great deal on the individual and the direction your career has gone since graduating, but I think there may be an expectation that the grad advisor is going to write for someone for, say, the first 5 years or so. My grad advisor declined to write a letter for me when I went on the market for my second tenure-track position (in the 4th year of my first t-t position), explaining that I was applying for teaching positions and zie didn’t know anything about my teaching. (I think she was also extremely busy and had many other students to write for and figured I was out the nest, so to speak.) I got a 2nd t-t position, so it didn’t hurt me, but I did get asked why she hadn’t written for me; I simply explained that our relationship was cordial but not close and she didn’t feel she was in the best position to comment. I think at least one search chair had had the exact same experience and didn’t hold it against me! But search committees were curious about it.

    (What was especially amusing was that after my on-campus one dept contacted my grad advisor directly and she said all the right things but said again that she hadn’t written because I was applying to a teaching-focused school, and the dept chair said to me afterwards, basically, “What, like we’re rubes who don’t care about research??” He was fairly offended.)

    Also, when I sat on a search committee, there was a candidate about 4 years out who had no letters from hir grad institution (advisor or other), and my fellow committee members found this very suspicious-looking and held it against hir.

    My sense is it’s important to have people who can speak authoritatively about your research and people who can speak authoritatively about your teaching/institutional citizenship (what proportion of each depends on where you’re applying). If your advisor really is the most appropriate candidate for the research part – especially if you’ve stayed in touch, have been collaborating currently, that kind of thing – then the advisor is great. If that’s other people, then other people are great (and I agree that it’s better to start adding non-grad-institution people to show you’re making connections within your broader field, even if you also have your advisor write).

    For that search, I didn’t have any department colleagues write (when I was leaving the department, it was too small to risk that), but I had non-departmental colleagues write who could talk about my teaching etc. (I’d co-taught with one and done a lot of other work with the other). But it was a very small school, so there were lots of non-departmental options. When I was job searching again, later, I had a couple of colleagues from the department write for me (but that was after I was already leaving so I had no secrecy issue).


  7. I agree that your grad committee gets you into the first TT job; any search after that is up to your new network, for all the reasons you’ve stated.

    That said, what about fellowship applications, pre-tenure? When I was applying four fellowships in… year four of my TT job, was it? Anyway, I struggled with whether to ask my former advisor to be one of my letter-writers. After all, he knew the significance of my work better than anyone out there. In the end, I decided not to. Had I been in year one or two and applying for fellowships, I might have decided differently.

    And as so many have pointed out — the letter from the department colleague for an employed person trying to move is tricky. People in my department are close-knit, but in that way that produces unpredictable results when people say they want to leave. I’ve got about one person in my department who I could trust to both a) say good things, and b) keep a lid on it. I would, of course, do the same for her. Of course, we were hired in the same year, so that might not be of much help, were I to make a run at the market.


  8. The question I struggle with is how to get these additional letters. Any advice there? I have colleagues here who know my work and teaching, but if I’m trying to leave I’m not sure I’d want more than one of them knowing about it. I have people who know my work, but not as well as I’d like for a letter. Do I get on the horn and start emailing my work around more for feedback? More networking at conferences? I simply cannot do anymore conference presentations until I get more written down (per my 3rd year review), but I know plenty of people who didn’t do conferences for years and got good letters and tenure.

    So: where should I start?


  9. As I suspected: no easy numerical answer, lots of nuance, but I think Tom gets it right that it’s the people who know your work best at whatever stage of your career you’re at RIGHT NOW who will write the most effective letters.

    New Kid: I’d feel like that former Chair of yours too who was offended by the distinction of “research” versus “teaching” in writing your letters of recommendation. Of course your grad advisor couldn’t write about your post-grad teaching, but that’s why you choose carefully your other recommenders! This is an important idea: letters can’t possibly address all facets of your professional life. We do our potential recommenders a favor by telling them that we’d like them to address research and publications in particular, or teaching, or our work on an important national board/journal/etc. As in all things, BE SPECIFIC, right?

