Post Academic

The etiquette of cat herding: More on getting recs

Posted in First Person,Process Stories by Arnold Pan on August 23, 2010
Tags: , ,

So we’ve been spending some time on recs, particularly how it never too early to start the ball rolling with the process of contacting your letter writers.  Like I mentioned last time, it’s obviously more important to you than it is to them, so show ’em you mean business and set the right tone for everyone involved in the process.  That means you should appear business-like and have your act together, even if you normally don’t.  Below are a few tips on some basic details you should take care of, so that you don’t have to worry about any mixed messages or crossed signals or lost mail.

Sign off on your recs: By the time you’re applying for tenure-track jobs, you should know well enough to waive your rights to read the recs.  I mean, undergrads applying to grad school might not know better, though those who don’t just seem like suspicious grade-grubbing control freaks when they don’t.  But I’ve even heard of Ph.D.-types who mull over not signing off on their recs, just to reserve the possibility of reading ’em, whether because they’re paranoid or overly curious.  I’m actually surprised that you have a choice, beyond the formal legalese, since there’s really no point not to waive your rights if you think about it…

Why to waive your rights, after the jump…

The commonsense reason for signing off is that faculty might not be as free-and-easy with a frank assessment of you if they think you’re looking over their shoulders.  Don’t know if that’s the case, but the references will likely be perceived that way if you don’t waive your rights–a lot of online applications at this point do ask you to check a box to sign off, so at least some of the places you’re applying to will know the privacy status of your rec.

But the real, psychic-defending reason to sign off is that you should just assume that you can trust your letter writers, since, preferably, they’re the people you know best.  If they’re writing mean things, damning praise, or lukewarm comments, do you *really* want to know about it when you’re in the middle of the process?  You’ve get plenty of other stuff to deal with, especially if you’re teaching and finishing your diss, to not have fret over whether your advisor likes you and how to parse words and phrases in the letter.  And besides, what are you gonna do about it at this point, since it’s not like you can find better letter writers than the ones at the top of your list?  I’m just a fatalist here: if it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen.

Give ‘Em What They Need: That’s not to say you can’t prompt your recommenders a bit or highlight certain parts of your application just to the point of embellishment.  Your letter writer will want a CV at the very least, and may ask you to let ’em know what the strongest parts of your academic profile are too.  Some will want a lot of information to help them help you.  If you’re sweating what they’re going include in a rec, give them some direction in filling it out.  And don’t be modest about things either: every little bit of touting that’s within reason–or outside of reason, if your sage recommenders deem it appropriate–can help, especially if everyone else is doing it.

Give ‘Em What They Need, Logistically Speaking: Be sure to be neat and organized in providing your letter writers with all the materials they need.  That means you give them addressed and stamped envelopes, the appropriate email addresses and URLs for online applications, and a list of jobs you’re applying to (I usually make an Excel spreadsheet to get things in order), as soon as you can.  It’s good to be on the same page, and you won’t be stressing whether the letter is getting to the right place, unless you yourself got the address wrong.

This is where I prefer mailing from a dossier service, because, once your writers send it to the centralized clearinghouse, you have control over responding to all letter requests.  You might think email and electronic applications are more convenient, but they aren’t, because they might require your recommenders to log on, figure out a new computerized system with some bugs, and follow a whole other set of deadlines.  Plus, while some schools are using nice online interfaces, others are totally ad-hoc’ing it by having your writers send attachments to their offices.

While all the different means of delivering your recs are out of your control, starting out the whole process off in a neat, orderly fashion is important, because it will make your correspondence with your faculty mentors easier and more efficient.  In other words, if they know you know what you’re doing, it makes it better for everyone’s peace of mind.  Running a tight ship helps all involved in the process–you, your well-meaning-but-has-a-lot-of-other-stuff-going-on advisors, the depts you’re applying to.  You might not have a lot of control over much in the academic job application process, but you can make sure your materials get to their appointed destination.

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