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« Another Cover-Letter Question, and Well-Wishes | Main | Questions on Updating CVs »

09/19/2013

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Timothy

I think it is a very bad idea to try to get letters from people who have only heard a talk you gave or had a conversation with you for an evening. If someone has not read a substantial amount of your work, they cannot provide any information to me as a search committee member that is useful. Indeed, such letters often irritat me, because it makes me feel like the candidate is trying to put one ver on me, and sway me by including a famous name.

On the other hand, an outside letter from someone who is obviously familiar with your work is a plus.

Rachel

To the main question: you know the person well enough to ask. (In fact, I think the barrier for permissibly *asking* is very, very low.) The more important question, I think, is the one Timothy addresses: is it a good idea to get a letter from such a person?

What I would do is contact the person and ask them if they're willing to write you a job reference letter. Remind them where you met them and that you enjoyed the conversations about x,y, and z. Then ask them if they'd be willing to read some of your work (in that it would help with the content of their letter). If so, you'd be happy to send along some recent work along with your CV.

So what I'm saying is that it's *fine* to ask for them to write a letter and *then* offer to send them work to read (to help them write the letter), rather than (what I take to be Marcus's suggestion) to do it in the reverse order. In either case, it's better if they read some of your recent work before they write the letter.

Jay

Be careful about this, however: you ask someone, not in your department, and they don't know you or your work that well (they weren't a reader for your dissertation, they haven't read 2+ papers of yours, you've talked philosophy with them under 10 times, etc.) when you ask them.

But they are a "nice person" and agree to write on your behalf. You'd be surprised how nice people can be.

But, not knowing you that well, their letter is only 'eh': "X seems like a very smart philosopher, and I thought X's comments at Fancy Conference were very insightful. I don't know all of X's work, but I think X's paper on WYZ is very good; a real contribution to the literature." (This can happen, too, even if a person is well-intentioned and even genuinely thinks well of you. They, being nice, agree to write a letter, but then they realize that they don't have that much evidence on which to base a very strong case for you, and letter writers do worry about their credibility in vouching for people...)

Several problems at this point.

Very important fact: if you have outside letters (someone not from your PhD granting department, or, to a lesser extent, not from your Post-Doc or VAP), those letters will be seen as much more credible than the home-school letters. Those people don't have a vested interest in singing your praises. What that means, however, is that you *really* don't want an outside letter that is weaker than any of your home-school letters. And you *certainly* don't want an outside letter that is weaker than all of your home-school letters. That can easily spell doom.

The hard thing, of course, is that you won't get to see the letters, and many placement chairs either don't vet them much, or don't pay attention to this consideration in particular. It's seen by some as a 'nice bonus' to have an outside letter, even if it's not as strong.

So, this worry provides a real reason not to ask people who you know don't know you or your work that well. The odds that they'll write a super-strong letter are nil. And you should know that. (Unless you are someone who is pretty sure your home school letters are weak, in which case you're kind of in trouble already.) So it's quite likely that your outside letter from such a person will be among the weakest or perhaps the weakest letter in your file. And that's bad news.

Of course, everyone will understand that the letters from an outside person won't be as in-depth as they would be from your supervisor. But for it to be a good idea, you have to believe that the outside letter will be in the same quality/detail ballpark, or you have to believe that they are going to say *very* positive (if somewhat abbreviated) things about you, not just generically positive things about you. (Perhaps they *offered* to write you a letter.)

I think candidates often forget that there's a kind of gestalt thing that goes on with applications and particularly letters. If you have three very strong letters, your file is made worse "gestalt wise" if you add a fourth letter that is just 'eh'. This might seem misguided, but you have to think of it from the hiring committee's side of things, where they know the incentives home-school departments have to inflate letters.

Another thing that can happen. Nice person agrees to write a letter. But then nice person realizes that 3 of his/her students are on the market. Consciously or unconsciously, this can influence how strong the letter for you (random person he/she met at a conference) is going to be, even if they like you...

Derek

One concern I have with this -- especially if you don't have a strong relationship with the person you are asking (which certainly doesn't exclude those from outside of your department, but if you have only met them once I would be wary) -- is that it is very difficult to turn someone down when they ask you to write a letter of recommendation. Of course, if you don't think you can write someone a good letter of recommendation you should certainly tell them so, but most cases are not quite so clear. At least in my own case (though I suspect I'm not alone), I have convinced myself that I can write a strong letter largely based on my desire to do so, only to find out later that I should have declined. In any case, I think that, if you ask, you should always leave them an easy out -- i.e. "Would you be willing to write me a letter of recommendation? If you are not comfortable or do not think that you can write me a strong letter of recommendation please don't feel bad about declining." I think that "Would you be willing to write me a good letter?" is too weak also. In any case, it's something to consider.

H

I agree with Timothy and some of the other respondents: it is a bad idea to ask a letter from someone who doesn't know your work. I once asked a very famous philosopher to write a letter on my behalf. He had read one paper of mine I sent him and he was impressed by it, so I hoped it would be a strong letter, and that by a famous person. He sent me a copy of the letter he sent to the Scs (which I did not ask, but he wanted to send it) and it was, alas, disappointingly short, only a few lines. It mentioned he had never met me, but thought very well of me, that he read the one paper and thought it was excellent. That was about it. For the SCs that year it must have looked that I was merely looking for a big name to make my file look more impressive, and my job search was not very successful.
Second year on the market: I asked my advisor and two external readers of my dissertation to write letters. None of them are as senior as the letter writer. This time, the letters were strong (I did not read them, but a SC member said the letters were definitely favorable and detailed), and I landed a tenure track position.
Conclusion: Don't ask people who don't know your work well, just so that you can have a letter from a bigname. Even if there intentions are good, they are simply not in the position to write something that will impress SCs.

Chike Jeffers

I asked someone I had met only once in person and who had never read anything of mine for a letter, but it made sense in my case. The person didn't *read* anything of mine but had *heard* me give a paper at a conference focused on his work. He sent me an email that said: "It was a great pleasure to meet you at {title of the conference} and to hear your paper. Your discussion of certain aspects of my thinking was superior to any I have heard." When someone says something like that, it pretty strongly suggests the letter will be good.

I am also quite certain that his letter was helpful in my job search... one strong piece of evidence: I ended up getting a job offer from the department he had retired from!

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