Careers: Letters of recommendation

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It's about the time of year that PhD candidates are asking for letters of recommendations for teaching positions. This seems like a very good year for hiring, the latest edition of the Anthropology Newsletter is thick with postings. You should be looking there, as well as the Chronicle of Higher Education, your regional association newsletter (in my case, the Association for Asian Studies Newsletter), and online mailing lists (for example, H-Japan, the SOLGA mailing list, etc.).

Asking for letters of recommendation is as strategic and political as anything else in academic careers. Do you ask Professor-Big-Name who might only vaguely remember you from a seminar you took your first year, or do you ask Assistant Professor-Young-Turk who you've been working closely with ever since arriving at AnyU?

Here are a couple of thoughts:

  • Match the recommendations to the type of school. If you're applying to small liberal arts colleges, be sure to include one person who can speak to your research and one who can speak to your teaching. If you're applying to a Research I university, be sure to have a relatively Big Name as well as people who write specifically about how cutting edge you are. And if you're applying to a mainly teaching location, then you should have folks who have seen you teach.

  • Don't be afraid to give the faculty member who you're asking "speaking points." For example, if you're applying to a linguistic anthropology position but your main research was sociocultural, be sure to ask the linguistic anthropologist writing for you to emphasize the four courses in linganthro you took with her. You may either want to ensure that the three or four people writing for you emphasize the same points (if it's a matter of grave concern -- why you took 20 years to finish your PhD for example), or ask them to speak to separate issues (both excellence in teaching and research, for example).

  • If you're already teaching in a tenure-track position, then you may want to be cautious about using a person at your current workplace. No matter what anyone says, it's human nature for that person to either get: 1) jealous or 2) doubt your dedication. I would recommend against risking this. And if you are at a place where you sense it might not be OK, then put a short note in your cover letter (or footnote to the references) that you are in a small department in a small college and that discretion about this search would be appreciated.

  • If you're at a visiting or post-doc position, by all means go ahead and ask the people in your department to write for you. Perhaps in the process of writing the letter, they'll realize what a wonderful person you are, how invaluable you are to the department, and they'll decide they want to keep you after all!

  • Be careful of backstabbers. I make it a principle never to write a negative letter (not always rah-rah enthusiastic, sometimes, but never negative) because I will refuse to write if I can't support a person. Other faculty do not have those principles and will write negative letters. You can sometimes forestall this by asking: "Can you write me a positive letter of recommendation" instead of just asking for "a letter of recommendation." Or, if you have a friend on the faculty at one of the colleges you applied to, you could try asking if there were any red flags in your application.

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This page contains a single entry by Karen Nakamura published on October 19, 2005 3:54 PM.

Equipment: The new Apple Aperture was the previous entry in this blog.

Link: Lens hoods - everything you ever wanted to know is the next entry in this blog.

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