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Reference Material

Being a good recommender is one thing, but being a good recommendee is something different.

April 21, 2019

Patrick Bigsby is an alumnus, former employee, and lifelong wrestling fan of the University of Iowa. Sometimes, he tweets.

At GradHacker HQ, it’s always Jobbin’ Season. Or at least it would be if I could get enough votes at our staff meetings to approve borrowing Donald Glover’s brilliance and make this the official nickname of our career services department. Regardless, my larger point stands: academic job searches can seem like a never-ending affair, requiring a constant state of résumé updating and elevator pitch polishing lest the perfect opportunity spring from the bushes and catch you unprepared. Maintaining a dossier full of current application documents is tricky and only becomes trickier when you realize some elements, such as lists of references and/or recommenders aren’t entirely within your control.

I’ve previously written about how to streamline the letter-writing process when your own students come to you for recommendations. In doing so, it occurred to me how much more I preferred writing recommendations to soliciting them. It is simpler and more straightforward to do the vouching rather than reveal that you need someone to vouch for you. For the proud, stubborn, and reticent among us, asking for help doesn’t always come easily. To that end, I’d like to explore how to be the ideal recommendee.

First, review your roster of potential recommenders. It’s perfectly fine to have one or two go-to folks with whom you have a strong rapport that you know would say or do anything to see you succeed. Hopefully you’ve already cultivated this sort of relationship either formally or informally and have someone you’re secure discussing your applications with and whom you can count on to turn in recommendation letters on time. But make sure those people can speak to whatever attributes the search committee wants to hear about. Testimony without personal knowledge is worthless, so you should make sure your circle of references goes beyond the people you’re most comfortable around and includes people from various arenas.

Before you ask for a reference, swallow your fear. There are several reasons why asking someone to be a reference can be a little intimidating. No one wants to risk rejection by someone from whom you’re seeking approval. Nor does anyone want to be a burden. Further, it can be awkward or even unpleasant to ask for a recommendation from a current supervisor who may not be aware of your particular ambitions; I’ve received more than one “Why would you want to apply there?!” scold from a professor.

But don’t let these obstacles become excuses, because you should give your references as much notice as possible. Have an application due in three months? Better to ask for that letter of recommendation now and send a follow-up email in one month than to spend the week before the due date nervously nagging the one person tasked with describing how great you are. Even if you’re only asking to name someone on a list of references, advance notice gives that person a chance to formulate a few talking points and lets them know to expect a call from an unfamiliar number.

Finally, once the pressure of the ask is over and your references have been checked without incident, show your gratitude. Countless motivational posters have informed me that no one succeeds alone and this maxim is extremely true of any job that requires personal recommendations. Send an email to your references or drop by their office to share a celebratory cup of coffee and let them know how much you appreciate their confidence in you and their willingness to speak to it. Anyone willing to recommend you will be thrilled to hear about your successes, so pay them back with an appropriate, gracious update.

What is your strategy for soliciting letters of recommendation or references? How do avoid awkwardness and imposition while securing a helpful reference? Let us know in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user Annie Pilon and used under a Creative Commons license.]


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