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Their Role and What Makes Them Effective

Getting the strongest possible letters is an essential element of an effective job search. Some faculty will read a candidate’s letters before their CV or cover letter, and, especially after the initial cuts in the applicant pool have been made, the quality of your letters of recommendation plays a critical role. With your CV, cover letter and other supporting materials, you speak for yourself as an applicant. Your letters, typically three to five, come from those who speak with great authority in your field and are in the best position to assess your work. At this point in your career, you constitute, for the most part, potential – a risky proposition. Strong, informed letters vouch for you and can alleviate concerns raised by the inherent uncertainty of the process. They explain how and why your research will have an impact, and the qualities that will make you an effective teacher and good colleague. In many disciplines, the norm is to ask you to submit the names (and contact info) of three referees rather than have you provide their letters. Nonetheless, the guidelines below still largely apply.

The best letters are not simply those from the most famous and most highly regarded faculty in your field at Berkeley. Although the reputation and prestige of the writer does matter, a boilerplate letter from a renowned expert which displays only a passing acquaintance with you and your research is unlikely to do you much good. Letters today, especially from your chair, tend to be longer and more detailed than was the norm ten or fifteen years ago (one to two pages is the norm versus a paragraph or two). The most effective ones are those where the writer demonstrates an intimate familiarity with your work (i.e., they’ve actually read some of it and/or watched you teach), and can provide a basis or rationale for their endorsement of your candidacy.

Writing a good letter is very difficult and time-consuming. Most faculty want to write the strongest possible letters they can on your behalf, but you need to do more than just drop off the forms in their boxes. Don’t wait until the list of jobs becomes available to approach faculty for letters. One of the easiest ways to get a generic, “fine student” letter is to approach a busy professor and tell them “by the way, I need it by Friday.” In addition to giving them the time to write a thoughtful letter, you need to give them the kind of information that will help them craft an effective and informed letter. The more organized and prepared you are when you meet with them, the easier you make a somewhat onerous task and the more serious and professional you appear to be. Time spent making the process easier for them is time well spent. By the same token, part of the faculty’s job is to write letters for their graduate students and postdocs. Don’t be shy about asking for your advisor’s time, especially if you are well prepared. You need to make an appointment and speak with everyone you expect to ask to write a letter recommending you. The person to start with is your chair or PI.

Your Chair/PI

You may not have spoken to her or him in quite some time (we won’t ask how long), but you need to speak with your dissertation chair or postdoc advisor before going out on the job market. In addition to being most familiar with and supportive of your work, your chair/PI is the best person with whom to discuss the dossier as a whole and ensure that it collectively covers all the issues important for your candidacy. For example, grad students have sent out files with four letters, none of which commented on the candidate’s strength and experience as a teacher. Each author was quite effusive in terms of their personal regard for the candidate, but each apparently thought someone else was going to write about the candidate’s experience and qualities in the classroom.

The goal is to give him or her the raw material necessary to compose a letter that doesn’t just say you’re great, but demonstrates why the writer has such confidence in you and your abilities. When you meet with your chair/PI, be sure to bring (or provide ahead of time) examples of all your application materials: CV, sample cover letter, transcript/list of courses taken, teaching portfolio, a copy of your best chapter and/or copies of any recent publications you have (even if they’re just book reviews). Don’t rely on your memory; prepare a brief memo that lists the key points you want to discuss. Among these are likely to be:

  • Where Your Research”Fits” within the Discipline: Your work stands in the center of a series of concentric circles defined by your specialty, your sub-field, and the broader discipline. Having spent the last few years up close and personal with the mighty redwood that is your topic, you will probably benefit from a discussion with your chair about their sense of the evolving forest and your place within it. If you haven’t spoken with your chair for awhile, and especially if you have made some changes in emphasis, you will probably want to talk with them about how you view the nature and future direction of your research.

    Your chair can also convey information that is awkward for you yourself to state. For example, if you have publications in a journal that you know is prestigious, but is not well known outside your specialty, your chair can easily and credibly communicate its import. However, he/she is likely to do so only if you bring the need to their attention. If you have received awards, competitive fellowships, or any other external indication of broader recognition of your work such as an invitation to present at a prestigious conference or lecture series, remind them. Don’t require them to rely on memory or take the time to ferret out such information from a close reading of your CV.

    On a more personal note, if a professor told you three years ago that you had written the best graduate paper on Rousseau they had read in 20 years, gently remind them. You may never have forgotten those words, but they probably have. In a similar manner, if you were selected for a particularly thorny research problem, to organize a colloquium, or to supervise other TA’s or RA’s, bring it to their attention.

  • The State of Your Dissertation/Postdoc Research: If you go on the market with the words “expected May 2023” on your vitae, people will ask for the basis of your optimism. ABD (All But Dissertation) job candidates get jobs in many if not most Humanities & Social Science disciplines. If you fall into this category, it will help you immeasurably if your chair can write more than “Tasha has told me she expects to be finished by May.” You want them, if possible, to write some form of “Tasha has written, and I have read four of the six chapters of her dissertation. Based on their finished quality and the command they display, I am very confident that she will finish by next May.” One Berkeley professor I spoke with wrings out the potential ambiguity by asking ABDs for a list of chapters, a description of where each is in terms of completion, and an estimated completion date.

    If you are farther from completion, but are still going on the market, talk to your chair about the most reasonable way to describe your situation and expectations. As an ABD on the market, you and your chair will be asked about your status (if it’s not in the letter and they are nonetheless seriously considering you, they may well call your chair and ask about it). You don’t want to place your chair in a position where they feel compromised or as if their credibility is at risk. It will help your candidacy if you’re both demonstrably on the same page.

