Don’t ask for letters of recommendation up front

I’ve been sitting on this for a while, not wanting to piss off hiring committees who might evaluate my own applications. I have applied for over a hundred tenure-track faculty positions, and I’ve had over a dozen in-person interviews. One of the things that has always struck me is the incredible degree to which the time of anyone not on the hiring committee is devalued. This is true of the applicants’ time, but today I’m mainly talking about the time of their references.

It’s typical to request three letters of recommendation with an application, but some departments will request four or (rarely) five. In most cases, the application is considered incomplete and will not be considered until all of the letters are submitted. If one of your references has a hard time with deadlines, tough.

In most cases, your references will be fairly senior scientists, Associate Professor or above. It would be nearly impossible, for example, for your Ph.D. advisor to be an Assistant Professor, since that position typically lasts about as long as a Ph.D. In my case, all three of my references were full Professors, one a department head. In nearly every case, all three references will be highly productive scientists. Their time is valuable, not just in terms of salary but in terms of advancing science. Requiring letters of recommendation up front wastes it.

Letters of recommendation should be requested by the committee, and they should be requested after the first cut.

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