Today’s post is a special request post for all the people who have written in the past few months asking for a post on writing recommendation letters. A few of these folks have been letter-writers, but most of them are the sorry subjects of letters that they they were horrified to have the chance to see. Others are those who have been asked to write their own recommendation letters by irresponsible and lazy recommenders. I disapprove of this practice completely. Go ahead and tell me I’m wrong. I don’t care. Recommendations are to be written BY THE PERSON WHOSE NAME IS AT THE BOTTOM.
Anyway, recommendation letter-writing is really a little-understood art, considering the major role that these letters play in every scholar’s career. And if anyone thinks those letters aren’t really read—think again. They are taken very, very seriously, and pored over, and deconstructed, and discussed. And sometimes, acknowledged as works of writing in their own right. One time I overheard a colleague say to another: “I wanted to tell you that the letter you wrote for XXX was really terrific. It was a beautiful piece of writing. Nicely done!”
So, what needs to happen in a recommendation letter?
I will first lay out a paragraph structure. This is just a suggestion. Obviously this kind of writing will be completely personalized.
- An opening that indicates warmth. “I am pleased to write this letter on behalf of xxxx.” Followed by explanation of who writer is, how they know the subject of letter, in what capacities, and for how long. Brief sketch of the subject in terms of discipline and topical/thematic focus. General comparison of the subject within the field/fields. “XXX is among the very top young cultural anthropologists of Japan, and promises to ….”
- Substantive description of major research work (diss or otherwise), describing the topic, but then, more importantly, providing critical context for the topic within a field or fields, or body of literature. The most important thing a letter can do is contextualize a candidate’s research for its larger scope, import, and promise. Many times on searches one of us would remark, “the advisor understands the candidate’s project better than the candidate does.” By this we were referring to the ability to see not just the trees of the project, but also the forest. This of course was not good for the candidate’s chances….but it does indicate a powerful and memorable letter.
- A second paragraph continuing from above. The most effective letter will reassure skittish search committees that the dissertation is in fact done or almost done, and/or that the book manuscript will be quickly forthcoming. Pace of work and productivity are valuable here. The key here is that the candidate be described as a (soon-to-be) scholar, not as a graduate student still enmeshed in the minutiae of a graduate program or dissertation.
- Evidence of the wider success of the candidate in the profession—the grant support, awards, and of course publications associated with the primary research. Conference activity can be mentioned here.
- A brief indication of next steps in research and publishing, so that search committees feel reassured that the candidate has a long-range plan.
- Discipline-specific attributes, such as experience in country of research, language fluency, technical skills, or other such things. Because I sometimes visited my Ph.D. students in the field in Japan, I had the opportunity to see them operate in their field settings, in Japanese. I always made a point to provide my “objective” account of their skills.
- Description of teaching abilities. This will be specific, mentioning course names, and methods used by the candidate, and departmental observations, evaluations, or feedback, to the extent the writer has this information available. Ideally the writer will have personally witnessed teaching by the candidate. If he/she has, this must be specified in the letter. Awards given for teaching should be mentioned.
- Service if applicable. One of my Ph.D. students was active in mobilizing the graduate students to overturn an outdated requirement in the program. The student’s effectiveness in this work demonstrated a real ability in departmental administrative responsibilities, and I made a point to mention it in my letter. One of the fears of search committees is that a candidate will be tiresomely focused on their research, and will be unable to assist in the running of the department. The letter can assuage those fears.
- A brief final remark about character and personality, insofar as these pertain to the candidate’s potential collegiality. This must be non-emotional and strictly non-gendered. Attributes to emphasize include resourcefulness, responsibility, good humor, organization, energy, etc. For women candidates it is essential to avoid anything that depicts them as any of the following: nice, selfless, giving, caring, warm, nurturing, maternal, etc.
- “In sum, I expect XXX to have a career in the first rank of xxxx scholars in the country, and give him/her my unqualified recommendation. Please don’t hesitate to contact me at [phone number and/or email address] if you should require any additional information.”
Some basic expectations of the recommendation letter:
1. It will be at least two solid single spaced pages long.
2. It will be on letterhead
3. It will not gush or wax emotional
4. It will stay strictly at the level of evidence and substance
5. It will not rely on cheap and empty adjectives such incredible, remarkable, extraordinary, amazing, etc.
6. It will not damn with faint praise (“XX is one of the better graduate students we’ve had in the department”)
7. It will emphasize depictions of the candidate as a professional scholar, NOT a graduate student.
8. It will remember to include the wider context, providing a discipline-level view of the candidate’s accomplishments and promise.
9. It will provide specific information or examples about research, argument, methods, teaching, or service–not vague generalities. The exception to this is (as noted in the comment stream): if you are in a position of a certain amount of obligation to the subject (as in, on their committee), but don’t feel able to write a detailed letter, and are also aware that the absence of your letter would send a strong but unwarranted negative message about the subject’s position in the department, and also feel positively disposed toward the subject in general, then write a generic letter that “first, does no harm,” but–and this is important–make sure the candidate knows that he or she needs another letter that will be more detailed.
10. It will be unfailingly (although not gushingly) positive. Any writer who cannot be 100% positive about the subject should not write a letter. In the event that you are ambivalent about the subject, it is better to tell the subject that you cannot write the letter. A tactful method is to say you don’t know the record well enough to write a detailed letter.
And indeed, if the subject is really problematic in your view, you are doing the subject a favor by stating that clearly, and not “enabling” self-destructive or substandard performance through misplaced “niceness” or conflict avoidance.
Bonus tip for European, Asian and other international letter-writers: American letters of recommendation, like American tenure file external review letters, must be entirely and energetically and overtly positive (but without degenerating into gushing or encomium). “Objective” and “realistic” are not qualities of this genre of writing. As a department head, I had more than one tenure case almost derailed by European external review letters that very reasonably provided a “strengths and weaknesses” assessment of the candidate. In the U.S. context, there can be no mention of weaknesses. I’m not saying this is good. I’m just saying this is true. So international writers for the U.S. market: please be alert to this cultural difference, and have an American colleague review your letters when possible. Candidates with international references: consider sharing this post with them!
When candidates write their own letters, they typically fall afoul of #3 and #5 in particular. Remember: stay at the factual, don’t go emotional! And #8, which, after all, no candidate is really positioned to write.
Now, some of you will wonder where the warmth comes in. Indeed, warmth is necessary for an effective letter. But in reality, the warmth comes through, even without a lot of cheap adjectives. Any writer who can speak with great care and thoroughness and respect about a candidate’s achievements is a writer demonstrating warmth about and investment in that candidate. Extra efforts to “sound warm” just end up muddying the message and in the case of female candidates, overly-gendering the profile in ways that do not work to women’s benefit on any professional job market.