Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

Only Positive Recommendations Please

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Image: Woman Writing a Letter, circa

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I have a Ph.D. in philosophy at a European university. It is customary for recommendation letters from European academics to be rather more succinct than those written in the American faculty job market. Moreover, we don't have a placement officer who vets letters by recommenders. So my question is: What steps can a job candidate take to help mentors write effective letters (i.e., long and specific enough) for job openings in the United States?

European faculty tend to take a no-frills approach to the recommendation letter. It usually reads something like this: “I am familiar with So-and-So’s work. Here I will give you an evaluation of its strengths and weaknesses.” I actually respect their candid approach quite a bit, and wish that it were universal. However, it definitely is not. In the United States, any recommendation letter, if it’s meant to support the candidate and assist him or her in the job search, must be completely, entirely, and without exception, positive.

European recommendation letters were almost the death of two tenure files I handled as a department head. That’s when I became aware of the differences in approach. It’s since been confirmed by many of my students, readers, and clients, and by queries such as yours.

For that reason, I wrote a post on my own blog called “How to Write a Recommendation Letter.” It is specifically meant for brand new assistant professors who are finding themselves in the position of writing recommendation letters for the first time, and also intended to be shared with international recommenders, so that they understand the expectations of the U.S. market. I hope that you can find a way to share the link. If you feel it will be awkward -- and many of my readers write to say that it is -- you might forward the link to my blog post to your recommender by saying something like: “I’ve been asked to write a recommendation letter, and I found this how-to post. It’s very interesting! I was surprised that in the United States X and Y are expected elements. Did you know that?”

An effective recommendation letter should include each of the following elements:

  • How long and in what capacity the letter writer has known the candidate.
  • A summary of the applicant’s research, in highly complimentary terms.
  • A contextualization of the candidate’s research within the field. This is actually the main contribution of a recommendation letter: to go beyond mere description to articulate the significance of the research and the wider potential of the applicant as a leader in a discipline.
  • A summary of the person’s achievements such as grants, publications, and conferences (not exhaustive—that’s the job of the CV—just those that the letter writer is familiar with).
  • A brief reference to next steps in the applicant’s career—i.e., book publication plans, or future projects.
  • A discussion of teaching skills—if the writer has reason to be familiar with those.
  • A reference to the person’s character in terms of leadership, work ethic, and collegiality. When the applicant is a woman, beware of gendered or potentially gendered terms such as nice, sweet, helpful, self-sacrificing, supportive, etc. Any discussion of personality must remain focused exclusively on the applicant’s professional persona in the workplace.
  • A signoff that reiterates the writer’s unconditional support for the applicant’s candidacy.

The letter should be as specific as possible. It is not necessary to indulge in hyperbole or exaggeration (“She is the best political scientist in America!”). It is, however, important that no hint of negativity appear in any of the content.

When should you let a paper "die"? I've got a manuscript that has been shopped around for the better part of five years, since I started my Ph.D. program. It is an admittedly flawed study, but it is also a novel topic that has been cited a half-dozen times as a working paper. It has been rejected from four journals (once after a revise-and-resubmit), and I am not sure if I should send it to a really low tier, student-run journal or just get over it and move on with my life.

If a paper has been rejected by four journals, and it’s a paper that you know is flawed, and it dates from the beginning of your Ph.D. program, then it would suggest that this is the time to abandon the paper. Do not waste your time submitting it to a student-run journal. Move on.

The only caveat I would add: Since it made it to revise-and-resubmit in one journal, the manuscript may include salvageable content. What you have not specified in your question is the degree to which you’ve rewritten the paper after each rejection, particularly after the revise-and-resubmit.

Obviously this paper does not work as written. Obviously even if there is some usable content in it, it needs a major overhaul in the conceptualization, writing, conclusions, or all three. Have you attempted that? While I cannot know, your silence on this matter suggests that you have not.

I would suggest that you ask a trusted but objective senior mentor in your field to read the paper and give you an honest opinion -- the unvarnished truth about what exactly is wrong with it, and what you would need to do (if anything) to fix it. If you aren’t willing to go through that step, then just abandon the paper and move on.

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