    Finally, wini: I think you need to keep the last point above in mind, namely, that you should ask maybe two senior scholars in your field (one of whom can be your advisor) to write about your research, and ask one trusted colleague who seems to share your values to review your teaching & write a letter testifying to that & to your strengths as a colleague. I think you’re right not to broadcast your interest in other employment, but surely you have colleagues who understand the value of exploring other options and keeping a toe in the water?

    As for networking/conferencing: Get back in touch with people you’ve met at conferences, particularly those who’ve commented on or chaired panels you were on. I’ve also found that writing people notes telling them how much you like this or that new book of theirs is an excellent way to make friends. This takes time–I wouldn’t ask someone in that first or second e-mail exchange with a complete stranger to read a draft of an article & write a letter of recommendation, but you might mutually decide to meet up at an upcoming conference, put in a panel together, etc. But I find that we are often too shy about making new friends and too hesitant to ask for help.

    (I count myself among those who dread asking people to write letters of rec. I find it infinitely more painful than making friends!)


  10. I’ve never moved from my first job, so this hasn’t been an issue for me. However, I’ve sat on dozens of search committees in my department and others: some hiring mid-career, some fresh out of the Ph.D.

    I think if you’re still within a half-dozen years of your Ph.D. and you don’t have any letters from the supervisor or committee, it might be useful to address that in your cover letter. Saying who you’ve asked to write on your behalf and why is the best way to spin why these people can speak to your suitability. If Professor A is the series editor that shepherded your first book to publication and with whom you’ve collaborated on an exciting project, doesn’t that deserve a mention in your application letter? These kind of explanations prime the pump, so to speak, as to why they’re your referees.

    Of course, we haven’t even addressed the whole scam of letter of reference inflation. I hear of so many places that require a metric whackload of letters when you go up for tenure and then a double-size whackload when you go up for full! These kinds of demands backfire on institutions and scholars as weary senior colleagues get called upon to provide an endless stream of recommendations that are little more than counting coup.


  11. As someone who could not, for personal reasons, use my advisor as a letter writer after I got my first job,I think it did hurt me, especially with fellowship applications. One thing I’m aware of on a search committee for a junior position is that I expect the diss advisor to place candidates in relation to other recent grad students. On the other hand, having letters from people not at your grad school is excellent, and after you’ve been out a few years, I’d expect that.


  12. Not entirely tangential question: has anybody ever dealt with a situation in which they would prefer not to write a letter of recommendation for hir own student because if written honestly it would not be a glowing letter? The student about whom I am thinking will defend a solid thesis and will graduate but were I to do it all over again, I would not take hir on. The reasons have nothing to do with intellectual ability but instead with personality. I am a professional and I can work with just about anybody so we keep moving forward and I leave the personality stuff out of it. The student appears to have a more positive view of our relationship than I have.

    I’m conflicted about this. If I write only good material there will be obvious gaps and I have not acted in good faith with future advisers/employers. If I give a full account of the individual, it will not be so rosy and I will not have acted in good faith with the student. My thought is to tell the student okay, I will write a letter but you need to recognize that I will be honest about X.


  13. I’ve a previous commentator (more regular when I was on leave, less regular since I’ve been teaching again) who’s posting anonymous for reasons that should seem clear. I’d like to second conflicted’s question, with a twist. I’m a second reader on multiple dissertations in my department and due to some vagaries of the writing process, I’ve had to write for some students who have bunched up on the job market. (One student is finishing a bit faster than expected, one a bit slower, etc.) And so I have been writing on behalf of three different students this fall who have each done work of varying quality.

    My dilemma here is how to write on behalf of these students. I know they’re applying to many of the same jobs. I also know that two of them are applying to jobs significantly above their intellectual pay grade, so to speak. How do I signal to committees reading these letters that I see significant distinctions between these students’ respective qualifications with falling into the trap of 1) explicitly ranking them (a practice I don’t love) or 2) damning with such faint praise so as to torpedo job chances.

