One of the most popular career articles on University Affairs has been How to ask for a reference letter. The popularity of this article is evidence of the intense interest, and perhaps trepidation, at the thought of asking for reference letter causes PhDs.
Since asking for references is an activity everyone in academe will have to face at one time or another, I’m sure there are lots or questions, concerns, even horror stories out there. I think I’d like to change things up a bit here and open the floor for questions and concerns about asking for reference letters.
All names will remain confidential unless you choose otherwise, and no one will be able to see your e-mail address when you send your questions and comments. Keep in mind this is a mediated board, so anything sent in will be vetted by the editor before it goes live.
About reference letters
One perennial problem is how to ensure well written letters are submitted on your behalf. I have spoken to many graduate student advisors who have run university dossier services (which collect and archive confidential application materials such as reference letters and official transcripts) and we have all seen letters that are not likely to help a candidate, and in some cases could actually hurt their chances in a competitive job market.
Here are some steps you can take to minimize the chances of one of your letters becoming a proverbial albatross around your neck:
- Always give your referees a graceful way to decline when you ask for their support: “I realize your plate is terribly full this term. Do you think you will have time to write a letter of support for my applications to XXX? I will understand if there is too much you have already committed to take on another responsibility of this type.” If they agree to write for you, you have a better chance that they will do so conscientiously.
- If you are concerned about one of your referees’ ability to write a strong letter, make sure at least one, if not two, of your referees are more experienced. You might even ask if they could provide a little mentorship to the potentially troublesome professor.
- Diplomatically “suggest’” what content would be most valuable in your letters. This should include reminders of particularly impressive work you have done, student evaluations and awards. These suggestions can help your referees focus their letters and avoid overly duplicating each other’s content.
- If your university has a dossier service (in Canada only University of Toronto and York University do), you will not be able to access your file to read what your referees have written. However, if you do have a serious concern, then talk to the service coordinator about having your referee or another member of your committee read over your file. They can let you know whether the file was acceptable as it was, or even what could be added to it to strengthen it.
Here are a few links to other resources on University Affairs about reference letters. I’ll be interested in hearing your take on it. I’m also looking forward to providing whatever insight and suggestion I can that might help you avoid an unnecessary explosion!