Recommendations for recommendations

How to Get Great References and Letters of Recommendation (PDF)

The spring quarter is well underway, and that’s a busy time for anyone in a professional degree program. Second-year Master’s degree students are working their way through comp exams, prepping their portfolios for presentation, and scheduling their thesis defense dates, all with an eye on the departmental job boards and professional listservs. AMIA scholarship applications are due, and so are other professional awards. At this time of year I spend a few hours a week, every week, writing letters of recommendation and proving professional references for  current and former students who are on the job market.

In general, I enjoy this particular duty, and take pride in doing it well: it feels great to help a talented and hardworking alum land a professional position I know they’ll excel in, or a current student get a scholarship they richly deserve. In the course of admissions reviews, grant and scholarship panels, and other committee work, I read a few hundred letters of recommendation per year. I like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at both parsing and composing the particular code of the reco letter as a result of this. (Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members is an excellent light read if you, like me, actually kind of enjoy reading a really juicy recommendation.)

The process of requesting a professional reference or a letter of recommendation, though, can be a difficult one. Many students have only done it once (to get into college the first time, using the common app) or twice (to get into their master’s degree program) in their lives. It’s not always clear who to ask, when to ask, how to ask. In some cases, people may not even realize that they should ask at all. I once received a phone call out of the blue from a close colleague, asking me to provide a job reference for a current student. The student had not informed me that they were applying for the job, or that they had listed me as a reference…even though they were currently taking my class, saw me in person at least once a week, and could easily have mentioned it. Another student once sent me an email “to inform you that I intend to list you as a reference” for a particular job. The “this is happening; deal with it” tone of the message was surely unintentional, but still rather off-putting.

In both cases, I provided the reference the student should have asked me for in the first place, but I also tracked them down afterward for private, honest conversations about why that really wasn’t such a great situation to put me in. In case it’s not clear, I’ll tell you too: I wasn’t prepared for the calls to come when they did, I didn’t know or recall that much about the position(s) they were applying for, and I had no idea how they’d positioned themselves in their cover letters and other application materials. I could therefore address only vaguely their qualities as students and emerging professionals and potential employees. My preference, though, is always to speak in specific terms to how right someone is for **this particular job** on the basis of projects they worked on or papers they did in my class, their past employment, qualities the position requires that I know them to have, etc. Neither the “surprise reference” nor the “tell don’t ask” approach give me the chance to do so.

Finally, some students don’t realize right away that in a professional community as small as the one I work in (the media archives and preservation field), it almost doesn’t matter whether you ask for a reference or not. Anyone who knows you’ve been through one of our handful of specialized degree programs will probably know people you’ve studied with, and will probably just ask whoever they know in your program about you, directly and informally. So you may be getting references you don’t even know about. That doesn’t happen every time, but it definitely happens. (In the case of the surprise phone call, I wasn’t at the top of the list of references provided by the candidate, but I was the first and only one who got called–and that was because of my long-standing relationship with the hiring manager.) It’s far better to know about these relationships when they exist, and to control who’s providing your references, if you can.

Unfortunately, the strategies, tactics, and etiquette of requesting professional references can be just as recondite and opaque as the coded language of the recommendation letters themselves. Offering a reference means staking a little of your social capital on someone else; asking for a reference means making yourself vulnerable and imposing on a (usually very busy) supervisor, professor, or mentor’s time. By the same token, though, serving as a reference for someone who works out really well for a job helps accrue social capital for the referrer. It establishes them as a good judge of talent, builds credibility and trust with colleagues, connects them directly to a colleague they may have only known by reputation, etc. Moreover, success in the job market for students and alums reflects well on the programs they come from. So for faculty, staff, mentors and supervisors, the time spent on writing a letter or discussing a job prospect is always invested, not wasted.

In short, references are a tricky, but incredibly important part of professional life, especially once you get to/through grad school. They’re something that it is possible to handle really effectively, whether you’re requesting, writing, or reading them. Accordingly, I’ve created a handy guide to help students, recent graduates, and professionals at all stages of their careers demystify this whole asking-for-references-and-recommendations process, and manage the essential steps of it more effectively. It includes a checklist for before, during, and after; explanations for why you should do things like include a copy of your cover letter and a link to the job posting; and simple tricks for keeping things collegial and classy from start to finish. Most importantly, I’ve used this approach myself–not just for job applications, but also for similar solicitations like requesting letters of support from senior colleagues for grant applications or collaborative project proposals–so I guarantee the formula works.

If you’re a student of mine who’s recently asked me for a letter of recommendation and I responded with a link to this page, it means you need to download the guide, read through it again, and follow the instructions. All of them. Please. (Even the things you think you don’t need to do, like noting the deadline and procedure for submission of recommendations, or including a link to the job description because I just sent that job posting to the list, like, yesterday. I forgot everything about that job immediately after I posted it, because I am not applying for it. You must not refer vaguely to “that job at  ____” and make me Google it, when you should have just pasted the link or job description into your email request in the first place. That’s by far the most likely reason you are here.)

If you’re a professor or colleague who would like to share this guide with students or mentees, please feel free to do so. I always appreciate hearing of any success stories or suggestions for improvement based on your experiences!

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