Julie Platt is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Writing at Michigan State University and a permanent author at GradHacker. You can follow her on twitter at @aristotle_julep.
It's the most arduous time of the year--academic job market season. If you're a grad student actively seeking academic employment now, you will need to secure those ever-important letters of recommendation in the next few weeks. For some folks, this is a terrifying prospect. It often feels like an imposition, a distraction or a drag on the time of a very busy, very important person. It's important to remember that while it is by no means easy, writing letters of recommendation is a routine task for professors and advisors, and most consider it part of their jobs. Here are some tips to make the process less scary and stressful.
DO ask ahead of time (way ahead of time). Letters of recommendation are difficult to write; they are a genre unto themselves and they require lots of effort and time. Giving your recommender plenty of notice will ensure that they can give your request his or her full attention, and will keep you on his or her good side.
DO offer the recommender a sense of why you're asking them, or what you'd like them to address in their letter. So, why do you want this recommender to write for you? If he or she is your dissertation chair or a member of your committee, you're most likely going to ask them to speak to your ability to do research, but don't assume that they'll know that. Same goes for someone who's observed your teaching, or has supervised you in some other capacity. Politely state your reason for asking: "I wanted to ask if you would be willing to write a letter speaking directly to my abilities as researcher/teacher/graduate assistant. I believe that due to your past position as my research/teaching mentor you have a unique and valuable insight into how I research/teach."
DO supply supplemental materials with the request. No matter who you ask or how recently/closely you've worked with them, make sure your request comes with your CV at least, and perhaps a copy of your job letter. You might also ask your recommender if they'd like to see your dissertation abstract or a statement of research purpose, or even a copy of the job ad you're planning to respond to. All of this will help your recommender write a stronger, more detailed letter.
DO get an Interfolio account. Interfolio is dossier service specifically tailored to the needs of academics, who often must apply for hundreds of jobs, each requiring confidential letters of recommendation. Your recommenders can electronically submit your letters to Interfolio, and when you apply for jobs, you can choose which letters go out to which institutions. This service isn't free, but it's quickly becoming the standard dossier service for academics.
DO keep a good record of who you've asked, and do follow up. It's not unheard of for your list of potential recommenders can get into the double-digits--I myself have asked for seven letters for this year's academic job search. Spare yourself the embarrassment of sending duplicate emails and keep a log of who you've asked and when, and schedule follow-ups on your calendar. When following up, politely ask your recommenders if they need any additional information.
DO express your gratitude in some way. It's not necessary to give gifts to your recommenders, but at least send each recommender a handwritten card or note expressing your thanks for their time and consideration.
DON'T ask hurriedly, or in passing. Don't IM the request, don't text it, don't tweet it, don't Facebook it. Always write a formal, polite email informing the potential recommender that you are about to go on the academic job market and that you value their opinion about your scholarship and teaching.
DON'T ask those who don't know you well enough. Professor Big Shot's name might look awesome in your dossier, but if you've never worked with, or even taken a class with, Professor Big Shot, you're not likely to get a decent letter of recommendation from him or her. Letters of recommendation generally come from those who know you very well--your dissertation committee, your teaching mentors, your supervisors in your graduate assistantships. These are the folks that will write you the most useful letters.
DON'T ask a person who'd be forced to write something less-than-flattering. Maybe you didn't do so well in a particular class, or goofed up a panel presentation you were on, or butted heads in an assistantship position. At any rate, your performance for a particular professor was just not up to par. It might not be a good idea to ask that professor to recommend you, no matter what their relationship to you as a scholar is.
DON'T demand, and don't push if the person balks at your request. If a recommender declines your request, he or she more than likely has a good reason for it. Just respond with a polite note saying that you understand and that you appreciate their consideration. That's all.
Remember that your recommenders were once grad students themselves and went through the same process you're going through. Don't be scared; let your recommenders do their jobs of praising your awesomeness.
Do you have any suggestions for those currently on the job market? Let us know in the comments below.