Post Academic

Time to herd the cats! Don’t get wrecked by your recs…

Posted in Process Stories,The Education Industry by Arnold Pan on August 19, 2010
Tags: , ,

"Herd of Cats" by Boksi (Public Domain)

I’m not sure I’m the person who should be giving this advice, seeing as I can’t even decide whether to save the dossier I currently have or just let it be sent to the paper shredder, where it probably belongs at this point.  But if I were to, say, start planning for the academic job market, which is closer to starting up than you think, I would probably at least start thinking about the most excruciating part of getting your application together: herding the cats–er, contacting your recommenders–so that you can have your dossier ready to go.  You know you’re gonna procrastinate when it comes to actually carrying out the palm-sweating task of asking your mentors to write your recs, so at least put yourself into that mindset now.  That way, you’ll actually be right on time after you keep putting it off–call it time doping!

What makes getting recs so stress-inducing is that it’s the only part of your application profile you really have zero control over.  If your CV is either too weak or really straining the limits of credulity, that’s on you for doing too little and/or embellishing too much.  If your cover letter is a mess and the job you’re applying for is a real stretch, that’s your responsibility.  But you have almost no hand in your letters of rec, short of deciding whom you ask to advocate for you.

What’s out of your control–and what you can try to do about it–below the jump…

Nope, you can’t control when they write the danged thing.  Nope, you can’t control when they submit it to your dossier service.  And nope, you can’t control what they actually write about you, although the assumption is that you wouldn’t ask anyone who couldn’t say something nice on your behalf to write for you.  Plus, it’s the ethical thing on their part to tell you “no” if they can’t be positive in some way, or at least that’s what I’ve always been told.

But try these tips to get a handle on the situation before it gets out of hand…

The sooner, the better: It’s still the summer for some profs and they’re probably milking what they can out it.  But it wouldn’t hurt to feel out the situation and to give them some notice that you’ll need them soon.  They probably won’t get to the recs until close to the last minute anyway, but getting in touch with them sooner rather than later makes it easier to follow up.  Plus, the more responsible you appear, the more investment they might take in your application.  You might be the student, but it’s your job application and they do want you to take the lead since they’ve got a lot going on.

Covering your bases: It’s not a bad idea to get more than the standard three recs most applications in the humanities tend to ask for.  No, the reason is not to stoke your vanity by getting a bunch of faculty to say how great you are, though that’s not bad if you could.  And that doesn’t mean you ask for *every* prof you’ve ever had a conversation with for a rec, because it does take time and energy for them.  But, rather, it’s good to cover your bases by gathering recs from people you know and trust, since the more requests you put out there, the more likely you’ll make the three-rec minimum sooner.  Also, there’s the benefit of being able to target your recs better, so that you have a few different combinations you can send out for a variety of jobs, especially if you work interdisciplinarily.

Trust ’em: This is the one thing that will get you through the nervousness of getting your dossier together.  First and most fundamentally, you need to trust your writers to have good things to offer in support of your application, which is obvious enough–see above.  That means you shouldn’t just get the most famous person in your dept whom you don’t know very well to write for you, just for the heck of it and to boost your ego.  If you’re not quite sure what they’ll write, don’t put yourself through the aggravation.

Second and best for your mental health, trust that your faculty mentors know more about this part of the process than you do and that they won’t do anything to hurt your application.  If they think mailing a letter of rec a few days later than the stated deadline won’t torpedo you because they’re super-busy, you should believe that they’re right.  Otherwise, you’ll go crazy sweating the things that are, yes, out of your control and you can’t do much about.  Or you’ll start acting weird and passive-aggressively with the academic people that matter most to you.  You have enough to worry about without trying to figure out the intricacies of job application protocol that you’ll never understand as well as your faculty mentors do anyway.

Next week, we’ll dig deeper into the mystifying process of getting your recs together, including more about the mental preparation you’ll need and some basic etiquette so you don’t do anything flagrant.

2 Responses to 'Time to herd the cats! Don’t get wrecked by your recs…'

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  1. You should totally shred the dossier (or burn it :-)). If you’re looking for real-world jobs, you’ll just list your references on a resume, right? And what do you think about the idea that some departments still take a “hand-written” letter more seriously? I can see this happening in Classics, ultra-conservative discipline that it is, but I always wonder about others…

    • Arnold Pan said,

      Sheer inertia and the looming deadline seem to be pushing the dossier ever closer to the trash heap! Yeah, I’m not sure how valuable the letters of rec would be in the hamster world, at least in the academic format they’re in right now. I had never heard about the hand-written letter deal, but somehow it doesn’t surprise me. Hey, at least it’s on paper, as opposed to the behind-the-scenes dealmaking which I’ve always suspected was the *real* way things get done, being a sore rejectee and all.

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