Suppose one is seeking external comments on the quality of one's research for a tenure/promotion file. Assume that my institution requires such a letter and my chair has advised me that "it would be desirable to have an outside expert comment on the quality of this paper."

What about contacting experts in the field who you don't know and asking them to write a letter about one of your papers? Has anyone ever done that? Is it highly unusual? Or even rude or a cultural faux-pas?

Also, does it matter whether the manuscript is in draft form or already published (or in-between)?

Maybe the answer will be field-dependent (and more generally culture-dependent)? I am in math and in the USA.

I understand that, generally, one would ideally have a large research network to call upon for such things, but I do not. Furthermore, my recent work is in a subfield where I simply do not know anyone with relevant expertise.

For clarity, I am at a teaching institution where the research requirement is quite minimal, but it is still valuable to get external expert comments.

Obviously people are busy, and there is a high chance that such a request would go unnoticed or ignored. That's fine.


Edit: Given the comments and answers, it appears that my institution is quite distinct from the vast majority on this. I think there is a standard for the institution to seek such evaluations of a candidate which are essentially anonymous to the tenure/promotion candidate. This is not the kind of evaluation I am seeking. I am just seeking, e.g., evaluation of the quality of a specific paper. This is quite distinct from the more general anonymous evaluations of candidates which occurs at research-focused institutions.

The general consensus is that I should not contact those who I have no personal connection to and make such a request. I should at least have the department chair do that.

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    You should ask your department chair and your promoted colleagues how this is done at your university. In most departments (even at teaching-oriented departments), you are required to have external letters and these are solicited by your department chair, not you. But some departments differ. If you have confirmed that you are expected to solicit these letters, please edit the relevant guidelines you have been given into the question. Commented Mar 2 at 4:05
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    ^ This is a clearer way of asking my question. Commented Mar 2 at 4:12
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    Both you and your university will want letters that actually address the actual research expectations for your position - expectations that your letter writers may not understand. How is this problem customarily handled at your university? Commented Mar 2 at 5:42
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    @jdods That's not good. You need to know people in your field. You can't substitute that with cold calling.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Mar 2 at 7:28
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    @BryanKrause yet, one needs to deal with the situation they have whether ideal or not. Maybe I can take away from your comment that I should contact the people I do know to see if they know anyone with the relevant expertise.
    – jdods
    Commented Mar 2 at 14:25

3 Answers 3


Suppose one is seeking external comments on the quality of one's research for a tenure/promotion file.

This is a problematic way to begin a question. It is difficult for me to suppose such a thing - quite simply, this is not how tenure reviews are conducted at major US universities I’m familiar with (nor at universities in a few other countries I’ve had experience with, for that matter).

What about contacting experts in the field who you don't know and asking them to write a letter about one of your papers?

Again, you are assuming a premise which I believe is false, which is that you as a tenure candidate should be taking an active role in your own tenure review which includes soliciting opinions from people outside your institution. That’s not at all how the process works usually.

Has anyone ever done that? Is it highly unusual? Or even rude or a cultural faux-pas?

Let’s assume that you are in an institution that actually allows you to reach out to people and solicit opinions about you for your own tenure review. The thing that you should probably be aware of is that this is not a policy that communicates seriousness or competence. If I were on the receiving end of such a cold call/email, I would assume that either you don’t know what you’re doing, or your department chair doesn’t know what they’re doing and gave you poor advice, or your institution doesn’t know what they’re doing (and I’m not sure which of those options are worse).

In other words, yes it is unusual, and has at least the impression of being a faux pas, even if within the walls of your institution it’s considered the normal way of doing things.

My suggestion to you is to find out more about the policies of your institution. It would be best for you to not communicate directly with external reviewers for your tenure case if possible. If for some reason you feel like you must reach out to such people yourself, because your institution’s policies demand it or because your department chair isn’t capable of handling this task themselves, proceed with extreme caution. At the very least, your cold email should contain enough details to reassure the people you’re sending it to that you are acting within the appropriate institutional protocol and that this isn’t some kind of weird mistake. Reviews are often solicited from people who don’t personally know the tenure candidate, so that part by itself is not unusual or a cause for concern.

Good luck!