    Complicating this is the fact that my personal relationship with one of my students mirrors conflicted’s somewhat. I’ve served on 12-15 diss committees since I’ve been at my current job and have *never* worked with a student so disrespectful, nor have I worked with a student whose estimation of his/her skills diverges so sharply from his/her professors’ estimation.

    So again, at the possible risk of hijacking this thread: what would you others do?


  14. Oh, this is so timely! I’m in my first tenure-track position, and applying for research fellowships. So far, I am planning on using two of my dissertation committee members, and am kind of casting about for the third letter. My third committee member would write if I asked, but we aren’t as close (intellectually or personally) as the other two. I definitely have other contacts in the field, but most of them have not read my completed dissertation – I just finished a month ago, and am only now sending it out to all the people I promised copies of in the last round of conferences and meetings. I hope that at least some of these people will respond enthusiastically enough that I might then ask for a letter, but not sure how soon they’d be ready to write. And deadlines are coming up soon!


  15. To Anon and Conflicted above’s concerns, I always wonder why this process can’t be a little more transparent so that referees can guide students towards the folks who can do them the most good? Is it really so bad for Anon (especially for a committee member) to just say to the letter solicitor, listen, for your own sake, you don’t want a letter from me? Conflicted’s situation seems much messier as (if I read right) a primary advisor. But even then, I think the stakes are lower as the personality question is subjective and the obvious place to be subtle.


  16. Conflicted and Anonymous: tough questions. I would say on the personality conflict issues that this is why they pay you the (relatively) big bucks, at least compared to graduate fellowships. I think you just have to be professional and focus on the student’s intellectual work and teaching (insofar as you can rate it). We’ve all read letters that conclude, “Incidentally, So-and-So is a delightful person, full of energy and enthusiasm and a joy to be around.” Really? Who cares? So staying away from any evaluation of the students’ personalities might in fact be a refreshing twist on the genre of the letter of recommendation.

    Conflicted, as the primary advisor, I think you answered your own question when you wrote, “were I to do it all over again, I would not take hir on.” But you did, and having done so so you must do your best to help your student find a suitable position. That doesn’t mean exaggerate or inflate the student’s capabilities or achievements–tell the best possible version of the truth you’re comfortable with, and then let the hiring committees or organizations make their own decision. In the end, we’re not in fact in control of how other people read or interpret our letters, and I think sometimes we credit ourselves with too much influence.

    If you think the student has engaged in unethical conduct or done something against the spirit of intellectual inquiry, or committed a crime that makes you reluctant to recommend hir to work with young people, then I would say you must inform the student that you will be honest about whatever ethical or moral issue troubles you. But conflicted says that the issue is personality–nothing like any of the qualifications I listed above.

    My response to Anonymous is the same as what I said to conflicted. Just write the letters honestly, focus on the intellectual/professional work, and don’t say anything about the personality issues. Let the hiring departments/institutions decide whom they want to interview and employ. You’re only a second reader, so the pressure is off of you. Continue resisting the urge to rank the candidates–my sense is that departments want to make their own decisions about whose work is more interesting or who wrote the better application, and any efforts to instruct them will seem like the situation that New Kid described above–a patronizing assumption about what they want or need in a new hire.

    (It’s been my experience that some of the people in my field who get the “big jobs” are frequently above my estimation of their “intellectual pay grade.” Sometimes I change my mind; sometimes my suspicions are borne out! But the bottom line is: who the hell knows what other departments want?)

    I would welcome feedback from scholars far above my own intellectual pay grade on this.


  17. p.s. to conflicted: there might be a careerist reason for you to assist your student vigorously. Unless you fear that serving as hir advocate will redound to your DIScredit, doesn’t placing students in good jobs usually reflect well on your own professional prestige and mojo? That’s what I’ve always understood. Build your own empire of prominently placed former students, but maybe be more cautious about whom you’d like to take on in the first place.

    I believe this is a pretty typical experience for youngerish advisors/faculty mentors. Everyone has to develop hir own style and vetting process.


  18. I agree with many of the answers here. The people who know your work best should write. If you are more than a few years into a t-t, then if your advisor is still the one of the people who knows your work best, it had better be based on an ongoing scholarly relationship, not just on your dissertation.

