Getting the Letters Right

When it comes to getting recommendations, you need to mentor your mentors, writes Teresa Mangum.

August 19, 2009

How often do you hear someone (usually in an administrative position) talk blithely about mentors? But how many of you have one? Or have offered to be one?

I suspect many faculty members cringe a little at the word in the same way they avert their eyes when passing the self-improvement shelf at the bookstore. Even those of us who know we need advice — for example about ways to balance personal life and career or to overcome challenges as writers — slip career advice books to one another like they were bootleg liquor. No wonder Mary Jane Hurst titled an excellent recent column “Mentor Yourself.”

Academe tends to draw people who like to work independently. Even the gregarious feel pressured to become time hoarders, and good mentoring takes quality time. Mentoring differs by discipline, too. Colleagues tell me the lab sciences can be embedded in hierarchies that leave the mentored in an uneasy power relation to their mentors (the frequent butt of jokes in the ongoing series, “Piled Higher and Deeper: a grad student comic strip”). On the other hand, scholars in the humanities are inclined to turn their analytical training on themselves. This impulse can lead to a kind of second-guessing of one’s own know-how about the search process that makes giving pat advice to others a little hard to imagine.

In an ideal world, we would all find the confidence, generosity, and, most of all, the time to be willing, proactive, and wise mentors. Probably you, like me, remember role models who were unaware of what they meant to us as well more formal mentors with deep appreciation. However, healthy and mutually satisfying mentoring relationships are seldom accidental. Often, to find a mentor, you have to become a mentor. Once you see the potential for a good working relationship, you can sometimes mentor a mentor into being a really good mentor.

Think about the moments when someone has explicitly or implicitly asked you to be a mentor of sorts. When someone comes to you and asks you to serve in a position of responsibility — whether that involves coaching a Little League team or chairing a civic committee — what do you want to know before you answer? Most of us are willing to take on responsibilities as long as we are assured that the people we will be working with are serious, committed, well-organized, punctual, hard-working, willing to answer questions and help solve problems, and capable of “follow through.” If you communicate that you are this lovely kind of “mentee” (and future colleague), you are likely to get an excellent response when you ask a faculty member (or a colleague) to serve as an advisor or mentor. So how do you communicate that you will be a pleasure as well as a responsibility when it comes to an advising/mentoring relationship?

The moment many face right now — seeking a letter of reference in preparation for the job search or a fellowship application — neatly illustrates my point. As you approach different kinds of mentors for letters, think past what can feel like enforced dependence. Instead, consider what kind of colleague you want to be. In other words, approach a potential mentor, whether as a dissertation committee member, a source of advice, or as someone whom you’re asking for a letter of recommendation, as part of your professional preparation.

As an aside — though it may seem obvious, job seekers aren’t always sure whom to ask for letters. Job ads usually request three to four letters, and more is not better. (I’ll be interested to hear others’ views of the numbers and kinds of letters your search committees expect.)

For graduate students, the crucial letters are those written by the director of the dissertation and a faculty member familiar with your teaching, if you have classroom experience. A third letter usually comes from a second member of the dissertation committee. Students sometimes find junior faculty especially congenial, which is fine. But when you seek mentors and/or letter writers, don't shy away from senior professors, "tough" professors, or potentially imposing faculty members who have a long and impressive career. The long view, the many contacts, and, frankly, the prestige of active senior faculty members all matter. A solid recommendation from an established senior faculty member is an invaluable asset.

If you’ve held a position elsewhere (a year-long fellowship, a teaching post), and someone there knows your work intimately, ask your dissertation director whether that person would be an appropriate choice. In some cases, you’ll have had contact with senior members of your field elsewhere — in a summer seminar or as a distinguished visitor for a semester. If you’ve formed a genuine intellectual connection, you might ask that person for a letter. In my experience, most such letters are a couple of boiler plate paragraphs that say only what the person can say, i.e., very little.

You can help your mentors (or other letter writers) fashion a strong letter for you by being prepared and preparing them. In future columns, I’ll talk in more detail about items below, but even rough drafts of the following will be useful to your letter writers. (For now, ask friends who have graduated before you to share their materials if you’re new to the process.) Your drafts will lay the groundwork for your letter writers while also giving your dissertation director plenty of lead time to help you revise those materials for public consumption. Here are a few suggestions for mentoring your mentors:

  • Request letters of recommendation WELL in advance of deadlines (a month in advance, for example).
  • Provide clear information about the purpose of the letter. If you are applying for a fellowship, provide a description of the fellowship (with criteria) along with any necessary instructions and forms the letter writer will need. If you are applying for a job or for further education, provide a copy of the advertisement, job description, or graduate or professional program (and a Web address for the business or program).
  • Provide clear information about yourself, your abilities, and your accomplishments in the form of a transcript and C.V. Include

--contact information
--education history
--research, teaching, and administrative positions
--courses you’ve taught with a sentence or two of description, including titles of key texts and issues (ditch the course numbers)
--awards, grants, or fellowships
--publications if you have them -- with clear divisions between a) short pieces like encyclopedia articles and book reviews and b) full-length articles.
--conference presentations (with clear divisions between local talks such as a classroom visit and presentations elsewhere)
--positions of responsibility — committee work, offices held
--special courses or training
--professional memberships
--volunteer activities

  • Share a copy of your own application letter so that your letter writer can see which details you’ve emphasized.
  • If the application requires a “personal narrative” or a statement of your abilities or goals or teaching philosophy, include a copy. In the case of a job application, provide the letter writer with a) your cover letter, b) your cv, and c) a 1-2 page abstract of your dissertation (more on this soon).

Make the process as easy as possible for all your letter writers. Fill in forms that you must submit (with your name, address, etc. typed). Provide addressed and stamped envelopes if this isn’t a digital application.

Finally, frankly assess your strengths and your desires. If you’re feeling wobbly, ask friends and mentors you trust for backup. Your dissertation will tell letter writers what you know, but the details you provide in a conversation can help mentors to personalize letters — bringing who you are to life on the page. Reflect on your strengths and how they match with possibilities; share interests beyond obvious and immediate intellectual investments, and discuss your hopes for the future, even in a job market that might look a bit hopeless at the moment.

With apologies if this seems to trivialize the process, I see being well mentored by those I’m mentoring in the light of my favorite nursery rhyme: When she was good, she was very, very good; and when she was bad she was horrid. (In self-defense, I confess that this rhyme has shaped many of my own personal and professional decisions for decades.) When I write letters for students and colleagues under the usual circumstances, the letters are very, very good. But when I’m well mentored, they’re stunning.


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