Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Letter Writers

I had a really interesting afternoon - material enough for several posts. But one thing that came up as an aside was the difficulty of finding appropriate people to write letters of recommendation for various jobs. Typically I am asked to provide contact info for 3-5 references. Occasionally (annoyingly) I am asked up front to provide three letters of recc. with my application. I thought I'd lay out my cast of characters because I wonder if they don't form some sort of typology that more people will identify with.

The Boss/Advisor - Gotta include him. Fortunately he likes me. Wants to see me at a high-level place, whether I want that or not, but can see the value and appeal of a liberals arts college (LAC) job. On every job app.

The Nice Guy - Committee member, professor, and one person who's seen me teach. On every app last year, but this year he's out of the country. Damn. But at least I can include the teaching evaluation he wrote for me in my LAC apps.

The Big Name - Took a class from him and had him as a committee member. Said complimentary things about me at my defense. Used him as a letter writer last year and he counseled me to focus on the 1-2 jobs I really wanted rather than a broader scattershot. This year: including him only on research-intensive or high prestige job apps.

The Successful Woman - Collaborator. Bluntly told me that I'd be wasting my potential at a LAC, really wants me at a research intensive place. Thinks that because she has kids and a big career that its what every woman should want. Using her only for letters at places with graduate programs.

The MS Advisor - Nice guy but a different field (but related) than that in which I now work. We never really clicked personality-wise but he's always been encouraging. Using him for apps in Midwest and when I can't figure out who else to use.

The Young Gun - Committee member, collaborator, presitigious degrees from prestigious universities, wicked smart. Never quite feel like I live up to his expectations, but he knows me well. Using him for ???

The Lab Rat - Collaborator. Always praises me but has seen only one side of my research. Works in a non-university setting so has no way of appraising my teaching. Has offered multiple times to write letters for me. Using him for nothing.

The Outsider - Not in my field at all, but has supervised my teaching and likes to talk big picture, interdisciplinary stuff with me. Not sure what sort of letter she'll write. Using her for those LAC apps where they want an interdisciplinarian.

Even though I've got a bunch of names up there, when it comes time to list contact info or ask for letters, I struggle with who to choose. I could analyze this further and try to dig into each of their motivations towards me but I think I'll leave it for another time, and simply ask: Do any of these people look familiar to you? How do you choose your recommenders?


Anonymous said...

Wow, you have a big selection. I have only three potential people:
1. Postdoc supervisor (who can't really referee anything that requires a comment on science because she's not my field)I guess I have to use her.
2. PhD supervisor who is awesomely supportive, writes great reference (I have seen a couple), and who will write anything I need.
3. Collaborator during PhD, and who was head of teaching when I was an undergrad. Fantastic guy, I've seen one of his references and he writes very highly of me. Don't like using him too often because he is a big name.
I think you are lucky to have a good number of people who will write, but unlucky that you need so many for one job app. 5 seems excessive

Anonymous said...

It might be worth playing "six degrees of Kevin Bacon" with all of your potentials, especially older ones, to see if they have collaborated with people who are now at institutions to which you are applying.

MissPrism said...

That's quite a choice!

My PhD supervisor and the leaders of the two labs I postdocced in were all well known in my field, so the obvious thing was to use them as my three references. But the person I worked with most closely in one postdoc wasn't a Big Name (he'll be one in due course, I reckon, but he was much younger than the other options!)

So I felt torn between having an all-big-names CV, or including the person who knew best about my recent work. In the end I included contact details for all four even though the applications only asked for three.

If I'd been asked for a fifth reference, I'm not sure who I'd have gone for - my choices would have been:

A. Head of department at my then workplace. Disadvantage: I think three referees from the same place looks bad.

B. Thesis examiner. Disadvantage: Read my thesis.

C. Big name PhD committee member. Disadvantage: Not spoken to him in 5 years and he never knew who I was anyway.

MissPrism said...

PS - According to one postdoc advisor: if applying for a North American job, choose North American referees over Brits, because British letters of reference tend to be less lavish in their praise.

BrightStar said...

I agree with lab lemming. Recommenders who know search committee members can advocate for you differently than those who do not know search committee members. It's about more than the letter, but whether the search committee is going to follow up with additional phone calls, etc.

voclano girl said...

Hi, I'm going through the same process right now and I have a pretty good idea who these folks are! Friends who have permanent jobs have told me that you need to find folks who will say that you "can walk on water."

I know Boss and Nice Guy will say that about you. The Young Gun still has a lot to prove and even if he wants the best for you, I'm not sure I would trust his letter. You have worked closely with the Successful Woman and she cares about you. She is honest with you because of that. In the end, she must be able to appreciate the appeal of a LAC.

I asked the socially inept Chair to write letters and am now regretting it! My PhD and Postdoc advisor will say nice things about me at least. Chair is self serving enough to at least want to see me do well, but I don't trust him.

Best of luck!

Anonymous said...

I went with the Ph.D. advisor, my undergrad advisor (for whom I had done the most teaching. If someone is going to hire me, it's got to be because they value that) and the big-name-outside-my-field committee member (also the only one on the committee who hasn't seen fit to beat up on me about something). I agree, five is tough. I don't have a post-doc, so that limits my options compared to many of you.

Ms.PhD said...

Thanks for this post, it was interesting. Ended up hear from Propter Doc, which was good since I haven't been keeping up lately. My bad, all apologies.

I can tell you what I did and that it didn't get me a job or a grant last year. I'm not planning to do any apps this year because I think all my letter writers are tired of me. I know I'm tired of me.

Used Thesis Advisor, Postdoc Advisor, and Collaborator (who knows my work well). plus sometimes Nice Guy from Thesis Committee or Outside Person who knows me from science-related outreach work.

I'm with lab lemming on this one, I think it matters more that you pick the right person, and with volcano girl, that they have to use the right catch phrases that jump off the page (like 'walks on water') and scream HIRE THIS PERSON YOU TWIT! Some combination of those has got to help.

Please do follow up and tell us what you end up doing & how it works out.

Best of luck, I'm rooting for you from my corner of the internet.

SuzyQueue said...

After having sat on 100+ search committees, I found the best way to handle which references to use is to find a core of three to four and some rotating references. Include a page listing six reference names (even when fewer are asked for). Beneath the contact information for each reference, write a short summary of how this person knows you and why they may be good to contact. You said yourself that some would be better to contact for teaching than research. Every time I have been part of reference checks, the committee can't find all of the ones listed. In some cases, we are lucky to find half of them. At least with descriptions, we know who we really want to talk to.

I usually score candidates higher when they made my job as a reviewer easier. The cover letter should point out the qualifications in the same order as the job advertisement. The resume should not narrative - although I realize for some fields this is the 'proper' approach. I saw it as an older style in a less competitive market. With over 100 applications per positions, who has time to read the narrative to see if the person fits the position. The narrative on the references goes against this advice for a very specific reason. By telling me why I should contact each person, you have made my job easier and told me more about yourself. By including an internationally known scientist as a reference, you are trying to show that this scientist is an importatn connection. By including a short description such as, "Dr. X supervised a portion of my PhD research" or "Dr. X has been a strong mentor and through our frequent discussions, I have focussed my research on ...." Make it a sales job.

Good luck.