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I'm currently 2/3 of the way through my first postdoc, and starting to look around at, and apply for, my next job. I've noticed that some places require three letters of recommendation, whereas other places simply require two or three references -- i.e. they will call or email the referee if they view that as appropriate or necessary.

Writing an actual recommendation letter -- which typically has to be uploaded by the recommender -- is much more of an "ask".

Is an actual recommendation letter standard at the UK Lecturer or US Assistant Professor level? The pattern I seem to be seeing is that more prestigious places are more likely to require an actual letter; would others confirm that?

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Having made more that 50 applications for Lecturer posts in the UK, I can share some of my statistics.

  • Only 3 Universities of 50 asked for LoRs to be communicated through the applicant.
  • The majority, 47 of 50, asked for a list of references, and contact them asking for LoRs only if a candidate is shortlisted.

In the U.S. the customs may differ.

  • Marking this as accepted due to extensive experience (and collected stats) offered by the respondent. Other answers from those in the US are equally helpful to illustrate the different customs and pros and cons of the different approaches, and I've upvoted accordingly. Thanks! – Joe Corneli Nov 9 '15 at 14:57
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An actual letter is generally required at all levels in the US. It's a lot easier for a committee to read letters from 100 applicants, instead of actually contacting even 10 references.

I actually think writing a letter is likely to be easier for your referee than being available as a reference. They can write a single letter in their spare time, and send copies to as many employers as needed (perhaps customizing where need). If you just list them as a reference, they need to be available to respond to contacts on short notice, possibly setting up phone calls with employers in distant time zones, etc. To me, that seems like the "bigger ask".

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    In my limited experience, often when a place just asks for a reference, they intend to simply ask for the letter themselves, rather than anything more involved (as far as I can tell, some of them even ask for the letters immediately, rather than after filtering out some of the applicants, but I have yet to figure out why). – Tobias Kildetoft Nov 9 '15 at 8:12
  • but I have yet to figure out why — It's easier and faster just to ask for everyone's letters immediately. And then the hiring committee can use the letters to help them filter. – JeffE Nov 9 '15 at 20:19
  • @JeffE I meant why ask for them yourself, when you can have the applicant ask for you? – Tobias Kildetoft Nov 10 '15 at 8:15
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I've participated in searches at my university in different departments that handle this in different ways. In some cases we required everyone to have letters of recommendation sent, while in other cases we contacted the references of our short list of 10-15 candidates and requested letters. When there are hundreds of applicants for a position, the later system saves the letter writers work, but it does mean that the committee doesn't have the letters in hand when they select the short list.

In some disciplines there are online systems that allow a letter writer to upload one letter of recommendation that the applicant can't see but that the applicant can have forwarded to potential employers. If your discipline has such a system, then you should use it to make things easier for your letter writers. See for example the mathjobs.org web site in the US.

Since practices vary across disciplines and departments, I'd encourage you to do whatever the advertisement asks for.

  • Thanks for the tip about mathjobs.org, I am indeed in a mathematics-related field so that's relevant to me. – Joe Corneli Nov 9 '15 at 14:55
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Letters of recommendation are pretty standard because they can be read immediately, as opposed to waiting for a response with a reference.

It's not strange to simply send the same or similar letters to multiple places though, so if you need them for one application, might as well get them for all of them.

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The older tradition in the US was that you would ask for actual letters to be sent. This is being replaced with asking for names of references for later contact (usually by the candidate). The rationale is that we get so many applications many of which have no serious chance, that there is no point in getting letters (which then have to be managed in some way). The committee can construct a long short-list and email those candidates to ask that letters be sent, once they've reduced the pool to a set that they could realistically hope to read. Eventually, they will require actual letters from anyone being interviewed in person. Letters almost always go from writer to committee, with 2 exceptions in my experience both for jobs that were on the margins of being academic as opposed to administrative.

  • Interesting. In my field (math, US) this tradition has not been replaced. Having been through several job application cycles in the last 7 years, and submitting probably over 200 applications total, I can only remember a few who just wanted names - all the rest wanted letters sent at the same time as the application. Of course, since we have the central MathJobs clearinghouse, this is very easy to do, since the writer just has to upload the letter once, and the employers receive it automatically. – Nate Eldredge Nov 9 '15 at 23:51

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