It’s no big deal for your supervisor to write you a bunch of reference letters

Lurking on Twitter and ecoevojobs.net, I sometimes see graduate students and postdocs feeling apologetic and even guilty about asking people for lots of reference letters. They worry that they’re asking for a big favor, which will burden their current and former supervisors with a ton of unwanted extra work. And I can see where they’re coming from. Nobody likes making extra work for other people, or asking too many favors of other people.

But speaking for myself, and for every PI I’ve spoken to about this (which obviously isn’t a census or random sample of all PIs, but isn’t a tiny sample either), let me reassure you that you don’t need to worry about this. Your request for a reference letter is not a burden, and fulfilling it is not a huge favor. It’s part of my job to write reference letters for my current and former mentees. As many letters as they want, forever. Further, I’m happy to do it, because I want my current and former mentees to succeed, whether that’s in or out of academia. And it’s not much work for me. Once I’ve written the first letter for you, it’s a trivial amount of additional work to resend it a bunch of times and update it as needed. All this remains true even for PIs who are way more senior and successful than me and so have way more current and former mentees asking them for letters.

Meghan will have advice on how to ask for a reference letter in a future post.

38 thoughts on “It’s no big deal for your supervisor to write you a bunch of reference letters

  1. I do agree that letters are part of my job, perhaps one of THE most important parts, and I certainly enjoy writing them for my students. No student should hesitate to ask for one if he or she feels that I am well qualified to write it.

    However, I disagree about letter writing not being a big burden. It is. Really good letters are hard to write. They take a lot of time to put together, write, rewrite, and rewrite again. My point being that students often ask for those letters at the last minute. Perhaps this is because it takes them that long to screw up their courage to ask for “the favor”.

    For a good student, who I know will be asking for a letter, I might spend a couple weeks just thinking about what I want to say about that student. What unique things do I know about this person and how can I best communicate this? I will make some notes for reference as different ideas come to me.

    I am more than willing to write letters for anyone that I know well enough because I have taught, advised, or employed them (or maybe all three), but it takes time, so ask well in advance. For undergrads that will be applying for graduate school, ask me in October, even September. I won’t finish a letter that is due on 1 December until midNovember at the earliest, but I will start it weeks or months in advance, if you give me the chance. And your letter from me will be better for it.

    • Cheers for this Brent. I agree with you that it’s always better to have more notice rather than less, though in my experience (and without meaning to criticize you) I think you’re unusual in preferring as much notice as you do. I like to have a couple of weeks notice if possible, just because I might have teaching and other obligations that prevent me from giving the letter my immediate attention.

      I believe Meghan’s upcoming post will talk about how much notice to give your reference letter writers. “As much as you can” never hurts.

    • For me there is a bit of a difference between writing letters for somebody I know well (grad students and undergrads who worked in my lab) vs. an undergrad in a large class who has asked me because they feel more of a connection with their profs in their other large classes.

      I’m happy to do either letter (and consider it part of my job). But the former letters come very quickly, while the latter take a lot of work to try to read their CV, their application, and tie it to the sometimes few things I remember about them from class to make a good letter. I think people who teach large undergrad classes that students like get a lot more of these requests.

      And as several people have noted, huge distinction between first letter and later letters. First letter (or first letter for something radically different – e.g. first faculty job when I have only written postdoc recommendations before – give me weeks notice. Later letters, as long as you know I won’t be able to craft it, 24 hours is adequate although 48 is preferred.

  2. Here’s my question, and perhaps I should’ve polled on this: how common is this feeling among mentees?

    My admittedly-anecdotal experience is that it’s common among undergrads at my big public university. But rare among grad students or postdocs.

  3. Via Twitter:

  4. An emerging theme in the comments is “I’m happy to write you a reference letter, but if it’s the first letter I’ve ever written for you please give me a bit of notice”:

  5. From someone who’s asked for about a dozen letters in the last few months, it helps a lot if letter writers have clearly held preferences/requests for (1) how much notice they’d like and (2) whether and how they want reminders and (3) what info they want from me regarding each position. I feel less guilty than before (but still a little guilty) in repeatedly asking for my recommenders’ time and effort now that I know what each of them expects from me. Also, a little tangential, but for folks writing letters–you have NO IDEA how much of a relief it is to be able to trust that your letter writers will get letters in on time. If you can give your people that assurance, then please do!

