[Sept 2019 update: the fact is, Interfolio is unavoidable for many searches and required in a number of fields. The advice here is mostly outdated. I’ll leave it up because I still think it’s worth asking ourselves why this tech adaptation became necessary and what it says about the academic job market. But in terms of practicalities… you’re probably going to end up using Interfolio or another similar site, and it probably is going to be just fine in terms of how your letters are received. Thanks to those who have commented to this effect over the years].
Today’s Post is a Special Request post for XXX, who asked the $64,000 question: should I use a dossier service like Interfolio?
If I had my druthers, this post would run like my previous one on edited collections—ie, variations on “no.”
Fundamentally speaking, nobody who is on the scholarly, tenure track job market should be using a dossier service for their letters.
However, it has come to my attention that quite a few Ph.D.s on the market ARE using such services, for a range of reasons. The reasons that I’ve heard include the following:
- My professors insisted I use a service
- My professors have proven themselves to be totally unreliable and my only hope of being sure of letters arriving by the deadline is if they come from a service
- My professors seem really busy and I already bothered them last year, so this year I think I should use a service.
- I am a control freak and want to control how and when my letters are sent out.
There are only two reasons among these four that have a modicum (and it’s only a modicum) of validity.
These are #1 and #2 . If your professors have proven, through their past behavior, that they cannot and must not be counted on to provide letters on time for your job and postdoc and grant deadlines, then, and only then, are you justified in considering (not immediately turning to, but considering) a dossier service.
Similarly, if your professors have told you point blank that they refuse to write fresh letters for students in general/you in particular and that they will only consider providing one for a service, then, again, you may consider using a dossier service.
However, in principle, nobody who is on the scholarly, tenure track job market should be in a position in which their supporters are not writing them fresh letters.
The fact is, in all the searches I conducted (11) over the course of my career, I never once—not even one time—saw a candidate short short listed, ie, invited to a campus visit, who had a letter that came from a dossier service.
It is hard to overstate the importance of the personalized letter. The custom of personal letter writing reflects one of the most fundamental values of the academic community. Ph.D. level training is slow, painstaking, and highly individualized. It is not a mass market process, and it never can be. Its extreme personalization, based on a relationship built over years between a graduate student and his/her advisor, means that every Ph.D. student finishes with the personal imprimatur—and de facto sponsorship—of that advisor, as well as a committee of other deeply invested faculty members. These relationships at the heart of the graduate enterprise are reflected in the lengthy, detailed, and personal letters of reference that the advisor and committee member write for the student.
There is no clearer sign of the neoliberalization of higher ed than that this relationship has broken down to such a degree that there are advisors all across the country, including extremely well known and influential ones, who will do no more for their Ph.D. advisees than write a single generic letter to be put into a dossier file.
It is a core duty of faculty to write letters of recommendation. This is not an optional part of the job; it is a required part of the job. A faculty member certainly is not obliged to write for every student who asks. But a faculty member is obliged to write for those students whom he or she genuinely supports, and for whom he or she is a major element of their educational experience.
[Addendum: Faculty have computers. Computers have files. Letter files can be easily customized by simply adding a new heading/address, first paragraph, and closing paragraph. Each individual letter is not completely different. Rather, each letter is sent out with a tailored address, a few sentences appropriate to the job, and a live signature.
There may be field variation, with some fields more likely to accept such letters.
At the same time, it’s important to understand that the quantity of letters that a professor has to write is not in and of itself justification for turning to a service. Many professors have lots of grad students applying for lots of jobs (my Ph.D.s applied for 25- 50 jobs in any given year, as did my colleagues’, and yet we all wrote personalized letters). It is typical in the Fall job season to hear faculty groaning about the “25 letters I have to write today,” etc. etc. ]
What does this mean for you, the applicant? It means that you need to start out with the expectation of having individualized, personalized, and tailored letters written for you for every single application you submit. It doesn’t matter how many applications you submit, or over how many years. You are justified in expecting that from your main group of recommenders. Just because they “seem” busy, or you “think” that you’re annoying them, doesn’t mean you should not ask them in a courteous but determined way.
If a letter writer is proving unreliable or obdurate, then the solution is not to then give up and beg for a dossier letter, but to find a different, and better, letter writer.
You are not tied to your committee members for your letters. In fact, the most successful candidates will have letters from leading scholars around the country, and not just from their Ph.D. granting institution. You cultivate these relationships over a period of years, by getting to know senior scholars in the field at conferences, during their visits to your campus, or through polite email correspondence. While asking external scholars to write for you can be delicate, as those scholars might have their own Ph.D. students on the market as your competition, nevertheless, it can often work very well indeed. And be aware that having a letter writer from outside your Ph.D. institution adds greatly to your reputation, in that when that letter writer indicates that you are among “the top 2% of students with whom he’s worked,” the total includes his university, in addition to your own.
It goes without saying that reason #4 has no place in the decision making process about letters for your applications. It should be evident by now why. The relationship of trust between the applicant and his or her letter writers is a reflection of the quality of the applicant’s graduate training itself. An applicant who is demonstrating that he or she does not have sufficient trust in faculty mentors to submit letters on their own is communicating a profound message about the quality of his or her graduate education and the attitude that he or she might bring to the new department.
Having said all of this, there are good and bad ways to request letters. A frantic email at midnight, 2 days before the due date, with no email address or mailing address or even full description of the thing being applied for is the bad way.
The good way is an excel spread sheet that has columns clearly listing:
the contact email/website
the snail mail address (still essential for the heading of the letter, even when it is sent electronically)
the contact person’s name
the description of the job or grant
notes about the applicant’s ideas for tailoring and the strengths and weaknesses of his candidacy.
This spreadsheet should be created at least a month in advance of the deadlines, and 2 months in advance if possible.
If a candidate provides this exhaustive information in a timely fashion, then the occasional last minute lapse for a sudden, unexpected opportunity will be forgiven.
So to conclude, the dossier service is a poor, poor substitute for individual tailored letters. It is becoming more and more common in recent years, and is even being demanded by an increasing number of advisors. Nevertheless, candidates should be aware that they are entitled to expect individual letters from their dissertation advisors and committee members, and should be aware that the refusal to provide these represents a dereliction of duty. To the extent possible, candidates should seek to replace unreliable and irresponsible letter writers who will not provide individual letters with better ones who will. Where that is not possible, then, and only then, can a dossier service be entertained as a substitute, with a full understanding of the risks.