Ph.D. Job Searches: Letters of Recommendation

Remember that your relationship with a faculty member is unique & personal: tailor this advice to fit your situation.

*If you are going on the market a second time, ask your recommenders to update their letters on file with the Career Development Center. Even simply updating the date of the letter can make a difference - a year-old letter can needlessly raise “red flags” with search committees looking for reasons to eliminate candidates.

1. Decide on a potential list of faculty you will ask to serve as your recommenders. You should have had the faculty member for at least one class, possibly more. You should have your dissertation director(s) write, as well as some, if not all, members of your committee, and a teaching mentor who has observed your teaching. It is usually preferable to have letters from tenure-track faculty members, though letters from distinguished visiting professors or those with whom you studied in programs and seminars elsewhere are also important.

2. Prepare a packet for each faculty member that can include:

  1. A cover letter requesting a recommendation that highlights the date the recommendation letter should be sent to the Career Development Center. (You will want your recommendation file at the CDC to be complete by early October.)
  2. Your official or unofficial transcript or list of graduate coursework (highlight courses you have had with these particular faculty members).
  3. Your CV.
  4. A copy of your draft cover letter(s) for your job application. Many students fail to understand how important it is for the faculty member to be able to review how they present themselves. You can supply your generic letter and, if you have two styles (e.g., one letter focuses on your research in early modern studies and another for a generalist), two letters.
  5. A waiver of rights sheet or the recommendation form (if any) appropriately signed.
  6. If possible, a copy of a term paper or essay exam that you completed for this faculty member that includes the faculty member’s comments and the grade given.

3. See the faculty member in person (either during office hours or by appointment) to request the letter.

  • Never drop a packet off without talking to the faculty member
  • When you request a letter, be direct and listen carefully

Below are samples of the types of replies you may hear

Student: Dr. Jones, I am applying for an academic position this year, and I hope you will agree to write a letter of recommendation on my behalf...pause

Possible Responses:

  1. Jane, I’d be delighted. I think you would make an excellent candidate.
  2. Jane, I’m afraid I couldn’t be sufficiently specific to really help your total application.
  3. Well, OK. I’m very busy, when is it due?
  4. How far along are you on your dissertation?

Given the faculty member’s response (deduced from their conversation, body language, eye contact) you can press forward or give the faculty member a graceful exit... “I know you’re terribly busy...I don’t mind getting others to write.”

In the above examples, the A response is clearly a go ahead. The B response is a cue to exit gracefully. Remember that few faculty will flat out simply say, “No! I won’t write you a letter.” The C response is a judgment call..some faculty might be saying that they would be glad to write you a letter if it is not due tomorrow. Other faculty might use how busy they are as a gentle way of saying they could not write you a strong letter. The D response requires that you talk to the faculty member about your work and about the kind of letter you need.

4. If the faculty member agrees to write a letter, give them your prepared packet and review with them the cover letter, list of courses you’ve taken (transcript), and some mention of work you’ve done for them.

5. Check periodically to insure that the letter has been sent or added to your Recommendation File at Career Development Center; how you inquire is a judgment do not want to annoy faculty members before they have written that letter. Some faculty specifically ask you to remind (bug) them until the letter gets written.

6. When the JIL comes out and you know what schools you will apply to, notify your recommenders. It is useful for them to know the places to which you are applying. They can offer advice about your application and even write to colleagues they know. Also inform your recommenders of your progress: when you get dossier requests and especially interview requests. They are interested in your progress.