Free advice? You’re soaking in it! I put out a call on Twitter yesterday, and it’s like the loaves and the fishes, man: For one tweet, I get five, seven, and seven times seven in response! (Keep them coming–I’m all ears).
A correspondent wrote yesterday to suggest that we–dear readers, you & me both–offer some advice and ideas as to how to write a good letter of recommendation to get someone else a job. Said correspondent is an American teaching at a British university now, and also offers some insight as to how American and British referees traditionally approach their task:
Can you write a blog post offering advice for letter-writers? Obviously there’s some out there already, but it would be really useful to have more history-specific thoughts. I think your posts on the job market will be helpful for those going on it–this angle would hopefully add to that conversation.
As an American teaching in the U.K., I’ve noticed that British letter-writers tend to write more honest letters that trace the arc of a candidate’s intellectual development. These can come across as much more critical/not positive even though that’s not how they’re meant. If applying to U.S. universities, a candidate may wish to have a senior scholar or colleague look over that letter writer’s letter (if at all possible) to make sure it won’t sink the candidate.
–Call me Natasha (when I Look Like Elsie)
Thanks for writing, Natasha. You’ve offered some really useful advice to search committees in the U.S. for understanding British letters of recommendation. This is something I wasn’t aware of and I’m glad to know.
Speaking from my position as a American who has always worked in U.S. American universities, the most helpful letters of recommendation are written like the best letters from tenure and promotion referees. That is, they’re experts in a subfield writing to peers who are experts in other history subfields, and so understand their charge to contextualize and explain the candidate’s research to an intelligent audience of non-specialists. Did the junior scholar in question travel thousands of miles and spend months or years in remote, difficult to access archives in order to do her research? Does she have a perspective on her sources that is totally original and possibly pathbreaking? Does her work address major questions in her subfield in a creative and ambitious fashion? A good letter of recommendation will point these out and elaborate on just what are her unique contributions to her field.
(Another related point: I’m sure you, the referee, are a big shot in your field, but not everyone will recognize your name and tremble that you have deigned to address words to us on the search committee. Go ahead and give us 3-4 paragraphs about the candidate’s research; don’t count on your letterhead and signature as a good enough endorsement. A man in my field once upon a time was legendary for writing letters for his students that were 1-2 paragraphs long, as though it were still 1962 and he was writing to old grad school buddies who would just accept his endorsement at face value.)
If a referee has seen the candidate teach and/or has other evidence for her teaching quality and effectiveness, write about it! Most colleges and universities in the U.S. care about teaching, and some of us care a great deal. Additionally, most referees aren’t going to speak to teaching ability, so if you have some insight into this skill, let us know.
Although a dissertation advisor or committee member has usually known a student or colleague they’re recommending for years, I would advise caution in communicating anything very personal about the candidate without her permission. Focus on her performance in class as both a student and a teacher, her research and writing, and any other contributions she made to her graduate department. Too often have I read letters that recommend women on the basis of their warm and friendly personalities and their hard work to make something of themselves, and men on the basis of their natural, innate genius. (I hate both of these evaluations.)
Unless the referee and the candidate agree that the referee is the best person to address any questions about gaps in her CV or (for example) the attenuated time it took her to write her dissertation, don’t. She may not want you to mention that she has a family, a sick parent, and/or a health problem that required treatment. Let the candidate self-disclose if she chooses to.
Finally, please remember that the letter of recommendation is about the candidate, not about you. Speaking for myself, I don’t give a $hit if you’re writing in haste because you’re off to take a fellowship in Scotland, if you’re on your way to the National Humanities Center, or if you’re a National Book Awards nominee. (I have seen versions of this more than once as a search committee member or Chair.) Don’t get me wrong: I’m impressed, but more by your narcissism in putting this in someone else’s letter of recommendation than by your honors and achievements. I could set that aside and still evaluate your student or colleague fairly, but I wouldn’t bet on everyone being as mature and sensible as I am.
(When you think about it, who is?)
So, to summarize:
- Write from your unique vantage on the candidate’s career.
- Keep it focused on the professional life, not the personal life or qualities.
- Remember: it’s not about you. It’s about the job candidate.
Dear readers: what else would you suggest? What have I got wrong here? What are some of the best and worst letters you have ever seen? (Dish! I mean, please share your insightful stories about what makes for more or less effective letters of recommendation.)
Also, don’t sit too close to your computer if you click on this video. Man, that guy is super-sweaty!