Making the Most of Academic References

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References as they are known in much of Western Europe, Africa and Asia, or letters of recommendation as Americans and Canadians refers to them are essential part of the academic job application process. In fact, your prospect of securing an interview may depend on the strength of the wordings in those letters. Academic job adverts often require three letters of recommendations and sometimes up to five letters. While it may seem obvious, candidates, especially new PhDs do not always know who to ask for references and what they should do in order to ensure that those letters add strong weight to their application.

Amadu J. Kaba secured a tenured position at America’s Seton Hall University in 2010, he believes the letters of recommendation he requested went a long way in securing the post.

“I would say that these letters account for at least 15% of getting academic jobs and the remaining 85% including teaching, research and service,” says Dr Kaba who is now an Associate Professor of sociology.

Who should write academic references or letters of recommendation?

Samuel Durrant, a senior lecturer at University of Leeds’ School of English, United Kingdom. has the experience of writing references for academic job candidates, most recently last month, which got to the interview stage. He says the recommender can be your PhD supervisor, your external examiner or an academic who can attest to your teaching capability.

Dr Kaba agrees:

“The professors who serve on ones’ dissertation committee are the most suitable to write these letters because they know you very well during the best of times and during times of difficulty. So they get to know your temperament and how you deal with adversity. You can also consider asking your mentors who may not have been your professors but you regularly go to them for advice or useful feedback especially when you are about to make very important decisions.”

What role should the job applicant play?

Both Dr Kaba and Dr Durrant stress the fact that the job applicant must play a very active role in the drafting of this letter. Dr Durrant advises that it is better if you provide your referee with an up-to-date resume, your cover letter for the position you are applying for as it is important for you and your recommender not to contradict one another. In addition, it is advisable to provide your referee a web-link to the job description. He suggests you give your recommender as much help as possible short of actually writing the letter yourself.

Dr Kaba warns that job applicants must request references well ahead of time - at least a few weeks. He says you should make sure to send gentle reminders because senior academics are under a lot of pressure and sometimes they might forget. Also make sure to contact the institution to check and make sure that your letter arrives on time.

How can references be effective?

Dr Durrant points out that in order for these letters to be effective they should sum up what kind of scholar or teacher a prospective university employer would be getting.

“The letter should speak to recent research be it PhD or post-PhD work and should be as positive as possible,” he says.

For the job applicant, Dr Kaba advises that such letters must also contain information such as how long your referee has known you and in what capacity. How prompt you are in attending classes and how active you are in doing assignments and class participation. They must clearly explain your ability to conduct pure academic research, including your ability to publish scholarly and peer-reviewed journal articles.

“Your ability to work with others must be clearly pointed out in the letter. Your ability to remain calm under pressure and not let anyone get under your skin and make you lose your temper even if you are right,” he says. “This is very important information that the writer must convey. The letter must also discuss your willingness and readiness to serve on various types of committees on campus and also serve your community when asked.”

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