Why You Need Recommenders From Outside Your Department

I’ve had a raft of new clients this past couple of weeks seeking my help in strategizing for the Fall 2012 job market. I applaud this foresight and planning, and recommend it to all who know they will be on the market next year.

One piece of advice that I shared with each of these clients is: start cultivating a third or fourth recommendation letter writer who is not from your Ph.D. granting institution.

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but having all of your letters come from faculty from your Ph.D. institution/committee is a sure-fire sign of a job candidate “Not Ready For Prime Time.”

It isn’t a complete deal-breaker, particularly if you are blessed with faculty members from your campus/department who are exceedingly famous and influential in their own right. Similarly, if you are an early ABD, the absence of an external letter writer will not be completely damning.

But the fact is, the best, strongest, most successful competitors for the jobs you’re applying for–even the ABDs– will have cultivated well-known, influential senior scholars in their field/niche, from outside of their campus, to write for them.

And if you are more than one year beyond your Ph.D.? Then the reliance on your Ph.D. department faculty for your recommendations quickly begins to stand out, and eventually, within a few short years, will damage your candidacy and destroy your chances for tenure track jobs.

Why is this the case? Once again, because it speaks directly to the hiring priorities of tenure-track (as opposed to adjunct or temporary) search committees.

Tenure track search committees are seeking to hire colleagues, not graduate students. The faculty from your Ph.D. program, however, know you as a graduate student. They may think highly of you, but ultimately they will speak about you in terms of your performance in their classes, your work as a TA, and your writing in the dissertation.

No tenure-track committee is hiring somebody to be a good graduate student, work as a TA, or write a good dissertation. They are hiring somebody to bring to the department their national and international reputation and achievements as a professional scholar.

Ultimately, the letter writers who can best speak to your reputation and achievements at this level are scholars outside of your graduate program with whom you have collaborated, as a (junior) peer, on conference panels, professional symposia, and various publications.  This is why at least one of these letter-writers should be cultivated by every tenure-track job seeker.

I think I hear wails of despair, in the vein of “How can I possibly DO this?”

It is not difficult, but it takes time. First of all, you need to put yourself out there. You need to actually attend national conferences, as well as brown bag talks, workshops, and symposia on your campus. You have to pursue publication opportunities as they arise, and above all, in your debut year on the market, organize a high profile panel for your national conference. These are the occasions in which you begin to meet and mingle with scholars from other parts.

If there are scholars whose work has been particularly influential on your own, make the effort to meet them at a conference, as I describe in this post. Ask for even just 15 minutes of their time, if they are very busy. It is possible they might have time for coffee. Whatever it takes, get a conversation started.

After an acquaintanceship has been made, stay in touch. Send an email thanking them for their time. Ask your department if they can be invited to campus. Invite them to serve as a discussant on another panel that you are organizing.

If they agree to serve as a discussant, send them your paper well in advance, and ask, politely and relatively diffidently, for early comments to help your writing of the final draft. They might not have time. But they might do it. If they do, incorporate their comments. Then engage with them at the panel itself, and continue the conversation afterward, over drinks.

As the acquaintanceship grows, ask for their advice on smallish matters such as a publication venue for a mss., or a grant opportunity.

Now, there is one rule of cultivating supporters/letter writers, and that is: Do. Not. Impose. Also, do not send long, dreary emails about your struggles in your department and suffering at the hands of your wretched advisor. Nobody wants to hear it. They will, however, often lend a hand, as long as they are not imposed on, to assist a junior scholar.

When time has passed, ask your acquaintance if he or she would have time to read a chapter of your dissertation and send feedback. Do not impose a deadline, and give them plenty of time. If they agree, that’s a good sign that they support your work and development. Incorporate some of their suggestions, engage in dialogue about their comments, and be sure and thank them warmly for the time investment.

And now, when you have established a warm working relationship, you may broach the question of their serving as one of your letter-writers. Be aware that they may have their own Ph.D.s on the market, who are competing against you for the same jobs. It is possible that even if they like and support you, they will not be willing to write a letter. Don’t take it personally; it is a legitimate choice on their part. But chances are, they could well agree to write for you.

And once they do, you now have the perspective not of someone who was basically “paid to take care of you” in their capacity as one of the graduate faculty in your department, but rather an impartial, independent agent, who can evaluate you vis-a-vis your field as a whole. Their letter provides evidence of your participation on a national level, and signals your early preparedness for your ultimate tenure case down the line.

