How to Choose and Use Academic Recommendations

How to Choose and Use Academic Recommendations September 13, 2008

As I am in the process of applying for academic jobs, I am confronted with the important matter of who to ask for a recommendation and why.  This raises an important issue: what are references for?  What kind of reference is most useful or impressive?  I don’t have the answers since I have only been on the applying side and not the hiring side, but I do have thoughts.  My hope, though, is that others who may know more than I do will weigh in in the comments!  Please, inform me and/or correct me!

So, here are some of my guesses, reflections, and thought.

1. What are references for?

On a basic level, they are a way of making sure that who you say you are in your CV is really reflective of your personality, character, and competency.  Thus, it is important to get someone who knows you pretty well (i.e., someone you actually took a course from or who knows and has read your work in some detail).

2. How many recommendations will I need?

Most hiring institutions will ask for three.  And, most of these do not specify any further.

3. Do I need to know someone famous?

Well, the short answer is no.  I mean, not everyone who would be a good candidate happens to also be D.A. Carson’s or N.T. Wright’s apprentice (though I know someone who is 🙂 ).  You need men and women of integrity, hopefully in full-time teaching, who can vouch for you.  Ideally, one of your recommenders is a senior scholar.  What is a senior scholar?  Whether they are well-known or not, a senior scholar is a full professor (tenured, in American terms, a ‘professor’ in UK terms) and has a strong publishing record.  Don’t panic, most of the time your doctoral supervisor will fit this bill.  Another good test of a senior scholar (in New Testament) is membership in SNTS.  Now, if they happen to also be Richard Bauckham or Stanley Porter or Beverly Gaventa – that is a boost and will help.

4.  How do I choose my three?

As I said, the first should be a senior scholar, hopefully in the primary field of study you are applying to.  And, hopefully you have taken at least 2 courses with him or are supervised by her.  As for the others, I have some ideas, but these are just my opinions.  First, you want to diversify.  Having all three from the same institution is not ideal unless you are at Duke or Cambridge (and the like).  See if someone from your master’s institution can also write one.  Or your undergrad if you studied biblical studies.  Now if you studied classics in undergrad, a rec from your history prof would also be attractive (I think).  Having two from your PhD institution is not bad at all.  When it comes down to it, try to make sure they really know you and know your strengths.

5. What are the referees going to write about?

Frankly, I don’t know.  Partly it depends on how they know you.  Partly it depends on what you’ve done and what your strengths are.  And, partly it depends on the nature of the job you are applying for.  Once again, ideally, you want one of them who can speak about your teaching abilities.  Also, at least one of them should know your writing and research potential and capabilities.  If you are applying at a seminary, perhaps the hiring committee would be interested if a referee could comment on your maturity and character.

6. I DON’T KNOW THREE SCHOLARS, what do I do!!!!!

Well, that is a set back.  If you could turn back time, I would tell you to begin your PhD with the idea that you will attend conferences, look for teaching opportunities, and dialog over email with scholars not only for the purpose of learning for your thesis and strengthening your skill set, but also for establishing yourself in a scholarly community that is mutually beneficial (i.e. ‘schmoozing’).  As a Christian who is trying to be Christ-like I know it is not pious to kiss up to the big names and ignore other students and so-called ‘nobodies’.  And, I discourage you from having an atitude that would foster these negative patterns.  At the same time, it doesn’t hurt to be a bit bold and try and get to know some scholars in the field (while not snubbing others).  How?  This is tough because everyone is different.  An important and easy way is to attend and present papers at smaller conferences (like regional SBL).  The smallness lends itself to being in such close quarters that it is easy to strike up a conversation.  You may have to have to guts to say to a scholar if they tell you they liked your paper, ‘Would you be interested in having a copy; also, I would be happy to receive comments and feedback in more detail’.  Is this annoying to scholars?  Well….often…yes.  But, not always.  And most scholars will say no if they don’t want to.

All in all, though, I can’t underestimate the importance of attending and especially presenting papers at conferences (especially the British NT conference if you study here).

7. How do they know what to write?

I usually email some information to my referees such as my CV, a sample cover letter, a short note on my ministry experience and current involvement, and anything else that will help them ‘remember’ me (if it has been a while).  You may even want to phone them at first as that form of contact will help them to see how important they are to you and how much you will appreciate their support (I sound like a politician, don’t I?).

8.  How do I know if my referees will say good things?

You don’t.  They seal the references and send them in directly.  But one can hope that they would turn you down for a reference if they did not plan on supporting your job application.

Well, that’s all I have to say.  Now, please, let me hear from you in the comments.  How to do references help you get a job?  What can you do to make this element of your application better?  I would suggest, of course, lots of prayer.

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