When applying for a faculty position (from assistant to full professor), the search committee asks for 3 - 5 recommendation letters by people who know the applicant professionally (and probably in person).

The first factor for choosing a reference is his/her relationship with the applicant, but another important factor is the (academic) position of the writer. Possible references can be:

  • Past PhD student/post-doctoral fellow who is now an assistant professor: probably he is the best person to describe the applicant's attitude towards students and education (something that is critical for the search committee).
  • A faculty colleague: closely witnessed the applicant works, but not directly involved.
  • Department chair: supervised the applicant, but probably his view is just the standpoint of a boss.
  • Dean: had less connection with the applicant, but can provide a top view about the applicant.
  • Provost/Vice Presidents: very little direct connection, but can show the applicant's relationship with senior people.

The point is that how to balance the level of relationship and the reference's position? Normally, recommendation letters by people with higher positions are more reliable, and can be trusted search committee, as a colleague may bias the letter for a colleague, but a provost will not do this for an employee.

Is the position of a reference more important than his/her direct connection with the applicant (considering the fact that a senior person has no reason to write a recommendation letter for someone he does not know personally)?

UPDATE: Some commented that references should be not-related peers, not people who know the applicant. It seems I'm a little bit confused.

  1. Do you list references who do not know you at the end of CV/resume? References named in the applicant CV can be contacted for a job application.

  2. Some job ads ask the applicant to arrange submission of three letters of recommendation to the search committee (for example, see a job ad at UC Berkeley). Do you ask people who do not know you to submit a recommendation letter about you?

  3. Nowadays, most job applications are via online systems. When the online system requests a recommendation letter just send an email to the named reference to submit his/her recommendation for Mr./Mrs. X (but will not attach his/her resume or works). How one who does not know the applicant can then submit a recommendation letter.

  • @JeffE almost any job advertisement for faculty position needs the name of at least three references. They will contact them (usually through online system) and ask for recommendation letters for the applicant. Do you need me to post links of job advertisements here? Of course, some universities ask the applicants to arrange recommendation letters to be submitted directly to the search committee.
    – Googlebot
    Sep 25, 2013 at 9:51
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    No, thanks. I just helped write the job ad for the recruiting committee I'm running this year, so I'm good. I have never seen an academic job search require recommendations from people who know the applicant in the workplace. Letters about excellence and impact of the applicant's research, teaching, and professional service, sure. But in comparison to peers worldwide, not just to other people at the same institution. Moreover, letters from outside the applicant's institution are more valuable than letters from within.
    – JeffE
    Sep 25, 2013 at 10:00
  • @JeffE definitely, remote collaborators can be references, but search committee normally need opinion of people who have closely worked with an applicant. In the UK system, I've seen that when introducing the references, the applicant need to describe his/her relationship with the applicant too.
    – Googlebot
    Sep 25, 2013 at 10:05
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    As @JeffE suggests, I don't think (and I've never seen an instance in which) letters were expected from collaborators or immediate co-workers. Possibly job ads are being misunderstood if this is the conclusion reached. Indeed, the "describe your relationship to the applicant" suggest that if one knows the person "too personally", one's appraisal tends to be discounted or invalidated. I think the idea is "objectivity", not "personal familiarity". Close personal connection is unhelpful, not a plus. Sep 25, 2013 at 12:52
  • Perhaps "professionally" was meant instead of "in the workplace?"
    – aeismail
    Sep 25, 2013 at 17:32

3 Answers 3


Your letters should come from experts in your field who are familiar with your work. They should be written by professors who are substantially more senior than you are, and who will be known to the people reading your applications.

A typical situation for someone applying for a first job out of graduate school would be one letter from your advisor, one letter from someone else in your dept. who is also an expert in your field, and one letter from an expert at a different school who saw you speak in a seminar or at a conference and who has read your papers. It is not necessary, at the new-graduate level, to have had more substantial interactions with outside letter writers than their having seen you talk and read your papers. If you can get two good outside letter writers, then do that instead, but in my experience it's common to have only one outside letter writer at this stage. At least two of these people should be at the associate or full professor level, and all should have excellent tenure-track jobs. For someone a few years out of Ph.D. one would expect, in addition to the Ph.D. advisor and postdoc advisor, letters from well-known experts in the field who have interacted more substantially with the applicant.


