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I'm wondering about the best way to handle the following situation. Some time ago I've asked my then-potential referees about possibility to become my reference sources and they kindly agreed, after which I've updated my CV with their contact information.

After some analysis of the academic job market advertisements, I had an impression that most institutions (at least, solid ones) do not expect receiving letters of recommendation directly from a job applicant, but rather from referees (via either e-mail, or online forms). However, recently I ran across at least several institutions (including some well-known ones), which, in their instructions, ask job applicants not only the traditional set of documents (cover letter, CV, samples of research, teaching and research philosophy, transcript, teaching evaluations), but also recommendation letters instead of references.

The problem is that now I have to explain this situation to my referees and kindly ask them to send me those letters of recommendation (for institutions, expecting them from applicant) plus to submit those letters directly to institutions, which expect that information from referees. Is it a reasonable request? My referees are very nice people, but quite busy, and I feel uncomfortable to bother them more than needed. However, I don't really see any workarounds in this regard. Is there anything else I can do to optimally solve this problem? I would appreciate your opinions.

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When I was applying for postdoc positions, I sent in about 50 applications and researched quite a few more that I wound up not applying for. Out of these many applications, only one or two asked for references' contact info; the rest wanted recommendation letters. In every case the letters were to be submitted directly by their writers, not by me.

The point is that, at least in my corner of academia (but I think in many others as well), when someone serves as a reference for an applicant, it is a standard expectation that they will write a letter on behalf of the applicant and submit it in some form that does not allow the applicant to see it. I would be very surprised if any of your referees/references agreed to fill that role without expecting to write a letter on your behalf and submit it to whatever institutions you're applying to. Of course they won't write a brand new letter for every application; typically they write a generic letter that can be used for many jobs, possibly customizing it a little if they happen to have connections at a particular institution. Once the letter is written, it's very little additional effort for them to submit it to each new application.

Note that, as I hinted at above, it's standard for reference letters not to be visible to the applicant. I think it would be quite strange for a job listing to require that a reference letter, written by someone else, be submitted by you.

  • Thank you for your answer (+1)! I agree with you. The standard way of submitting letters of recommendation (by referees) is what my referees and I expected to follow. I, too, was quite surprised, when I saw instructions saying otherwise. Unless I misunderstood the text (which I doubt), it seems that those particular instructions were not written clearly or, rather, are confusing. The more people confirming my initial expectation, the more relief I'm experiencing, as the problem seems to be non-existent and I won't have to bring additional inconveniences upon my referees and myself. – Aleksandr Blekh May 12 '15 at 17:20
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Everything will be fine. If they have ever written more than a handful of these letters for others, they will recognize that different institutions have different requirements. Just tell them what you need, and thank them very much for their time and patience.

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    Thank you very much for reassuring me (+1) - the time is stressful enough already. – Aleksandr Blekh May 12 '15 at 12:20
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If you are a student or postdoc, your current institution may be willing to take care of this for you. I remember when I applied, the secretaries sent out all the (paper) applications for me. They had my letter writers send a copy of their letter directly to the office, and they made copies (I think with a note) for each application. I never handled these letters myself at all.

If you department does not do this, the usual thing to do for writers to give you sealed envelopes with the writer's signature/intials over the seal to show you didn't open them.

  • Thank you for your advice (+1)! I'm neither student, nor postdoc - I've recently graduated and now I'm looking for a job (I target both industry/consulting and academia, simultaneously). So, I have to go through all necessary steps and do it all myself. That's OK. However, I'm surprised by your last sentence - most institutions, positions at which I consider applying to, handle references/recommendations electronically (some even emphasize not to send paper documents). – Aleksandr Blekh May 12 '15 at 13:06
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    @AleksandrBlekh All of my answer was assuming they wanted you to send in physical letters. I've never heard of an institution asking the applicant to upload/email letters of recommendation for their references. Have you actually gone through the online application form to make sure they mean for you to upload the letter yourself? (Intial instructions are sometimes unclear.) – Kimball May 12 '15 at 13:26
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    I very much doubt there are any schools that expect you to submit letters yourself electronically, because you should not have access to the letters. What you may very well find is that they expect you to do the leg work of reminding your letter-writers to submit their letters through the school's online system (rather than your simply submitting a list of names and leaving it to the school to contact your references). But this is very different than what you've understood; you should just go immediately to check how the application actually works, before proceeding further. – Tom Church May 12 '15 at 13:29
  • @Kimball: I haven't gone through the application process, as I thought that I need to have recommendation letters in order to be able to submit them, per instructions. I guess, some instructions aren't written clearly enough. – Aleksandr Blekh May 12 '15 at 13:40
  • @TomChurch: I hope that you are right - that would eliminate my original (perhaps, assumed) problem of the two types of requirements. I will try to apply (once I finalize everything) and will check what online forms will be asking for. Thank you for your comment! – Aleksandr Blekh May 12 '15 at 13:44

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