Paul Kei Matsuda

Letters of Recommendation

Part of your dissertation committee members' job is to write letters of recommendation for you. Do not hesitate to ask. But your request for recommendation do need to be courteous, informative and--yes--early. Make your request at least two or three weeks in advance.

To make it easier to develop a strong and specific recommendation letter, provide the following information/documents:

  • A description of the job, grant, or award you are applying for (If you are applying for multiple jobs, provide a representative job announcement or a description of the kinds of jobs you are looking for.)
  • A copy of your application letter and/or application form. (If you are applying for multiple jobs, provide a representative sample.)
  • A copy of your most recent curriculum vitae (CV). (If you are applying for positions outside higher education, provide a copy of your resume.)
  • Any additional material about your research, teaching or service (e.g., major publications, teaching portfolio, teaching philosophy statement).
  • A sentence or two about what aspect of your work you want emphasized in the letter (but try not to sound demanding in your request).
  • A brief sketch of when and how you met the writer of the recommendation letter, what courses you have taken with that person, and any other special projects you have worked on with/for htat person (if it's not already clear from the CV). New!
  • The address to which the letter should be sent; if it's an online dossier service (e.g., Interfolio), then provide instructions (or links to the instructions page).
  • An SASE, if applicable (for campus mail, provide a large, self-addressed envelope).
  • A waiver form provided by the dossier service (if applicable; see below).
  • The date by which you need the letter. (This is important.)

In some cases, your committee members might say "no" to your request. Don't take it personally--the person is probably doing a favor by not writing anything less than a strong letter.

In addition to your committee members, consider asking other people who have an intimate knowledge of a certain aspect of your work as a student, teacher, or researcher. But don't ask someone to write this important letter just because the person is a well-known figure and you happen to know this person's email or have had a few drinks with that person. That doesn't count as "intimate knowledge" in this case.

Asking someone who has worked with you on a professional committee is good, especially if the person can attest to your work ethic and dedication to the field; but it may not help unless you have other people writing strong letters focusing on your intellectual capacity and your potential as a productive teacher and/or researcher.

What about that big figure who has said good things about your presentation at a conference or have read and commented on your manuscripts? I still wouldn't count on the person to write a strong letter based on those brief encounters. You really have to establish close working relationships with several faculty members and perhaps other people in the field.

Recommendation letters are not worth anything if the applicant does not waive the right to see them. If you are planning to apply for multiple positions, establish a credentials file (aka. dossier). Some institutions provide their own dossier services for graduate students; others outsource. Some of my former students have used a service called Interfolio with good results. (No, I'm not being paid to endorse this service.)

Your dossier might include three letters of recommendation and undergraduate/graduate transcripts from all post-secondary institutions you have attended.

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Last update: January 6, 2008