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associate prof at R1

FWIW--I've asked two different people who didn't know my written work well (or at all) to write letters for me. The first said no. That didn't affect our relationship, as far as I can tell; he still thinks highly of me, we see each other at conferences, everything is fine. (I made sure to couch the request in terms where it was very clear that it would be supererogatory and I was not expecting him to say yes.)

The second said yes, read a bunch of my work, and wrote me what I believe is a very strong letter. We also still have a great relationship. (Both of these were quite a few years ago, but I assume things aren't somehow different now.)

I'm not sure there's a moral here, but if there is I think that is if you ask in such a way where you make very clear that you know this isn't in the standard, required realm of their letter writing, they don't have a special obligation to you, etc., and that you have other options if they say no (so they don't say yes out of feeling bad for you and then write a mediocre letter), I don't think you have much to lose in asking.

letter requester

I've never asked someone who I'd either not met in person or who I didn't already know read my work. But I agree with what others have said here: phrase it right and you have nothing to lose. One thing that I say in my request email is that I have other people I can ask for letters and so there's no pressure for them to write one.

Paul Carron

it strikes me that this isn't unlike external reviews for a tenure notebook. In that case, it can't be someone from your diss committee or a grad school prof or a co-author or editor of a collection you published in etc. So, someone has to do it who at best you know from conferences most likely. Now, you don't do the asking (you chair does), and it requires a LOT more work, but if folks are willing to say yes to that, then I would imagine some folks would be willing write you a letter.

Now, here's the flip-side. I write lots of letters for undergrads, and my policy is that they need to have taken me for at least 2 classes and received a B+ or higher in each class. I tell them that this is because I need to be able to write a letter with specific examples of their work and intellectual character, and because I want to be able to actually recommend them. So, it would seem that you would be asking for someone to read a good chunk of your work, which isn't a small ask. But if you write it as Marcus suggests, the worse that will happen is that they will politely decline.

Lady Detective

For this year's job search, I asked two new people to write and they both said no.

The first person said no in a kind of jerk-like way—"why would you think I would be a good person to write for you?—and the second person, a co-author, said no because he was finishing a book and did not have time to write it.

These rejections lead me on to ask two people much better known in my field and much more familiar with my work to write for for me. And they both said yes immediately.

So, FWIW, I draw two conclusions to pass on:

1. If someone says no to your request for a letter, it may be for the best. They might not be able to write you a strong letter. So don't take it too negatively if you ask and people say no.

2, More importantly, if you are holding back from asking people well known in your field who know your work, because of fear of looking like a fool, don't hesitate.

As Marcus states above, there is really no downside to asking and having people decline you.

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