Requesting Reference Letters
Once classes have begun and academic job listings start to appear, professors who advise doctoral and masters students think the same thing: it's reference-letter writing season. This is the first time for you, probably, but your professors may be writing between ten and over one hundred reference letters over the course of the next four months. You will want your professors to attend to your request in a timely way, and you'll want to make it easy for them.
Most of us in the world of the university have figured out a few shortcuts in the process of letter-writing, such as grouping reference letter writing into a 3- or 4- hour block every few weeks, and creating "boilerplates" that include much of the personal information and insights we have about you as a teacher and researcher. It's the names, dates, and positions that change. And these, of course, are what make each letter specific enough so that the person reviewing it knows that you're not sending out zillions of applications but that you really want and are perfect for that one special position that happens to be at their school. You really want your professors to make each letter unique. And that takes time and effort.
Here's what you can do to help out your professors, and ultimately, help yourself to land that job:
Create a master list of jobs that you're applying for. It should be organized by date of deadline, like this:
U of Somewhere
Position title you're applying for
What they want that you have (e.g., looking for someone to teach media studies, history, etc)
U of Somewhere
Position title you're applying for
What they want that you have (e.g., looking for someone to research in pop culture and politics, want a collaborative colleague etc)
Once you have this list, if you want to add a position, you can update the master list and then send the prof an email indicating what you've just added and when it's requested. That way when your overworked profs actually get to your request, they can scan emails by your name and see what's the latest version of the master list since the last time they wrote your reference letters. Professors can save the master list from last time so they know what they've already written. If there's a way to do this online that'd be awesome (e.g., creating a schedule for each professor so that he/she can easily reference your master list online and check off when he/she's written a letter, something like what Doodle.ch offers). It would enable both the prof and for you to be able to quickly see which letters haven't yet been sent and what the details are for the letters that are needed.
Either before or after your list of deadlines and contacts, use the master list to be sure to remind your professor of what you want them to say. Don't be modest here. If you are hoping that your professor will tell them about the time you had your professor's students on the edge of their seat as you guest lectured on Kanye West in your professor's class, remind him/her of that occasion. If you got mentioned in your professor's faculty course questionnaire as a TA who made a difference for students, remind them of that. Remind him/her of specific conference presentations you gave, or times that you two worked together under a tight publishing deadline, or anything else that you feel especially good about and that you think is indicative of why you're going to be great in a university position. Try to think of at least one good teaching story and one good research story for each professor. That way they can add, drop, or shorten those paragraphs within the reference letters according to the needs of the position you're applying for. Your professor can edit your prose or can opt to leave it out, but you've done work that will make your letter stand out and you've saved your professor some time. The more specific examples you can think of that your professor would know about you, the better.
About a week before each deadline, email your professor with a reminder and attach the master list again for their reference.
If you have a last-minute request that needs to be in next to immediately, you need the triage route. Send your prof an email asking if he/she could get this letter off in time for the deadline, offering to ask someone else if he/she is not able to meet your deadline. Send it highest priority. If you don't hear from him/her in the next day, you can ask someone else, and send your request again. If he/she says yes, then send the details directly in an email: name, contact person, address, position name, what they want that you've got, etc., and deadline. Update the master list and attach that, too.
Ultimately, you'll have to trust that your professors are sending out the letters as requested. If you've chosen your committee members wisely, that shouldn't be a problem. It's part of our job, so we do try our best to get those well-written glowing letters out in a timely manner. But anything you can do to help us through this process will be greatly appreciated and remembered.