Letters of Reference
I get a lot of requests from students about writing a letter of
reference for them or serving as a job reference. The number of such
requests has increased, so I thought I'd explain some points here.
I certainly wish you well, but two considerations come into play.
One, there is the effort involved in putting together letters or even
talking to people, especially the recruiter types who would make you
fill a long form over the phone. Two, in most settings, for a letter
to be useful, it should be a strong letter. For example, if I say
someone was in the top 40% of the class, that would be interpreted as
negative. People want to hear at least top 10%; some prefer top
The time and effort spent in preparing such letters is an
important factor, because even an hour is a lot. Remember you are not
the only one, and this time cuts into my vanishingly small
- Despite the above, I would always support students whose
dissertations or theses I have supervised. If you are such a student,
you can assume that I will support you, unless you are doing something
horrible :-). However, please note that it is in your interest to
give me a lot of time to think about your letters: weeks if not
months. It is in your interest that I draft a strong letter and not
have typos in it. I will draft one letter, not a customized one for
each job that you might apply to.
- For students whose work I have not supervised, I can write
letters, but it is a lower priority. In particular, you should either
have done exceedingly well in a course with me or taken more than one
course with me. Recommendation forms generally ask for how long the
recommender has interacted with the candidate. If it is just one
semester, it is usually too little.
- I can make exceptions to the above for small requests. A good
example is an email to our department's grad office if you are
applying to transfer into our grad program. A bad example is a stack
of letters to send all kinds of places. I have also suffered from a
kind of bait and switch where a student mentioned an interest in
applying to 3 places and then dropped off 20 paper forms.
- Even in the cases where I can help, what I can do is is send a
single letter to multiple recipients. I can even upload the letter.
But I can't fill out Web forms. It just isn't a good use of my time,
so I hope you understand.
- I can't do head-hunter references.
- Reference checks about your employment history should go to NCSU
HR or to the department or to the grad office -- anyone but me
:-). Since this is proving difficult for some students, I can offer
to do such references in exchange for your first month's salary :-).