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Saturday, October 13, 2012

How To Ask For a Letter of Recommendation

In your first email message remind the Professor who you are. "I am Sam Adams, who took your Spanish 453 class in the Winter of 2009 and Spanish 550 in Spring of 2010." Update the professor on your recent activities. "Since graduating I have been working for the Department of Student Housing at Emporia State University, supervising the RAs." State the purpose of the recommendation and the deadline. Make sure you leave at least two weeks between time of initial request and this deadline.

Once the professor agrees to write for you, provide your resumé and whatever other documentation you are submitting with the application (personal statement, cover letter). I don't retain detailed notes about every student I've ever taught, so I need to take cues from your own intentions.

Make sure that the professor knows you beyond the classroom, or has some insight into your character / personality, etc... How am I supposed to know how well you work with others, whether you are dependable, if I have only academic work to judge you by?

Take no for an answer. If the professor says sh/e doesn't know you / remember you well enough, that means that the recommendation will not help you in any way. If I am the professor who knows you best, but I cannot recommend you, then you are in trouble. You should have cultivated at least a few recommenders over the course of your undergraduat and / or graduate career. By cultivating I mean: (1) Taking more than one course from. (2) Going at least few times a semester for office hours, and (3) not just for assistance or complaint. Let the professor know about your career objectives / interests. Those are the students I will remember and be able to recommend later on. You don't have to be brilliant to do this. One student I supported had less than 3.0 average, but was getting A's from me in the third course she took.

After 10 years, you should not be relying on your undergraduate professors for recommendations. At that point, you will have other, more recent references. If you studied with me for graduate school, then I will continue to support you, but only if we have kept up contact during the intervening years.

I may need you for a recommendation too. I needed student letters for my promotion to full professor and my (failed) bid for Distinguished Professor. I follow these same rules myself. I only asked you for a letter if (1) You took several courses from me. (2) It seemed like you derived benefit from those courses and would have something positive to say.


matt said...

This is a great post, Jonathan. I'm wondering what the process looks like for assistant profs looking for recommendations a couple years out of grad school. As we build relationships with other scholars who are not from our degree-granting institution, and not on our diss. committees, how do we approach outside folks about recommendations without being smarmy or greasy?

Those are the best words I have...

Jonathan said...

I would phrase a request like this:

Email subject line: "A Favor"

Dear Jonathan:

I hope your semester is off to a productive start. It was nice seeing you at the ACLA Association meeting last month. Thanks for your kind words about my talk about Virginia Woolf and Azorín.

I am applying for an internal grant in my institution and need outside letters of support from three scholars familiar with my work. Would you have time to write a letter for me? I would be very grateful. The deadline is a month from now, April 30. If you can do this, I will send you my current cv and detailed instructions by email attachment.

All the best,


Once you have a few people willing to go to bat for your for this kind of letter, then you can ask them for letters for more serious matters, like jobs or MAJOR grants. Before you ask someone, you should have a pretty good idea sh/e will say yes. Normally, you would have interacted with the person on a few occasions, sent them offprints, or corresponded a bit by email. This should not be the FIRST email I've every gotten from you. And I should not get a request like this from someone I have no previous knowledge of.

There's nothing greasy or unctuous about a request like this. Just be straightforward and courteous. If I were turning someone down, I would write:

Dear Matt:

It's nice to hear from you. I hope you are doing well. Your request comes at a bad time for me, unfortunately. I am about to leave for a research trip for Spain and won't have the time to read enough of your work to get the letter in on time. All the best,


matt said...

Thanks, Jonathan. This insight is extremely helpful. At every level of this profession there are new conventions and social norms to learn as part of joining the community.