This is a series of recommendations by Meghan Sullivan (Notre Dame) on how to write better letters of recommendation for job applicants and applicants for graduate study. I find them all excellent, and am inviting readers to give their own tips and tricks. Note: The norms are obviously somewhat different for tenure and promotion letters.
- The letter is primarily an argument, or series of arguments for choosing the candidate for the relevant position. So rules of good argument apply. There should be reasons I think this person should be chosen. Those reasons should be backed up with concrete examples. It should highlight their special strengths. My reasoning for valuing the candidates should be persuasive.
- I shouldn’t say something in a letter that I would not feel comfortable saying publicly. These letters get widely distributed within departments, especially if a candidate makes it to the finalist rounds.
- I am going to avoid explicit qualitative comparisons between the candidate and other philosophers in their neighborhood. I know this is controversial, but first I don’t find them very helpful (especially if a writer has done their job vis-à-vis point #1). And look, I would never feel comfortable posting a comparison like that publicly. So those kind of comparisons violate #2. I also have some lingering worries that such comparisons are the hiding places for implicit biases I have.
- If you can divide a letter up with subheadings for specific topics you are addressing, that makes it way easier for me to read. Dissertation, further research, teaching skill, contribution to metaphysics…. If it is a long letter, ca. 2 pages (or more), it is nice to see the structure.
- For candidates, my advice is super straightforward. I can't write you a letter if you wait too long to show me any of your work. It helps a lot if you are working on something I am seriously invested in, since it is hard to make arguments for fields you do not know well. I need about 1.5-2 months warning to do a job letter well. And I need you to give me drafts of your writing sample, CV, teaching and research statements, etc before I can really get cooking on the letter.