Advice sought: polite pleas for letters

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Advice sought: polite pleas for letters

Postby Amanda » Mon Dec 06, 2004 4:20 pm


I'm a late stage postdoc, currently applying for tenure track positions at the assistant professor level. I put many hours into my application, making sure the CV was just so, writing and rewriting my research plan. Now I am dismayed to learn from some of the departments I applied to that they cannot consider my application because they haven't yet received a letter of recommendation from my PhD supervisor. I requested the letters over two months ago, provided all the information, volunteered to mail them, followed up. What can I do now? I am in a situation where I have to tread gently to avoid irritating someone because I need him to do me this essential "favor."

Any suggestions for politely forcing him send lettes ASAP would be appreciated.

Incidentally, I'm not taking this personally. I consider myself on good terms with my former supervisor. I had an enjoyable and productive grad school experience -- published four papers in good journals and had a lot of fun. I know my advisor both likes me and respects my work. He just hates doing this type of administrative chore.


Advice sought: polite pleas for letters

Postby Bill L. » Mon Dec 06, 2004 4:42 pm

Hi Amanda,

The fact is you can't force him, politely or otherwise, to send your letter. You can send another nice note/email, you can follow up again by phone or in person, and you can remind him that he made a commitment to complete your letter by a particular date (and many people who hate this administrative chore find ways to complete it anyway or just politely refuse your request intitially), you can let him know that his letter is the only thing holding up your application.

In short, you can continue being as professional and polite as I'm sure you have been. In some cases, what people need is just the constant, tiny needling to get something done. This is frustrating, but it's the way it works.

But you might want to also consider getting yourself another letter. In short, working on getting in two letters will help you push the process forward, no matter who's letter gets their first. This of course, is assuming that the institution will accept that one of your letters will not be from your PhD supervisor.

Also, since you'll probably be applying elsewhere, you might want to have him write a letter for you and keep a copy of it, so you won't be in this situation again.

Good luck,

Bill L. & Naledi S.
Bill L.
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Advice sought: polite pleas for letters

Postby Rita » Mon Dec 06, 2004 4:49 pm

Some of my mentors who wrote letters for me were extremely busy with clinical and laboratory duties. I suggested that I could write the letter and that they could read and change whatever they wanted before signing it. They were more than happy to do this as it saved them a lot of time. Many of my colleagues have taken a similar approach. Good luck.

Advice sought: polite pleas for letters

Postby Ken » Mon Dec 06, 2004 5:39 pm

You're going to have to be a bit pushy, and not worry about being irritating. Remember, this is NOT doing you a favor, this is required of advisors. They have the right to say, "No, I don't think I feel comfortable writing you a letter," if they don't want to recommend you, but they don't have the right to say they will write it and not do it.

Your PhD advisor did not get where he is now without people writing letters for him.
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Advice sought: polite pleas for letters

Postby John_Mastro » Mon Dec 06, 2004 6:46 pm

Call him on the phone... scope out the situation...duh!!3@..

Advice sought: polite pleas for letters

Postby Val » Tue Dec 07, 2004 12:50 am

"Squeaky wheel gets the grease". (c)
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Advice sought: polite pleas for letters

Postby Paul » Tue Dec 07, 2004 2:50 pm

My supervisor was EXACTLY the same...great scientist/lousy administrator.

I finally got somewhere by phoning up the department secretary. I'm not saying it will be the same for you but, in my case, she kicked his butt!!! Everyone knows not to mess with the secretary!! :) The letter went out that same day.

Advice sought: polite pleas for letters

Postby Joel » Wed Dec 08, 2004 12:17 am

I agree with Rita. Some of the professors are too lazy or busy to write the recommendation letters or reference letters. Most of the time, they will request you to write for them. Then they will read then sign for you. It happened many times in the department I was working in. In the letter, you can write what research you have done with the supervisor and what kind of achievement you have achieved. You may want to include how this experience can contribute to the research. just stating the fact.

All the best!

Advice sought: polite pleas for letters

Postby Joel » Wed Dec 08, 2004 1:00 am

hahaha... It's not too late to know that you can't mess with your secretary, Paul. Receptionists or any office management executives may also be the key to scientists or any boss. So you have to talk to them skillfully.

Advice sought: polite pleas for letters

Postby Paul » Mon Dec 13, 2004 2:51 pm

Ha... I'm in the same situation... but I knew of this problem because many of my academic siblings for my adviser's lab at a top school also have had this problem.

Most places ask for 3 or 4 references... I asked 5 people to write for me so that I was assured of having the 3 or 4 letters to complete my packets. Remember... it is a secretary that will bungle up your packet and your references and give it to the search committee... That your grad adviser hasn't sent a letter is not (I'm told) the death of your packet... the main thing is to get your stuff though the bureaucracy and into the hands of the committee.

Now... once you have an interview... or even a job offer contingent on that letter, then you get to have some fun... I do not mean to scare you... but this is from the lab I went though... this is a warning to anyone looking into a grad or postdoc position... talk to former member of that lab and get fully informed... I didn't do this and will forever have to deal with this problem. Not just for this Job search... but someday for tenure and also for grants. ARG!!!

I am aware of one person from my advisers lab who actually flew back to the lab and sat outside the advisers office because an offer from a university of California system was contingent on that letter... and this person (a former grad student) stayed 2 days until the letter got out the door. This person did get the job.

With a different person... a postdoc who just couldn't get a letter from this adviser so he asked a person who had a full professor position whom had also gone though this same lab write him a letter. The letter included an explanation that everyone from this lab has a very hard time getting letter from this adviser... and again this person did get the job.

Just my own thoughts on this... be glad you are not me because it could be worse... good luck.

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