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.