how to manage letter-writers who lack administrative support

Nearly everyone agrees that letters of recommendation are a lousy system that provides little information, rewards high-status connections, and provides lots of opportunities for recommenders to inadvertently damn their recommendees (see past orgtheory discussions here, here, and here). Yet for now, at least, we’re stuck with them.

Job season is approaching, and grad students are getting ready to request letters. If you’re at a well-financed program, your department will have an administrative person responsible for making sure your letters reach their many destinations. If you’re at a program like, well, mine, your letter-writers will find themselves sending 40-60 (or more) letters in a variety of formats for each of several students on the market. Needless to say, this is a big administrative pain.

A graduate student about to go on the market (okay, it was the awesome Josh McCabe, hire him!) asked this week about the best way to manage all these letter requests. Here’s my thoughts:

1) If you have the money, using Interfolio would be simplest, safest, and easiest for your letter-writers. They can upload letter(s) once and you can send them wherever, and whenever, you want. This is what I did when I applied for a handful of fellowships last year (the political economy of letters doesn’t end once you have a job). But Interfolio costs $6 a pop, and I’m not comfortable asking grad students to pay that for each of those 40-60 applications, possibly over multiple years.

2) Otherwise, there are a couple of principles to remember, beyond the general stuff that you’d do even if your department has administrative staff to handle letters.

– Ask what you can do to facilitate the process. Different people like different things. Personally, I don’t like complicated job spreadsheets, which can be idiosyncratic and hard to read. What I like is a list of basic info in the email — contact person, email/website/snail mail address, deadline (in bold!), link to the ad, a phrase or two on the job (e.g. “organizations, quant preferred”), and whether you’d like the research or teaching version of your letter — sorted either by deadline or by type of submission (website, email, or hard copy). Others may differ.

– Batch, batch, batch. There is nothing worse than receiving those 50 requests one at a time. Aim to send your requests once a month, maybe once every two weeks during the busiest season. Yes, there will be jobs posted that may make this impossible sometimes, but to the extent possible, group your requests.

– Manage up. FIgure out how your letter-writers work, and what you need to do to stay on top of them. If they are totally organized, you may not need to follow up. Personally, I just reply with “Done” when I’ve sent a batch out so the student knows when it’s been taken care of. If you don’t completely trust your recommenders to be on top of deadlines, you may want to mention in your request that you’ll check in a week before the next deadline to confirm. In some cases, online application systems will tell you whether letters have been submitted, which will allow you to avoid excess emails. But this is not always possible, and it’s totally reasonable to ask for confirmation that letters have actually been sent.

– Stay organized yourself. There are a lot of bits and pieces to manage on the job market. Keep track of what you’ve done and what you need to do, so you aren’t inadvertently making multiple requests that a letter be sent to the same place.

Sending letters, while a pain, is part of the job of faculty and almost everyone recognizes that. Perhaps we’ll eventually get a centralized system that will eliminate this problem, or, even better, abandon letters. But until then, there are better and worse ways to manage the process. (Also, are we the only department out there where faculty send all the letters themselves, or is this fairly common?)


Written by epopp

July 12, 2014 at 4:50 pm

Posted in academia

4 Responses

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  1. Great post. Especially the parts about batching, being organized, managing up, asking letter writers how they want to work. Especially in a larger department, your letter writers may have a dozen or more students they are writing for. (You don’t just write for advisees; each student needs 3-5 letters.) It is bad enough keeping track of all the automated emails from employers giving links to upload sites, but really frustrating and annoying to track down the relevant information from the student when it is scattered across multiple emails. Ask yourself what the person needs to do your letters and organize it all into one place. And yes, it is helpful to get it all at once. An email with a list of jobs and deadlines but no contact information or job description details is a waste of everybody’s time.

    An Interfolio note: it costs $4 a letter for applications to places that have on-lilne or email portals for letters (instead of accepting them as one big package along with the other application materials).

    And the spread of automated systems means that even departments with administrative support generally cannot buffer faculty from the need to manage the letters. It really only takes a minute to do a letter upload if everything is organized; that’s easy.

    And, oh yes, writing letters is part of the job. You do not need to apologize for asking for them.



    July 12, 2014 at 9:03 pm

  2. It is part of the job – in sociology. In anthropology (my partner’s field), including letters of rec in the initial job packet is actually discouraged by the AAA, in part because of the burden they place on people’s time. Names of references may be asked for, but letters themselves are supposed to be requested for short-list candidates.

    See their recommendation for employers here:

    The job wiki for cultural anthropology last year had a list of name and shame ‘violators’:

    So, abandoning letters, at least for this first stage, is possible!



    July 14, 2014 at 5:31 pm

  3. OW: Good point about automated systems making the administrative support irrelevant. That makes complete sense.

    Michaela: What a sensible idea. Now that I’m thinking about it, I guess that more sociology departments are waiting to ask for letters than did a few years ago. But it would be nice, and seemingly simple, to make that the new norm.



    July 15, 2014 at 10:35 pm

  4. I’m of the “get everything at the beginning” school, including writing samples, especially now that they come in electronically and it isn’t that much harder for the applicant to send everything than to send just a cover letter and cv, although I of course agree that you cannot closely read everything. But I worry that the sparser the file, the more the initial screen is based on a 15 second scan of a cv that mostly focuses on prestige markers. Writing samples can give a boost to someone from a lower-prestige background. Letters from known writers can give a boost to someone who hasn’t published a lot yet, but given that they are also a prestige factor and entail extra work for the profession (unless they just come in as part of a whole file, as they do from Interfolio), I could be persuaded to rethink that stance.



    July 15, 2014 at 11:07 pm

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