In the early years of academic life, scholars are asked to provide letters of recommendation for various opportunities, including jobs, grants, summer funding and fellowships.
For scholars who are “likable” -- those who reflect the dominant culture and fit neatly into the mold of senior scholars eager to mentor them -- I suspect this is rather easy. When I was a graduate student, my male classmates played squash with senior professors, took them out for a celebratory drink after completing comprehensive exams and invited them over for dinner. None of these avenues of getting to know professors seemed open to me. If I, as a woman, asked a senior professor (quite likely a man) out for a drink, the cultural subtext would be very different. That meant that when it was time to ask for letters of recommendation, the male professors knew Tom, Dick and Harry quite well, while they might not recall a paper I had written.
Marginalized scholars often face an uphill battle in finding mentors, and that can be reflected in letters of recommendation that have enormous importance in opening doors throughout their careers. Thus, in this essay, I provide concrete tips for soliciting strong letters of recommendation, specifically for my fellow marginalized scholars.
Often a scholar is asked to provide more than one letter of recommendation. As you consider whom to ask, keep in mind that you will want people who can speak to different parts of your experience or different strengths. You will also want to make sure that your recommenders are from diverse backgrounds and varied specializations or research areas.
Unfortunately, having only women or only people of color will be a drawback in many situations. For those operating out of explicit or implicit (racial and/or gender) bias, this can pigeonhole a scholar into a particular niche and lessen the sense that they will contribute broadly to the field. In certain fields, it might be the case that having all white men write letters on your behalf would also be a drawback. Balance is likely key in whom you ask to write for you.
Asking for a Letter
When I ask someone for a recommendation, I try to do three things. First, I make clear why I am asking them, in particular, to write this letter on my behalf. Something along the lines of “Because we worked together in this capacity or on this project, you are able to speak to this specific skill, ability, strength or experience I have.” Second, I put them on the hook for a really strong letter. I ask them, specifically, if they could write a strong letter of recommendation for me.
Third, I give them a way out if they feel like they cannot write a really strong letter. My wording is something like this: “I am applying for X. They have asked for recommendation letters to be sent by X date. You know my work well from our past experience X, so I was wondering if you would be able to write a strong letter of recommendation for me. I know that you have a lot going on right now, so I understand if the timing does not work.” At least once, I have had a recommender use the back-out option, and I was glad. I would much prefer to be told no than to have a weak letter that could sabotage my entire application.
What makes a letter of recommendation stand out from all of the rest is its level of specificity. Generic letters fade into the background, while detailed and particular letters shine. For example, every recommendation form asks the writer to say how long they have known the person they are recommending. A generic letter says, “Three years.” A specific letter says, “I first met X when we both spoke on a panel about X. Her presentation was a comparison between Y and Z that was so insightful, I began teaching her article on the subject in my classes.”
To help your recommenders write detailed letters, you can provide them with tailored information that is easy to access. I suggest giving your recommender a packet that contains materials such as:
- A personalized letter that: a) thanks them for agreeing to write for you, b) reminds them the particular reason you have asked them to write and c) reminds them of the various ways you have interacted professionally. For example: “We first met in 2007 when I took your course on X, you sat on my comprehensive exam in 2010, we were on a panel together in 2011,” and so forth. Or it might be: “We worked together on X research project in 2012 and served on X committee together for three semesters.”
- A copy of the official description of the opportunity for which you are applying.
- A copy of your up-to-date CV.
- A copy of your letter of application, personal statement or research proposal.
- If you are a student asking a professor or former professor for a letter, it is good to include a paper that you wrote for that professor with the professor’s comments and grade on it. I realize this might not be possible, and that it would have been helpful to have this advice earlier.
- If you are a graduate student writing a dissertation, you might send a chapter of your dissertation.
- A very clear statement of how and when to submit the requested recommendations.
It is important to give this information to your recommender in a format that is extremely easy to see and cross-reference. Ask your recommender if she would prefer digital or electronic copies of your materials.
A few days before the letter is due, send a friendly email reminder, which can be as simple as “This is a friendly reminder that the recommendation letter for X is due on X.” After the deadline has passed or you receive notification that the letter has been received, send a handwritten thank-you note. If someone writes multiple letters of reference for you, it is appropriate to send a small gift, such as a small package of good chocolates, in appreciation.
These steps -- selecting recommenders, asking for a strong letter, providing information and following up -- will improve a marginalized scholar’s chances of getting a selection of outstanding letters of recommendation.