I agree with the commenters above: none of these would be a good reference. If I was on a committee that received a reference letter by a dean, president or former student, I think it would probably be immediately dropped from the pile as someone who plainly has no idea what they are doing (I say think, because in hundreds of applications, I don't think I've ever seen anyone do this). I can imagine having a letter from the department chair, but that would still be pretty weird, unless it was specifically to address the candidates teaching. A letter from a colleague of comparable or greater seniority is reasonable in some circumstances, but unless you're a postdoc and they're your supervisor still probably not the best choice.

In general, you seem to have a lot of weird ideas about how search committees work. I think you should try to find a senior colleague in your field who can advise you about applications; asking deans for letters is not going to help you get jobs or make you a popular person with deans.

EDIT: To address the new questions you've added: first, I think it is even more clear from this that you need have a personal discussion with an older colleague/person in your field who knows your situation well and can give you advice, as you are clearly incredibly confused about how academic job applications work.

Recommendation letters should come (typically) from people in your field senior enough to have tenure; your former supervisors, either in a graduate or postdoctoral capacity, are good people ask, as are any more senior collaborators or more senior scholars who have shown an interest in your work. Typically, you do want to ask people you personally know, but there are exceptions; that could be because you worked in the same department, but that's not a factor I would weight highly.

  1. It's fine to list references on your CV, but this is not a substitute for getting letters. The committee does not have time to contact that many people. They will just ignore your application if your letters aren't there.

  2. You want to get people who are familiar with your work. So, it's unlikely you'll know someone is familiar with your work if you never met or corresponded with them, but it is conceivable. I would only go ask people with whom you've had no contact if you have no good options amongst people you've personally discussed your work with. (Note, the important thing here is not your personal acquaintance with them, but how that allows you to judge how they feel about your work).

  3. Basic politeness dictates that you contact your letter writers long before you are ready to submit your application to ask if they are willing to write a letter and to share your materials like your CV with them. It is not a good strategy to sent a request from an online system to them cold, whether you know them or not.

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    @BenWebster Regarding letters from former students, I've had a student who knew I was applying for faculty positions ask if he could write a (presumably positive?) letter for me. I talked it over with my advisor, and we had the student forward her his letter and she used his comments in her letter for me. This seemed to work out pretty well all around. Sep 25, 2013 at 13:47
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    @ChrisGregg Yes, that's very reasonable. That was not my interpretation of what All was suggesting. In general there are lots of people who have good stuff to say who wouldn't be good choices for reference writers and "laundering" them through more standard choices can work very well. It's also reasonable to include feedback from students in a teaching dossier or in your teaching statement; it's just important to show you understand that's not a same as a reference letter. Sep 25, 2013 at 14:47
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    Department chairs, and Deans and Presidents to an extent, are people too (i.e., potentially former supervisors) and I wouldn't rule them out or include them just because of their position.
    – StrongBad
    Sep 25, 2013 at 22:46
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    @DanielE.Shub If it happens that your department chair (or dean or president) is an expert in your research, then it's fine to have them as a reference, though I think it might not be wise to ask someone that busy. Similarly, if they can speak with authority about your skills in the classroom, it's fine to ask them to write a letter about that. But you shouldn't ask them to write such a letter as chair/Dean/etc., but as an expert in their field. That was my point. Sep 26, 2013 at 3:39

For assistant level positions your PhD supervisor and any postdoc supervisors should be included as reference writers. Even if they are not willing to write you a stellar letter, I believe it is better than the questions that are raised by not having them. If you cannot include them (e.g., they are deceased), I would address this in the cover letter and ask one of the other letter writers to explain why in his/her letter. For more senior positions (e.g., associate and full professor) you may replace some of your former supervisors with people more familiar with your recent accomplishments.

Additional letters can be sought from thesis committee members (especially for first jobs), more senior research collaborators, a teaching mentor (either someone you TA'd for for someone who has observed your teaching), or colleagues at your current and past jobs. A letter from a past department chair can be useful in saying that the department was really sad to lose you and that you are a great colleague. A letter from your current department chair is a little trickier in that the letter may be read as a means of pawning a bad apple off one someone else. Then again it can explain why you are trying to leave your current position.

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