Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: The 3 Letters of Recommendation You Must Have

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I am currently a visiting assistant professor at a regional campus of a state university system. Should I still be including a letter of recommendation from my grad-school advisor in applications? I'm three years out of grad school, and my advisor is great—always updates the letter, takes into account new work I've published, etc—but does it look bad (i.e., too "grad student-y") to rely on an advisor’s letter at this point in my career?

Terrific question. It shows that you are thinking strategically about the market.

The short answer is: Yes, three years out of grad school, it’s fine to have your Ph.D. advisor still write for you. I generally feel that a Ph.D. advisor can safely write for you for about five years, and some people have their advisors write for much longer than that.

When I urge candidates to find a well-known letter writer from outside their Ph.D. committee as soon as possible, I don’t mean to replace the advisor. Rather, I mean to replace one of the other Ph.D.-committee members. To remind you: The reason that you want a letter writer from outside your Ph.D. committee, even when you are a brand new Ph.D., is that your committee—no matter how supportive—knows you only as a grad student. Their letters may be terrific, but they will always be the letters of faculty discussing a student.

On the other hand, if you can dig in and cultivate a letter writer out in the discipline—one who knows you from serving on your conference panel, engaging with you at a workshop or symposium, or reading and commenting on your work—that person will write about you as a young colleague and peer. Meanwhile, the Ph.D.-committee writers may still be sending out letters, five years down the line, that say “XXX was one of the best students in my XXX seminar! He got an A in the class!” Which is frankly just embarrassing for everyone.

The reason you want the external letter writer to be well known is simple: Her letter will carry more weight. For that same reason, you want her to come from a high-ranking institution. Complain if you want, but there it is.

While I have you here, I want to tell you about another letter you really do need. By all means, get one from the chair of you current department or, failing that, from a senior colleague in that department. The reason is similar to the one given above: These colleagues know you as a colleague. Granted, primarily as a teacher, but still. You need to make sure that you leave a continuing non-tenure-track position with one very strong, very supportive, very specific letter from someone who can speak of you as a colleague and as a teacher in the classroom.

You want to be proactive about getting that person into your classroom to observe you. Make sure she sees copies of your evals (assuming they’re good, that is). The letter from your current non-tenure-track institution serves as assurance to the hiring committee that you are a legit colleague, that you show up for classes, that you’re collegial and pleasant to be around, that all in all you’re a good, solid department citizen. Nobody from your Ph.D. committee can provide that info, and neither can your fancy-schmancy big-name person from the fancy department.

In the end, a balanced roster of letters at three years out will include your advisor, a well-known person who knows you as a colleague or collaborator, a senior colleague from your department who will provide a detailed teaching reference, and—assuming you have space for four letters—one of your other Ph.D. committee members who has also stayed up-to-date on your post-grad-school life.

Dear Readers: Have a question about the academic job market and/or professionalization? Send it to me! I welcome any and all questions related to the job market, preparing for the job market while in graduate school, coping with the adjunct struggle, and assistant professorhood. Send questions to me at gettenure@gmail.com.

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