  • This makes me think my institution is highly unusual. The answers and comments here successfully talked me out of sending the email though! So that's a win really. But, yes, candidates can solicit letters at my institution. That is the norm here as far as I know. I have had success cold calling in the past, but also experienced the letter writer asking to be contacted by the chair instead. I of course always instruct them to send the letter to the chair and not me!
    – jdods
    Commented Mar 2 at 21:44
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    As I remarked below - this is actually not a completely unheard of policy - it does happen with some frequency at institutions for which research decidedly a lower priority for tenure and promotion. You are correct this is not a policy that communicates seriousness, but these institutions are not that serious about research. Commented Mar 2 at 23:08

I find cold calling is seldom productive. People are busy. If they don't know you and have no incentive to respond then they are unlikely to do so. Even if they agree, you might not get the best feedback nor timely feedback. The more "expert" they are, the more likely it is that they are too busy.

Hopefully you have other academics in your field whom you know and who know you as well. Ask some of them. Have you met folks at conferences and meetings? they are a good source.

If you wan't some independence in the evaluations, ask a colleague to make a request on your behalf of someone in their circle of contacts/collaborators. Such requests are harder to ignore.

Alternatively, ask a recently tenured colleague if they will share their materials so that you can compare them. Or ask them to give you feedback, assuming they aren't part of the decision process.

  • These are helpful suggestions, thank you.
    – jdods
    Commented Mar 2 at 14:46

I think it helps here to understand what the usual practice is for tenure/promotion letters, even though the original question is not about the usual practice.

Usually, the chair or the dean, not the candidate, solicits several letters from experts on the candidate's research. The experts are asked to comment on the entire research record of the candidate, not on a single paper (though in some cases, that record, or the part of the record that is under the writer's expertise, is a single paper). These letters are solicited from people without any conflicts of interests, which usually means they cannot be collaborators of the candidate or people who have worked with the candidate in any capacity. (I once got a panicked call from the chair of a department because one of the letter writers for a tenure/promotion candidate had just started a collaboration with the candidate after agreeing to write the letter, not realizing the problems this would cause. He needed a letter in a week or so. I was unable to help as I was also collaborating with the candidate, but I did manage to suggest someone else.)

Professors are accustomed to being asked for such letters and frequently agree to write them. Note this is framed as a favor to the chair or to the university, not to the candidate personally. I have written several such letters for faculty at primarily undergraduate institutions whom I have met only once or twice at conferences, whose research work I had only a passing familiarity with.

My suggestion is that this will go most easily if it conforms to the usual practice. Find some experts in your area who are known to understand and be sympathetic to the realities of research at PUIs. Ask your chair to write one of these experts asking for a letter, clearly stating what kinds of comments are being requested and what the approximate standards for such comments are.

The website of the Provost's Office at my university actually has a template for an email/letter a chair could use to make such a request, publicly available because every department needs it and hiding it would be too much trouble for a document for which there are no confidentiality concerns.

  • My sense of the question is that the OP wants some reassurance about their application materials prior to submission and the start of the formal process. What you describe comes too late for them to make improvements based on suggestions of others. Also, the OP says the chair has made a request that they obtain letters, so their process is, perhaps quite different.
    – Buffy
    Commented Mar 2 at 17:03
  • @Buffy my goal is to have an expert comment on the research to aid the relevant institutional committees in evaluating its quality. I think differences in institutional culture might be an important factor. Of course my specific individual factors may be key here (e.g. being mid career with no research network and specifically none in the relevant subfield). It's a matter of making the tenure/promotion case as strong as possible (as far beyond the bare minimum as possible). I don't need personal reassurance as I have my own opinions about the quality.
    – jdods
    Commented Mar 2 at 17:15
  • I think this answer makes a good point about confirming to the standard practice the expert getting the request is accustomed to (and not the standard practice of my institution). My thought though is that I like to reach out personally first. However, maybe it is advised to simply skip that step.
    – jdods
    Commented Mar 2 at 17:18
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    I had to smile when I read "a. template for an email/letter that a chair could use". In my college (perhaps even in the whole university), these letters are specified word-for-word (except for the candidate's name & pronouns) by the college administration. The chair is not allowed to deviate, even slightly, from that "template". Commented Mar 2 at 21:00
  • A (possibly) more useful comment: As far as I can remember, whenever I've been asked to assess the research of a tenure candidate, the request always came from the chair, never from the candidate. And in my department, any letter solicited directly by the a promotion candidate could not be included in the promotion file, i.e., it wouldn't count at all. Commented Mar 2 at 21:05

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