Late Letters of Recommendation


A philosopher currently on the job market writes in with a query:

The philosophers who are writing my letters of recommendation are incredibly overworked. They send in recommendation letters sometimes a week after the deadline. Is this the norm?  Due search committees overlook this aspect of the application? 

My sense is that slightly late letters tend to not affect an applicant’s candidacy, as the deadlines are often set at least several days in advance of any meetings or official consideration of the candidates, providing a window for some late materials over which the candidate has no control to arrive. But I’m just one data point. It would be helpful to hear from others.

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Mark D. White
5 years ago

I agree, but there is a more practical difficulty: some online application sites shut down at a certain date, and then the letter-writer is forced to find an actual human being to whom to send the letter. If such a person is found, he or she must then make sure the letter is coupled with the rest of the online application materials, at which point the risk of its being lost increases significantly, requiring the letter-writer or the candidate to follow up to make sure the letter is not lost. (This ignores the complication of navigating the online application site in the first place, of course.)Report

Eric Thomas Weber
5 years ago

Agreed. Also, if a candidate looks great, but not all letters have come in, sometimes a search committee will be in touch to check in on the references. That may not seen worth doing when you’ve got 200+ candidates, which sometimes happens. If those are the kinds of openings one is going for, I’d suggest using Interfolio. A generic letter is better than no letter, when one is required.Report

anonymous grad student
anonymous grad student
Reply to  Eric Thomas Weber
5 years ago

Are there people writing individualized letters for different jobs? I didn’t think that was a thing.Report

Eric Thomas Weber
Reply to  anonymous grad student
5 years ago

When a grad student goes on the market, it’s typical to have a general set of letters at Interfolio. That said, there are some unique jobs out there, for which it can be better to ask one’s writers to draft something more specific to the position. Also, once one is out for a while, Interfolio letters can become dated. To approach new positions, it is generally best more specific than the scattershot approach that folks take for first-time jobs. Those are some of the reasons why the answer can be yes.Report

anonymous grad student
anonymous grad student
Reply to  Eric Thomas Weber
5 years ago

I seriously can’t imagine asking my letter writers to write individualized letters and I don’t think it’s a decent thing to do. I think there should be a strong norm against doing this in any situation for people applying at the Assistant Professor level. Why create extra work for letter writers, who are already completely swamped with work?Report

Anon Grad, Too.
Anon Grad, Too.
Reply to  anonymous grad student
5 years ago

I haven’t gone on out on the market yet, but I strongly suspect from past experience that my chair will tailor at least some of her letters to particular jobs, not because I’ve asked her to, but because she takes that to be part of her responsibility as my chair and “head” letter writer. It seems worth knowing that other candidates might have this advantage, and perhaps worth asking your chair, at least, to do some minor tailoring of particular letters if they are for jobs in which you’re very particularly interested. It might not even have to be a direct ask. You might, for example, include in the materials you provide for your letter writers some additional information about the jobs or programs of this sort that you’re applying to, so that she has the information to tailor the letter should she choose to take the initiative, or discuss directly with your chair the relative importance to you of different applications.

Most letter writers are definitely overworked, but insofar as their job is advising graduate students, this will be one of the most important things they do. Their students’ careers hang in the balance. I can’t speak to how important it is to have individually tailored letters, but if there is any advantage in it, I wouldn’t be so opposed to at least having a conversation about it. If there’s ever a moment to ask something of your advisors, I’d think this would be it.Report

Eric Thomas Weber
Reply to  Anon Grad, Too.
5 years ago

There’ll be some people unwilling to write more than one letter. That’s true. There are also mentors who recognize the value of tailoring letters to distinct purposes. For one example, you might want one kind of letter for institutions more focused on teaching than research, and vice versa. Beyond that, some unique positions might call for a person with an unusual ability or skill, such as a post that might come with some unusual administrative task. Given that, a letter writer may well be willing to write for certain specific opportunities. There are also some jobs for which the letter writer may have special relationships or knowledge about that program. Again, though, there will be some letter writers who won’t be willing to do these things, but one can ask about what he or she recommends and would be willing to do. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to choose one’s adviser very carefully.Report

Eric Thomas Weber
5 years ago

A few more points: Having a letter writer customize one, two, or five letters is not the same as only having customized letters. One can use Interfolio, but then ask whether a customized letter for certain purposes is warranted. Plus, once one letter’s been written, slight modifications for another purpose are considerably less work than writing a new letter from scratch.Report

anonymous grad student
anonymous grad student
5 years ago

I don’t know. I think I chose my advisor extremely carefully, and that I’m pretty knowledgeable about the job market, etc., and I’ve never once heard of any faculty in my department doing this for their students. And my department has a (comparatively) excellent placement record. I’m surprised that, if this really helps, it isn’t common knowledge. Maybe I’m just not an anointed person or whatever, but I am pretty well networked with junior faculty in the profession, many of whom have given me lots of job market advice, and this has never once come up. I suppose that could be because they assumed I was already doing it. But it doesn’t seem like the standard thing to me, and I would feel incredibly uncomfortable asking my advisor to do that when he’s already gone way above and beyond for me and is clearly going to bat for me in as many ways as he knows how (to the extent that I suspect that *he* doesn’t even think this is a real thing that happens, or at least doesn’t think it matters enough to do it). I wish I hadn’t outed myself as a grad student because maybe then people would take my view seriously here, but seriously: it seems really bad for the profession for this to be a thing that people do.Report