      • You’d be surprised (or not) how often people still agree to write letters and then don’t get them in on time, or require endless hounding around the submission deadline (none of my letter writers! Mine are wonderful!).

    • I agree getting the letter in on time is part of the commitment an adviser makes.

      That said, I tell people rather openly that they should feel free to bug me, and bug me frequently, especially when we’re down to the last 3-4 days. I feel bad about it – its my job not theirs at that point. But its a reality of my life (and most faculty) that there is too much to do and the squeaky wheel gets oiled. So I’ve tried managing that by encouraging squeaks where I want to prioritize. Otherwise that nag letter from the dean to finish my umpteenth required training might get bumped to the front of my mind. That may just be my weird quirk.

      But you should absolutely feel OK being pretty firm about your letters when they’re down to a the last few days by engaging with your adviser and in wanting to know when they’re going to submit. Be polite of course. But I think most faculty are neutral to glad to be reminded.

      • In that case, explicitly stating to trainees at the outset (and maybe you do this!), “please send me a reminder 2 weeks/1week/1 day before the deadline” would help…then I could put “remind Brian about letter” into my calendar. As with most things, it’s the uncertainty that is really stressful.

      • Yep – absolutely. I normally tell people to remind me 1 week prior, 2 days prior, and to bug the heck out of me after that (I have avoided the but the heck stage almost always). I do put the same reminders in my own calendar, but they carry more weight when they come from another person that I am rooting to succeed. Not entirely rational, but it works.

        And clear expectations and communciations all around is a right of and should be expected by students/advisees.

    • And Elizabeth Borer’s reply to the above:

      • It occurs to me that one possible bad effect of being needlessly anxious about asking for reference letters is if it causes you to wait until the last minute to ask for them.

  6. A thought: I wonder if some anxiety about asking for reference letters is really anxiety about asking for letters for jobs you see as longshots?

    If so, I’d say maybe have a conversation with your supervisor or some other mentor about your job search strategy. In general, applying early and widely is the way to go. Trying to guess the positions for which you’ll be “competitive”, and then only apply for those positions, is a mug’s game. And many people get hired into positions they thought were longshots. But having said that, there is such a thing as applying too widely (e.g., I didn’t apply to biochemistry jobs, or jobs teaching anatomy and physiology, and not just because I didn’t want them; I was totally unqualified for such positions). So if your real underlying worry is “am I wasting my time applying too widely?”, talk to your supervisor or other mentor for advice.

  7. Sorry to hear this:

  8. Great post. I’ve been applying for jobs/fellowships for 5 years, and after finally securing a long-term position, it was a HUGE relief to be able to stop asking my writers. Asking a PhD or postdoc supervisor is pretty straightforward, but those third and fourth letter writers are more challenging. I rotated those writers over the years as it seemed unreasonable to ask people who are less invested to write such a large number of letters.

    You are absolutely correct that asking for letters for jobs that are “a reach” is stressful. Also, finding job ads late adds to the guilt. My writers were always supportive (every single one of them), but anxiety is unavoidable when asking people for up to 100 letters.

    At the beginning of this job season, I wrote a list of all of the jobs that I was applying for including deadline dates and a link to each job ad (with an updated cv). I also sent an email requesting letters closer to the due date. Of course other jobs came up, but this at least gave my writers an idea of what was coming. The list provided my writers with as much lead time as possible and reduced my anxiety of having to ask for new letters every week of job season. In turn, my students who are asking for large numbers of letters supply me those types of lists and it makes it so much easier when I can look at their list on my bulletin board/Google Calendar.

    If you are an applicant, be organized and keep asking. I you are a supervisor, this is a stressful period so support is crucial and appreciated more than you will ever know. If you are on a search committee, please consider ways to streamline the process.

    PS – I am wondering if anyone has ever secured a TT job without using their PhD advisor as a writer. Mine was awesome, but what should people do if they aren’t?

  9. Via Twitter. This is getting into some different issues:

  10. Would love to also see a post on how to *write* letters for those of us new to the game. Especially how to deal with tricky situations (like a student who isn’t great at X).

  11. Pingback: A few final words of encouragement for prospective applicants for the ASN Jasper Loftus-Hills Young Investigator Awards (applications due Jan. 1!) | Dynamic Ecology

  12. Via Twitter:

    In passing, I note that I don’t show my mentees the letters I write for them. How many people do?

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