How to Write Your Own Rec. Letter, plus All of my Vitae columns

In my two+ gratifying and enjoyable years of writing for Chronicle Vitae, I’ve only had one column rejected by them, and it is this one, which I submitted late in December as an end-of-year compendium of all my columns, organized thematically. I thought it was a great gift to readers to help them navigate among all my many and varied writings, but the editors disagreed.  So, I’m putting it here today, on The Professor Is In. Like all my Vitae advice columns, it does begin with a reader question: in this case, on how to write your own recommendation letter when your recommenders demand you do so.  And it goes on from there.  I hope you like it…

Q: My problem: Since starting graduate school, no one has written me a letter of reference. To be more clear: My referees have signed letters of reference for me, but I have drafted the text in all cases. I’m out of grad school now, but this behavior only seems to spreading. While writing my own letters disturbs me–I find it unethical on many levels–I don’t see any way to challenge the request. When I ask a referee for a letter, and he asks for a draft, I’m gently given to understand that what I don’t write won’t be written. I don’t have a huge roster of people to ask, so I can’t afford to antagonize any of my referees, which means I’m stuck writing the letters.

While there’s plenty to say about the corrosive effects of this practice, I could really use some practical advice. What’s the formula for a solid letter of reference? I’ve had referees coming from all three of my disciplines ask me for draft letters. I’ve asked around among my circle in academia, and while many referees still do write their own letters, there seem to be more and more who drop it onto the students.

Higher education has been acting more and more like an extraction industry—treating its primary source of value (the basic human relationship between teachers and students)–as something that needs to be used up in order to add to the bottom line.

A: I agree that this is an abhorrent practice. Recommenders should write their own letters. If they can’t write letters for each job, then they should certainly write one generic letter for a dossier service, such as Chronicle Vitae’s or Interfolio. I’m happy to provide advice on how to write your own recommendation letter, except that I’ve already devoted a column in this space to the structure of an effective recommendation letter.

Reading this question reminded me that I actually see questions arise pretty often that I’ve previously answered. I’ve been writing this column for Chronicle Vitae for over two years, and I’ve covered a lot of topics! So, for this end-of-year holiday season, I’m going to give you readers a reference list to the main advice topics I’ve covered.

On how to write a recommendation letter, read Only Positive Recommendations Please. (Be sure the follow the link in the column to a post on my blog for more!) Other recommendation advice can be found at The Three Letters of Recommendation You Must Have and Getting a Reference When You’re New.

For advice on constructing your applications to tenure track jobs, read Search Committees Are Made of People! (about letter length), Why Letterhead Matters, Making Sense of the Diversity Statement, When CVs Get Complicated, CV or Resume? They Didn’t Ask for a Research Statement-Can I Send One Anyway? Research Statements vs. Research Proposals, Research Plans, Proposals and Statements, The Weepy Teaching Statement, Should You Mention Your Blog in Your Job Application? Here’s My Application, Part Two (on applying for a job a second time), The Fine Art of Choosing a Writing Sample, Don’t Tell an Adjunct Tale, I’m an Internal Candidate; Why Wasn’t I Interviewed? I’m Queer, Am I a Diversity Hire? (includes a discussion of service as well), White Male in Black Studies, The Meaning of Inclusiveness in a Job Ad, The Posdoc App: How It’s Different and Why, What Will Your Service Yield for You? Will the Candidate Stay? (on providing evidence that you’ll stay at a low-ranking institution) It’s Not Your Fault (on applying when your program has been eradicated) and Don’t Become Liberal Arts Mush!

On the perennially stressful topic of interviewing and campus visits, read Surefire Ways to Screw Up Your Campus Visit, Interviewing the Interviewers, How to Deliver a Halfway Decent Job Talk, Job Talk Q and A, Your Teaching Headspace, Dinner Before the Interview, What Should I Wear? Asking About the Adjuncts’ Work, Will They Remember Your Topic? Who’s Your Ideal Candidate? How to Interview for a Joint Appointment, and Stamp This Candidate Acceptable or Unacceptable.

I’ve written about negotiating in Disappointed With the Offer?, Negotiating Temporary Insurance, and OK, Let’s Talk About Negotiating Salary.

Beginners should be sure and check out First Timer on the Market? Finding Traction on the Academic Job Market, Learning the Ropes as an International Graduate Student, and What If I’ve Never Taught Solo?

General career strategizing advice can be found in How to Build Your CV, How to Tailor Your Online Image, Choosing the Right Holding Pattern, Should You Attend That Interdisciplinary Conference? I Know What You Need to Do This Summer, One Too Many East Asianists, How to Score that Elusive Partner Hire, Should I Write a Book? Should I Publish With a Low-Rent Press? Does Cold Calling Ever Work? and Can I Apply for Two Jobs on One Campus?

Women on the job market might check out Do I Sound Pushy? Should My Letters Mention the Baby? And Ignore the Haters and Toot Your Own Horn.

Those on the tenure track should check out Tenure Expectations, Do I Really Have to Play Baseball? Decorating Your Office, Going Back on the Market for Your Spouse, Getting External Review Letters, A Nasty External Review, Changing Jobs as an Assistant Professor, Drowning in Application Files, and Stopping the Senior Snipers.

Those further along might read When to Make Your Move, and How Do I Pitch Myself for Associate Level Positions?

I’ve even written a bit about writing. See When Reviewers Disagree, and Should You Skip Revise and Resubmit?

Last of all, a general explanation of why I do what I do, as an advice columnist, blogger, career coach, and entrepreneur, that relates to the undervaluation of labor in academia: To Think, You First Must Eat.

I hope these help you as you progress in your academic endeavors! Good luck!

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How to Write Your Own Rec. Letter, plus All of my Vitae columns — 4 Comments

  1. It’s not just professors, either. I had a workstudy once, mostly running cable around campus and fixing wiring, and at the end of it my supervisor told me to write my own letter of recommendation for him to sign.

  2. I “drafted” a couple of letters from my Ph.D. committee, and while it was a helpful exercise for building confidence in what I’ve done, it was also really hard.

    Specifically, I didn’t know whether they just wanted content that they could edit with superlatives etc., or whether I should be talking about myself in glowing terms, which felt a bit presumptuous. On the other hand, if I don’t make it glowing, and they don’t, then I don’t get the job.

    One piece of advice: Get your most honest friend to read your draft, preferably someone with experience reading recommendations. You’re most likely being too cautious with your self-praise.

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