By contrast, the Ph.D. In her fourth year on the market who is still relying on a letter from a graduate faculty member that says things like “Jennifer produced an A paper for my seminar!” or “She was the best TA in the program,” or “She wrote a very comprehensive and impressive dissertation,” is trailing the ghostly aura of her graduate student self behind her, signalling that she is, still, not really tenure-track material.

Similar Posts:


Why You Need Recommenders From Outside Your Department — 34 Comments

  1. This is such fantastic advice as I have been putting off reaching out to a big-time senior scholar who has been influential to my work and has recently published an article that dovetails with my research. I’ve been intimidated by the idea of emailing him– especially because I do not want to sound grovelling or “like a grad student.” This lights the fire for me to just do it. He’s conveniently local to me right now– would it be out of line to invite him for a cup of coffee?

    • good! no, not out of line. Just be able to give a reason or have a topic of what you want to talk about. Don’t waste anyone’s time. (not that I think you would, but just saying.)

  2. How relevant do you think this is for non R1 jobs? This seems like a great suggestion for people who know that they want to be at a school that emphasizes research, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt people applying for other positions. However, based on my own experience on the job market this year (my first–I’m ABD) not having an outside recommender hasn’t stopped me from getting interviews for positions at liberal art colleges and teaching oriented institutions, as well as interest from a few post-docs. I’m not posting this because I think your advice is bad, but because I could imagine a grad student feeling despair upon reading that they’re “Not Ready for Prime Time,” without such letters, and I’m not sure such despair would be warranted.

    Also, I wonder how much an outside recommender could honestly say compared to the people on a dissertation committee. I have cultivated relationships with scholars outside my university, some of whom I could probably ask to write a rec if needed. But I doubt they could say very much compared to the people I’ve worked closely with for years, who each wrote 3-5 pages on my behalf. Do these letters really not count for much?

    • In terms of your first question, it is certainly less crucial for lower ranking jobs.

      I answer your second question in the post itself. You are ABD, and thus in the grace period for all-internal writers. A year from now, and certainly within 2 years, if you are depending on those same 3-5 page letters from people who knew you only as a grad student, you’ll be shooting yourself in the foot.

      • I am wondering what you think the ratio should be for people in a position. Obviously, as you have written before, you must have someone from your department, preferably senior. But how many from a. current gig b. post-doc c. ph.d granting institution and d. outside of any of these?

        Also, I just love this blog.

        • You definitely should always have a letter-writer from your current institution, if you have a postdoc, visiting, or a multi-year adjuncting gig. This is because this letter will discuss you as a *colleague*, and that is critical to your overall profile and legitimacy beyond graduate school.

  3. I have had the ability to work with other professors outside of my own department, which has been a fantastic experience. This department does not have a grad program of its own, so it relies on some help from other fields to fill RA/TA needs. Although the letters would be from the same institution, do you think it would help to include references from outside of my department? The professors that I have worked with don’t know me because they’ve ever had me in class, but have worked with me in class or on their research projects. Is that a helpful relationship to explore when applying to jobs and looking for references?

  4. I understand cultivating a broad range of scholars in the field to be references, but is there a point at which you should not use your advisor as a reference? Is it damaging to an application to not have your advisor’s letter once you are a few years out of a program?

  5. Thanks for this post. I have a couple of people in mind that I’d like to approach to see if they will become letter writers for me. One is a former colleague from my current institution (post-grad) who since moved, and one is someone I’ve only met with at conferences but we see each other at least once, sometimes twice a year and always have nice conversations. We’ve also exchanged writings a couple of times, in addition. My question is: I’m thinking about asking each of these people to consider becoming my letter writers and doing it via email. Do you see any problem with this? Of course, in person would be optimal, but I don’t want to have to wait until the next national conference. Any thoughts? Thanks.

  6. I am thinking about asking a person at another institution who knows my work well but who is, like me, an assistant professor, for a letter. For a job application, would you recommend not having an untenured professor as one of the letter writers if more senior scholars are available, even if the untenured scholar can speak more substantially about my work?

      • I’m just finishing my phd and have a couple of warm international working relationships with others who have also just finishing their phd. Can I use these contacts for recommendations somehow? Will a single recommendation from a post-doc look bad already? Can I (indirectly) ask the boss of two of these contacts for a recommendation? After all, there is a close collaboration between that research group and me.

