The Why, When, Who and What of Reference Letters

Natalie Lundsteen shares best practices for obtaining great letters of support.

December 17, 2018
 
 
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Writing reference letters for students and postdocs is part of my job responsibilities as an assistant dean and faculty member. But the sight of an email subject line with the words “Reference letter requested” most often fills me with equal parts dread and happiness. I am always happy to help someone move forward in their career journey, but the dread comes from having to add one more thing to my to-do list.

The letter-writing dread decreases, however, if the student or postdoc who is the subject of the letter has given me ample warning and enough information. And I'm especially less dread filled if I've been told in advance that this request was coming. I'm sure I'm not alone in this feeling!

I estimate the number of reference letters I have written at this point in my career to be in the many hundreds, so it is usually a fairly simple and straightforward task to write one. But that is if I know the person for whom I am writing well enough to be able to craft a good letter, if I've been given a good amount of time to write it and if I actually do feel I can endorse them for the job, fellowship or whatever activity they are applying to. Not everyone who writes these letters has had a lot of practice, so providing plenty of time and information to that person is important and ensures a great letter.

The students and postdocs I advise often have questions about how to ask, whom to ask and when to ask for letters. It is usually a new experience for them to request such a favor, particularly from a supervisor, and sometimes they have to navigate awkward situations or strained relationships.

I’d like to share the following best practices for obtaining reference letters. They don't cover every possibility or situation but should get you started thinking about how to make great reference letters happen.

Why: You will need reference letters, written in advance, when you apply for an academic or academic-related job, as well as for fellowships, grants or awards. For jobs outside academe, it is less likely that you’ll need an actual written letter of reference, but you will be asked for names of references that can be contacted once you are moving forward in the selection process. Three is the magic reference number, as potential employers generally request three letters of reference or the names of three people. My favorite way to provide a reference is during a phone call where I get to describe how amazing someone is and don't have to type it all out.

When: If you know you'll be going on the job market for any type of position, get organized and ask people to write your letters as early as you can. Be considerate of your reference writer’s time: I have been asked to write letters of recommendation with as little as two days' notice. I always get them done and can't recall ever saying no to a request, but last-minute letters aren't as well crafted or thoughtful as those given more lead time. Give as much time as possible! A month is not too early to ask. Two weeks' lead time for a reference letter request is what I would consider on the verge of a polite request; more time is even better.

Keep in mind the time of year and the schedule of the person whom you are asking, as well as the timing of the deadline for your application. If, for example, you know your job application deadline is mid-September, it would not be unusual to ask your academic reference about the letter in June or July. You should keep in mind that summer is vacation time, the person may be out of the office/away from a computer for a good portion of it, and the letter will be due when academics are extremely busy. If a letter writer gets the due date on his or her calendar early, they are much more likely to write a good, solid and on-time reference in support of your qualifications and character.

It’s best to ask a potential reference in person to write the letter, if possible, even if it's just a quick minute or two in which you say you'll follow up with more details about the letter in an email. Obviously, you can't always ask in person, and in that case, an initial querying email is appreciated. Then, send a follow-up email with more details, providing as much information as you can, including a deadline for the letter and a link to the position you're applying for.

One of my favorite career advice websites, The Muse, offers this fantastic email template you can use to ask for a letter of recommendation. They also have some great resources for people writing reference letters.

If you are applying for roles that don't require a letter but do involve giving a name and contact info, be sure to give a heads-up to those people that you've given their name as a reference. Even better, let them know what positions/organizations you've applied to. I know I sound much more convincing giving a reference when I can say something like, “Oh yes, she told me about this application, and I know she is very excited about the possibility of working for your company!'

Who: Depending on what the letter is for, your choice of reference writer will vary. The general rule is to ask people to write your reference letters who really know you and can say honest and specific things about your skills, abilities and suitability for the role. It is not always necessary to have the biggest fish in the pond write your letters -- choose people who can attest to your motivation for the job and your capabilities.

For academic tenure-track roles, you simply must have letters from current advisers and other people who know your discipline-specific expertise. If you do not think your current adviser will agree to serve as a reference (that can happen for many reasons), you will need to ask another person you can trust to write a letter that in some way addresses this unusual circumstance. That might be another mentor or collaborator, or you may need to get creative to find a replacement reference.

Reasons for this may vary, but as an example, the letter might say something like, “I am writing a reference for Casey Jones because I serve on his dissertation committee. His adviser was not able to write a letter, but I can attest to Casey's excellence and academic capabilities, etc.”

You may encounter an application that asks for the name of your current supervisor, but they may not know you are thinking of moving to a new job, and it would cause a great deal of turmoil if that fact were revealed. In that case, you can list the name of a colleague or peer. Often applications will have a tick box that asks, "May we contact this reference?" Be sure to say no if that is your preference. Good organizations will not require you to give up information if you are job seeking in stealth mode. And if you get far enough along in the interview process that it seems likely you’ll get an offer, you can then let your current supervisor know. In any sticky reference situation, take the opportunity to have a chat with a graduate career professional who can give advice on how to best remedy your specific situation.

What: When asking someone to write a letter for you or to be expecting a reference phone call, be strategic and provide as much information to them as possible. Provide your most current CV, and, if possible, any application materials you've submitted, along with a link to the job description or fellowship or award description.

Make it easy for the letter writer to understand what the opportunity is and why you are excited about it. Think about how you know the person who is going to write the letter and what they can honestly talk about in glowing terms. Ask them if they'd consider including mention of those aspects of your work and performance in their letter. Put some thought into whom you are asking for letters and how each of them can draw attention to something different in your qualifications.

For example, you could ask Reference No. 1 to highlight a certain aspect of your research expertise and also your skill at obtaining funding. Ask Reference No. 2 to discuss their collaboration with you and your communication skills. Reference No. 3 could highlight your teaching and mentoring, as well as your passion for your subject area. These are just examples, because much depends on your background, the kind of role and what you hope to convey to the search committee.

Letters of reference are an aspect of your application that you might consider beyond your control. But by being prepared, thinking strategically about your requests and providing strong background information to your letter writers, you will end up with the best possible endorsement of your potential for the role in question.

Bio

Natalie Lundsteen is assistant dean for career and professional development at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. She is a member, and currently serves as president-elect, of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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