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My question is related to, but not a duplicate of How many recommendation letters are enough?

In that question the job requires 4 letters and the applicant has 5 good letters. I am applying for a TT faculty job that requires 3 letters of reference and allows up to 5 letters of reference. I have 5 people who have and would be willing to write letters for me. While I have never seen the letters written by my references, I believe that 3 of them write much better letters than the other two. My question is how many letters do I submit?

Potentially useful is that my three "primary" references know my research and teaching inside and out. They are also excellent writers with effusive personalities and well respected within the field (and department) that I am applying to.

My secondary references also know my research, but not my teaching. Their writing and personalities are less effusive. I have never collaborated with them or worked directly with or under them. I feel like they have less "invested" in me and that this probably reduces the quality of the letter. They are also in a "competing" field and would potentially sell me as the "wrong" thing. I wouldn't expect their letters to be bad or saying anything negative. I am just worried that they will not be positive enough.

  • Your 3 primary references would more than likely be best - another aspect is what is not written about one or more of the selection criteria that may get the recruiters' attention. – user7130 Sep 22 '13 at 19:37
  • For purposes of counting: do you have a separate letter just about teaching? – Ben Webster Sep 23 '13 at 17:43
  • @BenWebster I guess I could. I could ask my "primary" references to focus on my research and then have a secondary reference focus on my teaching. – StrongBad Sep 23 '13 at 18:13
  • I only know my experience from the US in mathematics at research universities; there, the standard practice is to have one letter which is only about teaching from a colleague who has seen you in the classroom and gone over any teaching dossier you have, and then all other letters are specifically about research, and only peripherally mention teaching (actually a lot of discussion of teaching in one of these letters might be read as trying to avoid discussing the person's weak research record). – Ben Webster Sep 23 '13 at 19:02
  • For example, the TT job ad up for my department (The University of Virginia) says "The applicant must also have at least four letters of recommendation submitted, of which one must support the applicant's effectiveness as a teacher." – Ben Webster Sep 23 '13 at 19:05
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Definitely, having more recommendation letters can prove the popularity of applicant among his/her colleagues in workplace, but just a negative (or even less positive) recommendation letter can destroy a possible recruitment, as it can strongly affect the impression and judgment of search committees.

A negative (or not-positive) recommendation letter can attract the attention of review committee to weak points (even if they are imaginary induced by the recommendation letter).

It is not bad that a recommendation letter emphasizes on teaching or research only. This is somehow the reason that several recommendation letters are needed (by people who knows the applicant from different perspectives).

Just keep in mind that a search committee always try to foresee any drawback in prospective recruitment. If a recommendation letter states negative points, then, the search committee must consider this risk (for bad recruitment), as there is an evidence for that in the application under review.

NOTE that recommendation letters normally should assist search committee to discover what they have NOT already found in resume. A tiny negative point has more effect on search committee rather than many recommendation letters stating an evident point, they already knew from resume.

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