    If you have taken an unusually long time to finish for reasons that are related to the quality of your scholarship (e.g., devoting three years to learning a new language and conducting original archival/fieldwork), discuss with your chair how to present the resultant time-to-degree as a mark of your seriousness and maturity as a scholar unwilling to cut corners.

  • The Types of Jobs You Expect to Apply For (and whether they might require separate letters): Students in fields that cross disciplines such as comparative literature or ethnic studies may need different letters for jobs housed in different departments (e.g., CompLit vs. French or Spanish vs. Latin American Studies), or, in some cases, large research universities versus small, liberal arts colleges. In some, although increasingly rare, cases faculty will offer and prefer to write separate letters for each of your applications. If this is the case, you might want to ask how you can be of help by running down pertinent information, etc.

  • Teaching: Even if you are only applying for jobs at major research universities, at least one letter has to speak to your abilities and potential as a teacher. The person who does this need not be your chair, rather it should be whoever can speak in the most authoritative terms about your ability to teach effectively and work with students. You want someone who can write on the basis of having seen you teach, has talked with students about your teaching, or has chosen you to serve as a TA, head TA or instructor (and can articulate the reasons why they chose you). If your teaching involves foreign language instruction, you will probably want a separate letter on your particular language pedagogy. For more on how to secure a letter that captures your abilities in the classroom, access Teaching Portfolio.

Even if you choose to waive your right to see your letters, you can ask either your dissertation chair or your department’s faculty placement advisor to review the letters in your file and ensure that all the bases have been covered. They are also in a position to help a relatively junior member of your committee or perhaps an international visiting scholar unfamiliar with the norms of your discipline draft an appropriate letter.

Under rare circumstances, through no fault of your own, it may be impossible for you to get a good letter or any letter from your chair/PI (e.g., death, illness, or has otherwise left the university). Should you find yourself in this situation, talk to either the department chair or the faculty placement advisor. If you don’t feel comfortable approaching either of them, ask a likely-sympathetic, tenured faculty member who appears to be well respected within your department (whether they’re in your field or not) for their advice and possible intercession.

Who Else Should You Ask?

Aside from your chair, there is no one who absolutely must be asked to write a letter. Many people ask everyone on their committee for a letter, but it is not necessary to have more than two from your committee (three is the most common number requested). Again, you want people who can write from an informed and enthusiastic perspective. Make an appointment to talk with them about the issues mentioned above. If you’re not entirely sure, confirm that they feel comfortable writing you a strong recommendation. A politic way to phrase this delicate question is to ask if the person “feels that they know you and your work well enough to write an effective letter.”

Oftentimes, graduate students develop a strong professional relationship with a scholar from another institution working in their specialty. It is perfectly legitimate, and even advantageous, to approach him or her for a letter for your file. Members of your committee, and Berkeley faculty in general, will be presumed to have a vested interest in getting your career well launched. As such, their letters are sometimes read with a grain of salt. A strong letter from a recognized authority in your field, who perhaps chaired your panel at a national conference, without the same institutional ties can carry even more weight than a similar letter from someone who has known you longer.

Throughout your career, you will go through numerous academic reviews and have to solicit (or have your department solicit) outside letters assessing your scholarship. They are a normal part of academic life. These are not your friends who have already gotten jobs, but people in your field who can detail a professional basis for your relationship and their ability to comment on your work.

Open versus Confidential Letters?

You may request either open or confidential letters. However, most faculty prefer to write confidential letters, and some, as is their right, will not write an open letter. Most people waive their right, but the choice is yours.

What Should Not Be In Your Letters

On rare occasions, letter writers include information that does not belong in an academic recommendation. Your letters should not make reference to personal information such as your age or marital status that is not germane to your ability to fulfill the functions listed in the job description. People have written letters that refer to an individual’s ability to perform despite having three young children or a physical disability, believing that they are doing a service. However, such information (as well as information about a person’s sexual orientation, ethnicity, place of birth, etc.) should not be in your letters of recommendation.

If you have open letters and see such information, you should try to find a gentle, non-confrontational way of asking the writer to remove it.

If your letters are confidential and you are concerned about the possible inclusion of inappropriate material, read on.

What To Do If You Suspect There May Be A Problem With One Of Your Letters

If you have chosen to waive your right to view your letters and have reason to believe that there may be a problem with one of your confidential letters, or if you just want reassurance that all is in order, there are typically two individuals within your department who are allowed to review your “confidential” letters. You may ask either your dissertation chair, or your department’s faculty placement advisor to review your file.

Setting Up a Letter File

For most graduate students, PhDs and postdocs, the easiest way to arrange for their letters to be sent to potential academic employers is to establish a letter file. Berkeley Career Engagement no longer maintains a Letter Service and most Berkeley grad students/postdocs utilize an outside vendor such as Rather than requesting multiple copies of your letters from your advisor to be sent to the many institutions on your list, a service like Interfolio will house your confidential letters and distribute them as requested by you for a modest fee. A letter service vendor can provide you with a quick and easy means of submitting dossiers even after you have left Berkeley. And as your career develops, new letters can be added.

Some departments such as Political Science and Sociology handle the recommendation process in-house. Someone, usually the graduate assistant, has forms available that you give to those you have asked to write on your behalf. At the same time, you will open a letter file that will house your letters as they are received. You may also be given the option of providing a CV, abstract, transcript, et. al. that will be duplicated and mailed out with your letters each time you request that your dossier be sent to a college or university. Some departments charge a fee for creating a file, and virtually all have a modest fee for processing each request.