That special time of the year is here! Commence the recommendation letter-writing season.
The old adage holds that recommendation letters, particularly those for the Ph.D. market, must be personalized, caressed, scented, and sent by carrier pigeon. I found a job using the Interfolio dossier service and I advise all my students, both graduate and undergraduate, do the same. My reasoning is as follows:
A dossier service enables you to request and to send personalized letters. This takes care of the most commonly voiced and clearly mistaken notion to the contrary.
Online recommendation management systems create a clear paper trail attached to the letter (both for the recommender and the recommended). You can tell exactly which letters have been submitted and when, giving both parties more control over the usually opaque and stressful process.
With the proliferation of custom online submission forms writing multiple recommendation letters is an administrative challenge for your recommenders. In my experience, services like Interfolio ease the administrative burden, leaving them (us!) with more time to write better recommendations.
A few decades ago, it was not uncommon for graduate students to apply for two-three jobs and expect their advisers to write personalized letters to each. Today, that is not the case. Applying for ten, twenty, or thirty jobs would not be out of the ordinary, with as many if not more post-doc applications. Knowing this, does anyone in the recommendation process care about generic personalization? Letter writers take note: individualized letters should be written only when you have a personal connection to the person, place, or institution which you are addressing. Anything else diminishes your letter, your candidate, and your reputation. Write personal letters when you truly have something personal to say. Otherwise, write an amazing letter which can be reused repeatedly.
With this in mind, letter-askers can follow these these common-sense guidelines when asking for recommendations:
- Reestablish your connection. I find an office visit or a Skype call to be most helpful, followed by an email detailing your requirements and containing all necessary materials, instructions, verbiage to facilitate letter writing.
- Provide a detailed list of jobs and universities you are applying for.
- Ask for a general letter and explain why. (“I am applying for 30+ things, and I wouldn’t like to bother you for each general recommendation.”)
- Ask whether it would make sense for your writer to write several personalized letters to places where he or she may have a meaningful connection. Keep your personalized requests to a reasonable number. Your goal is to have a few stellar personalized letter and one inter-galactically awesome general letter that you can use at your discretion.
- Provide personal assistance with any administrative tasks (from labeling letters to explaining dossier service procedures).
When everyone’s special, no one is. It holds true for children and letters of recommendation alike. With best wishes for the holidays,