    How to get other people to write? One key is to get them to know your work first. If someone I meet at a conference says to me “Would you be willing to read some of my work and write for me,” I’m likely to say no–it would be committing to a lot of work before I know anything about the quality. If someone asks me to read some of hir work, though, I may well say yes, and once I’ve read it, I may be willing to write, I may even offer. I once even wrote for someone who was competing for jobs with my students. I told hir it would not be as detailed a letter as I was writing for my own student, because I didn’t know hir as well, but I wrote. (Neither ze nor my student got the job.)

    Conflicted is in a tough situation, one I’ve never faced. If I was a member of someone’s committee I’d have no problem saying “I don’t think I could write you a very strong letter.” For my own advisee . . . well, I would feel some responsibility. I think I would go with describing the scholarship and just leave the obvious gaps. I wouldn’t say “this person is impossible to work with,” I just wouldn’t say anything about what ze was like to work with.

    I have an unfortunately large number of students on the job market this year (it just worked out that way, they weren’t all admitted to the program at once) and I have to be very careful because I know they’re applying for a lot of the same jobs and my letters will be compared. I try to get around this by making the letter for each student so different that it doesn’t lend itself to a direct comparison. Indeed, if someone asked me to rank them, I don’t think I could, not in any abstract sense. I could pick the one who’s the most entertaining lecturer, the one who’s likely to have a book ready for publication soonest, the one whose scholarship is most likely to still be read in 25 years, the one I’d most like to serve on a committee with, etc etc, but I couldn’t say “this candidate is better than that one.” (Anyone who is reading job applications from my students: they’re all great, each in their own way, pick the one that best fits your needs!)


  19. Thanks to all for the feedback, it is much appreciated. I’m going to be provocative though and question why I should feel more responsibility for a student I agreed to advise than I feel for every other student in my department. I agreed to work with this student toward the completion of a thesis and as long as ze continues to work then I will continue to honor that agreement. Is writing letters at the end of the process part of that agreement?

    In fact, I had a pretty good idea about this student’s issues when I took hir on. Ze just failed to mature in the way most students do. Well, maybe that does mean I missed something.


  20. That’s the way advising works, and that’s why there’s an advisor appointed for each grad student! I always assume that when I’m the advisor, I’m the one responsible for guiding the student and making sure that I’ve done everything possible for hir success.

    Now, of course, the student has the major responsibility for getting the work done, getting it done creatively and originally, and having all of hir ducks in a row. But it’s my responsibility to see that my advisees are as well-supported as they need, and that includes writing letter of recommendation.


  21. @ Conflicted: when your student’s dissertation is published on proquest, your name is attached. So your letter is important. I’d keep as much personal stuff out of it as possible, and let people read the gaps.

    Last year I was chairing a search where a number of people with multiple candidates sent me emails that were variations on Ruth’s comment — this one stands out here, this one there, etc. They were helpful because they helped us focus on what mattered here, without making the decision for us.

    The worst letter I ever read as a member of a search committee was when someone wrote that “X is ideally suited for College Y”, when it was really obvious that there was someone else who was really that advisors outstanding student. No one wants to be told that their second rank was the perfect person for them.


  22. Yes, I do think an advisor has a lot more responsibility for hir students than for anyone else in the department. If someone doesn’t have a letter from Professor X, that’s not a big deal. If someone doesn’t have a letter from hir advisor (and ze is just finishing or has just finished) that is a much bigger deal. And, while I don’t think students are automatically entitled to letters of recommendation from their advisors, it is so customary (in my field anyway-YMMV) that most students would be shocked to be near completion and told that their advisor won’t write for them.


  23. This isn’t necessarily all that instructive, but I have/had a pretty wretched relationship with my advisor, and ze is writing a letter for me that I have it on good authority is good. I can’t imagine having an advisor who wouldn’t write a letter for me–surely that’s the most basic obligation, sadly even more basic than reading a student’s work as it progresses.


