Every once in a while I obsess about Letters of References. This is one of those times because:
- I have been reading hundreds of L of R's in recent weeks.
- I have been writing L of R's for promotion files, students seeking things etc., and
- I have been thinking about names of L of R writers for myself at the request of my department Chair, who is nominating me for an award.
I've written before about what makes a good/great L of R and what makes a bad/loathsome L of R, so in this post I will instead discuss issues related to selecting L of R people for one's own purposes.
As a grad student/postdoc seeking employment, I had letters from my advisor(s), a Ph.D. committee member or two, and someone who had been a teaching mentor. Later, as I moved from a visiting professor job to a tenure-track job, I had letters from a colleague at the institution I was visiting. When I was applying for jobs to move from one tenure-track place to another, I did not request letters from colleagues at the institution I was seeking to leave, but some people do that.
When I needed letters for tenure, I had letters from various luminaries in my field and a colleague from my first tenure-track job. There was much discussion at the time about whether to get a letter from my Ph.D. advisor. Some of my department colleagues thought that a letter from the former advisor was essential for tenure/promotion files because the advisor could make a statement such as "My former student, Professor X, is the best student I have ever had in 82 years of advising Ph.D. students." Other people thought that a letter from the advisor was not relevant, as the advisor was not objective, even though a letter from an advisor is essential when one is first applying for jobs. I felt ambivalent -- I knew my advisor must have written a good letter for me at one point or I wouldn't have had job offers, but I also felt that he had always been closer to his male students and I didn't know how I would fare if he were asked to compare. Also, we had had an uneasy advisor-advisee relationship owing to his unethical behavior involving other women students. In the end, he was not asked to write a letter.
For promotion to full professor, luminaries were again asked to write letters, including some international scientists. It was important to get letters from people from highly ranked universities, as committees like that kind of thing. Owing to a snafu that was only detected just before my file was to go to the Dean (something entirely the fault of an administrative assistant who somehow manages to be simultaneously hostile and near-comatose), the Chair asked for a letter from a distinguished professor in my own department -- someone with whom I have never collaborated but who is widely respected in the university.
For my ongoing exploration of possibly maybe moving to another university, I have mostly not needed letters. Faculty at one university didn't consult me -- they contacted the people they considered authorities in my field and asked them about me. Another university requested 3 letters, and I gave them the names of 3 people, only one of whom is a research collaborator.
Now I have to think about names for this award nomination. The chair thinks that the nomination will be more likely to succeed if I have letters from Chairs, Deans, renowned international scientists, National Academy of Science members, and Nobel Prize winners. Letters from at least one of those are not going to happen. Choosing letter writers for an award of this sort involves considering who will effuse the most in a letter, and that's not something that is easy to guess for some people. I am also stressing out because several of the obvious letter writers are at institutions that are considering hiring me, and that makes for a bizarre situation that I didn't want to discuss with my Chair when we talked about names.
Having someone write a letter for an award feels more awkward than getting letters for things like promotion/tenure. The tenure process can feel like a life-or-death situation. When I write tenure letters for others, I take this responsibility very seriously and work hard at writing effective letters. Awards aren't necessary in the same way, and it's asking a lot to request that someone take the time to write a letter for such a thing.
9 months ago