Eric Thomas Weber
Reply to  anonymous grad student
5 years ago

Bad for the profession? I don’t see any reason for believing that in what’s been said here.Report

anonymous grad student
anonymous grad student
Reply to  Eric Thomas Weber
5 years ago

If this were a practice that everyone engaged in, first of all, it would be a massive time suck for faculty, many of whom (at least in my department) are writing a *ton* of letters (since a lot of them are writing many letters for students from other departments, etc.), and second, I can just foresee a slippery slope (because the job market is so bad) from personalizing just a few letters, to more and more personalization, to it becoming the standard, and that would be unsustainable from the perspective of faculty…Report

Randolph Clarke
Randolph Clarke
5 years ago

I can’t recall ever being asked by one of my advisees to write different letters for different jobs to which he or she was applying. Nor, when we’ve conducted searches, can I recall ever reading a letter that looked like it was tailored in any way to our opening in particular.Report

CW
CW
5 years ago

I’m on a search committee this year. When I look at our position on Interfolio, I see a list of applicant names and a notice about whether your file is “complete” or “unfinished.” Your file is labeled “unfinished” if any of your letters (or other documents) are missing. I can click your name to see what’s missing, and also what you’ve submitted. When all of your documents have been submitted, the label changes to “complete.” (Even after the deadline passes. At least, that’s how it’s set up for my committee.)

Interfolio also allows committee members to download all applications in a zip file. This file contains whatever has been submitted by the time the zip file is created. If any of your letters are missing at that time, they won’t be downloaded in the zip file. Of course, evaluators can go back on Interfolio to see if the missing documents have been uploaded, if they notice they’re missing and want to follow up on them.

I don’t know what consequences any of this might have for candidates. Different evaluators will handle these situations differently. But it seems worth mentioning.Report

Lincoln
Lincoln
5 years ago

Much of this hangs on a shared notion of time…Report

afewyearsout
afewyearsout
5 years ago

I agree with anonymous grad student. I am not aware of customization of letters being common, and I can’t imagine that being a sustainable practice. Perhaps this might work in a world where the norm was students getting tenure-track jobs on their first try (even then I’m skeptical), but I don’t think that’s the world that we’re in. I feel bad enough asking my recommenders to update generic letters every year, as I continue to try to get into a TT position (I’m currently full-time, non-TT). I can’t imagine asking them to write customized letters on top of that.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
5 years ago

Customization of letters is not “a thing”, and I would encourage you not to ask your letter writers to do this for at least two reasons: 1) some (like me) will immediately hate you a little bit just for asking; 2) there is no way most will be able to pull this off. Invariably the letter they wrote for school A will be labeled and uploaded as letter for school B (candidates make these mistakes in their own cover letters all the time). The very topic of this post is premised on letter writers screwing up, so job seekers probably don’t want to give writers a wider latitude to do so. (As an aside, the time spent customizing would be *much* better spent on phone calls and emails to old friends at hiring institutions, whatever one thinks about the ethics of that practice.)

As far as the late letters go, I have to say that with Interfolio this is a more serious issue than it was in days gone by when the departmental administrator could just slip the late letters into the paper file. Many people on hiring committees aren’t going to go searching for missing letters, so chances are good that late letters won’t be widely read, and this could be costly.

Going forward, make sure you have given your writers enough time to have their letter uploaded to Interfolio by, say, Sep 15. Don’t tell them the actual date the applications are due and don’t ask for customized letters.Report

aProfessor
aProfessor
5 years ago

It’s not “a thing,” and it should not be a thing. As someone in a TT job, who has served on a search committee, and who is also on the market, I would consider it a huge imposition on my letter writers to ask them to customize a bunch of letters. Occasionally, there is a search committee that doesn’t ask for letters initially, but only later during the review, and they will require the letters to be sent directly by the writers. You can’t really help it if they do that (and committees should not do it!!!). Secondly, one of the real benefits of services like Interfolio (and academicjobsonline, and maybe Vitae, which I have not used) is that the applicant can control the delivery of the letters. If you really, truly think you need multiple letters, you should ask your letter writers (or maybe one of them) to file a couple of versions of the letter at the outset (and you should do this EARLY in the fall semester). That way, you can send the “teaching focused” letter or the “research focused” letter as you see fit, when you apply.Report