        • Never under any circumstances use a rec. from someone who is as junior as you, or is in a postdoc. The “boss” can only write for you if she has the personal basis to do so.

  7. As a new PhD (well fall 2012) from a program with a lot of recent graduates still on the market, I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot. I definitely will have at least one outside recommender, but was thinking of having 2 of the usual 3 recommenders be from outside.

    I believe I can get recommendations from 2 top scholars in my area of specialization (one of whom served on my dissertation committee as an outside reader, the other is director of a prestigious institution where I was a fellow for some years), and it would create less overlap with other applicants from my own department (there was one job last fall where I could count at least 8 people from my own department who were applying).

    I was wondering if there was any negative to using two outside recommendations and only one from my home institution or if I was right in assuming this was probably a slight advantage.


  8. Great website, thank you! I am ABD at an elite R1, on the market in the Fall. I have also been adjuncting at a state teaching college where I have developed a great relationship with the Asst. Prof. who supervises the adjuncts in my subject area – he has actually asked me to co-author an article since we have common subject matter. Word is they will be posting a TT position in the Fall and he is not on the search committee…can I ask him to write my outside letter, as this is a teaching institution and he is highly qualified to speak to my abilities? Or is this a conflict of interest for him? Thank you!

    • Yes you can. Take care about coauthoring an article though. Depends on your field, of course, but in the humanities a co-authored article counts for far less than sole-authored (in the sciences it’s great, and in the social sciences it’s mixed and you have to judge carefully.) the point is don’t indiscriminately accept invitations.

      • Thanks so much. I’m in Social Work and it is, as you say, a mixed bag. I’m at an elite institution that puts just about zero value on 3rd authorships (2nd is Ok) when they read applications for new faculty, thus our faculty do not deign to put us lowly RAs on their papers even when we’ve done a lot. What would be the point?

        Unfortunately, the 2nd and 3rd tier schools don’t write off any publications and quantity matters for something. So, our graduates actually come out, at times, looking publication-poor because of the high-horse factor. This is why I love your website…I’m not crazy, they really are undermining us (unintentionally, perhaps, but nonetheless!)!

  9. Just got turned on to your blog. Love reading it. Quick question about letters: is it alright to ask a journal editor for a recommendation?

  10. Okay, great advice here. What if you do not want anybody from your current institution to know you are back on the job market? This has to be a common issue. Any thoughts?

  11. What about letters from outside your discipline? I do interdisciplinary work, and have had a colleague in another department (outside my Ph.D. granting institution) read my recent article. Would this be a good letter of recommendation?

    • Yes, that would be fine, as long as the discipline is legible to your home discipline, and your other 3 letters are all from your home discipline.

      • So you are suggesting that we should submit 4 letters even when the job ad says 3 (and not “at least 3”)? I had the impression that not following the instructions would look bad.

        I am struggling with a difficult choice here. I have 4 people who can write good references: chair, internal examiner, external examiner (from another univ/field) and my current postdoc advisor (from another univ/field). According to your logic I should remove the internal examiner but that will leave me with 2 references from another univs/fields and only 1 from my own field. I am mostly applying to fields in my Ph.D, even though I do interdisciplinary work.

  12. Thank you so much for loads of useful information! I am about to apply to a grad school and I’m facing a choice between asking for reference a full-time professor who does not know me too much outside the class or an assistant professor who knows me very well. Who would you recommend to ask, given that I already have one full-time professor, my Master thesis supervisor, and one assistant professor, my Bachelor thesis supervisor, both knowing me very well?

  13. Is there a problem with having two outside letter writers? For some jobs, depending on the kind of job it is, I’ve been using one committee member (not the chair), one letter from the prestigious SLAC where I taught last year (to talk about my teaching), and one letter from a senior colleague at an R-1 (though overseas) who is a “big-shot” in one of my fields. Does this sound right? Or is it a problem to only have one of my committee members writing, and not the chair? I’m in my second year following the PhD.

  14. Hi Dr. Kelsky,

    I’m not sure if you still check this comment thread, but it’s worth a try.

    One of my probable outside recommenders retired this year. He was not at a particularly prestigious university (a small SLAC in the northwest.) He is, however, definitely a (if not THE) elder statesman of our sub-field, and still publishes prolifically and gets large grants, so I’m hoping that his retirement doesn’t make him more or less ineligible to be a job letter writer.

    What do you think?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.