  24. I’ve only been in one job, which I intend to keep. As a grad student, I’ve served as the student representative for a search twice, and I’ve witnessed the following in a few occasions: candidate that is already on a TT job, applying for the position. Glowing letter from current Chair. Since this is a small world and stories circulate fast, somebody in the search committe calls friend X, who then calls a friend who works in the current department of the candidate, and the story changes slightly. The candidate is a “bad fit”, doesn’t get along with many of hir colleagues. Ze wants to leave, and the Chair is more than happy to get rid of him/her, and helps hir with a great letter (candidate would have probably gotten tenure because of publications).

    So my question is: have you ever encountered this? What would raise a red flag in a letter? What do you do about it? (Keep in mind that the fact that the candidate doesn’t get along with hir current colleagues may just mean it’s a toxic department or that the candidate really is a bad fit there)


  25. There are indeed many people who are a bad fit with one department and an excellent fit with another. If the chair of the former writes a glowing letter, it’s not necessarily just to get rid of the person–ze may be bendign over backwards to be fair.


  26. “Keep in mind that the fact that the candidate doesn’t get along with hir current colleagues may just mean it’s a toxic department or that the candidate really is a bad fit there).”

    I second Ruth’s comment. That was me in my first job–and I’m not (that much of) a jerk. I’d say trust your instincts, Spanish Prof. Too often I think faculty delegate these judgments to others, instead of reading the application & writing sample themselves, and taking job applicants at their word.


  27. I have commented on this before, but reading “between the lines” of a letter, then calling around to one’s buddies, pals, or colleagues to seek out info on a job candidate seems to me like a recipe for not treating all candidates equally. If a committee wishes to seek additional knowledge about a candidate or candidates, there’s a right way to do that. But being “suspicious” of a glowing letter? Seeking out a reason for distrusting a letter? Seeking out a reason to rank a highly recommended candidate lowly? These sound like ways search committees act in bad faith.

    Aren’t we supposed to call out that bad behavior, rather than allowing it to go on?


  28. When I’ve witnesses the behavior, it didn’t apply to all candidates but to those who made the short cut. Whether it’s ethical or not, I don’t know. But it’s commonplace at many top universities. I would agree, in abstract, that it is not fair. On the other hand, I saw another humanities department in my grad school find out why a certain candidate they couldn’t believe their luck had said yes to their offer was in such a hurry to leave hir old job: they found out when the story made the front page of the LA Times. And it wasn’t pretty.


  29. Spanish Prof, the situation you outline where someone is applying to get out of a toxic department can also apply to the newly minted Ph.D. who comes away from a committee or supervisor who’s not the best support. In both those cases, I find what’s worked well is the candidate explaining the positive reasons behind the people they’re naming to write their letters.

    Too often, candidates play it coy or assume that name recognition will be obvious in their letters. (Hint; for those of us in smaller departments hiring in specialties far afield from our own, we don’t always know your subfield’s big names!) I’ve also seen letters of reference that assume the author’s relationship with the candidate is clearly known when the committee’s wondering how the two know each other.

    As a candidate, you can’t tweak the letters that support your file, but you can ensure that anyone writing letters on your behalf has copies of your recent publications, and up-to-date version of the CV and any statements about teaching and research you’d think might be useful. Then you can briefly explain how each of your references knows your work in your cover letter for the application. That, much more than star power, impresses me at search time!


  30. Janice:
    Thanks for the advice. My department will be hiring this year, but it is in linguistics (I am in literature) and not in Spanish. Therefore, although I will have some input, it will not be decisive.

    I am happy in my job, I go up for tenure next year and hope to get it. But I your suggestions are great for fellowship applications (which I am sure I will apply to more than once in the future).


  31. Good to hear, Spanish Prof! I didn’t think you were in such a situation, mind you, but this can be useful for other applications such as fellowship funding.

    Good luck with the hiring. We’re hoping to hire two full-time positions this year, having lost four in the last two years, but it’s a faint hope. If we do get lucky, it will be hiring outside of my subfield, so I especially appreciate candidates who write application letters that are as comprehensible for a premodern history as a contemporary scholar!


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