I would like to ask Prof. X, a distinguished scholar at a top school, for a recommendation for a tenure-track academic position. However, I only want him to write me a recommendation if he is going to write a good one. If he will write me a mediocre or just insufficiently positive recommendation, I would prefer to have someone less famous than X but more positive about me write the letter.

If I simply ask Prof. X for a letter, there is the possibility that he will agree and then write something that is not as positive as I would like. I want to avoid this.

One way to solve this problem would be for me to ask Prof. X if he is sufficiently familiar with my work to write me a strong letter. If he does not wish to write me a strong letter, he can simply reply that he is not that familiar with the whole body of my work. By giving him an easy way to decline, this makes it more likely that he will write a strong letter if he accepts.

Unfortunately, in this case this little strategem will not work, as Prof. X and I have been working on the same questions for years, so there is little question of him being unfamiliar with my results.

Another possible solution would be to have someone else approach him to ask whether he can write me a strong letter. Sadly I have no one who could do this for me.

What would be a good strategy to use in this situation? More broadly, what are some general tips for asking people for recommendation letters which ensure you only get strong letters, besides the two I mentioned above?

Edited: Maybe I should mention a couple of other strategies that crossed my mind:

A. Mention to Prof. X that I'm going on the job market in unrelated conversation and see if he volunteers to write me a letter.

B. Ask him for a letter in an email and see how he responds. If he responds enthusiastically, e.g., "It would be my pleasure to write you a letter..." or "I'd be extremely happy to..." this is good. If he only responds neutrally, e.g., "Sure, I can write you a letter" then simply neglect to follow up with him and ask someone else for the letter.

Both of these strategies are decent, but they are not perfect. They might work, but they also might cause me to miss out on a good letter from a well-known scholar. Anyway, I'd welcome thoughts, corrections, additional strategies to use that I haven't thought of, etc.

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    Don't just neglect to follow up if he agrees but not enthusiastically enough. I occasionally deal with flaky students, who are going to miss deadlines if I don't remind them, and you don't want him to think you are in that category (he may end up reminding you and feeling annoyed about it). It's also hard to gauge enthusiasm from a brief reply. Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 14:42

3 Answers 3


One way to solve this problem would be for me to ask Prof. X if he is sufficiently familiar with my work to write me a strong letter.

No. Do not play mind games. The best approach is to be completely straightforward.

If you already know that he is familiar with your work, suggesting otherwise is dishonest and potentially insulting. What you really want to know is whether he's impressed by your work. The only way to find out is to ask directly. If possible, ask in person, preferably over coffee/beer or in some other informal neutral setting; conferences are really good for this. Be straightforward about your desire for a strong letter, but use the opportunity to develop a stronger collaborative relationship. Ask for honest feedback on your work. Ask about future opportunities to work together. Ask where he thinks you should apply. Be sincere in asking whether he can write you a strong recommendation letter; he knows what that means. Be sincerely ready to be turned down. Listen.

If you're not comfortable asking him directly, or you think that he might not be comfortable answering you, ask your advisor to informally sound out Prof X's opinion of you first. (Ideally, your advisor already has some idea what Prof X will say.) But the actual letter request must come directly from you.

If he only responds neutrally, e.g., "Sure, I can write you a letter" then simply neglect to follow up with him and ask someone else for the letter.

No. Do not play mind games.

First, unless you already know Prof X extremely well, you should not attempt to read his mind through email. "Sure, I can write you a letter" says nothing about his level of enthusiasm. If his response to your request makes you hesitant to use his letter, ask him again. Second, if you decide, for whatever reason, that you don't need his letter after you've asked for it, you must tell him directly, so that he doesn't waste his time.

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    This is great advice. It's also worth focusing not just on his opinion of your work in the abstract, but also in the context of other letters he may be writing. In the most likely problem scenario, he thinks your work is really good, but he's also writing a letter for someone he thinks is amazing, and your letter will suffer by comparison despite his genuine enthusiasm. So it's worth asking explicitly whether, given who else he expects to be writing for, he'd recommend that you might be better off with another letter writer. Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 18:46
  • For your first point, what to do if the Professor X is your PhD advisor, but now you two live in different places therefore can not meet face to face? For your second point, what to do if he/she instead does not say yes or no but something else that does not definitely mean yes or no? If you are going to email to ask him/her again, how long/or when you should do again?
    – user6796
    Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 19:01
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    If you don't already know whether your advisor will write you a strong recommendation letter, your relationship has already badly broken down. And you can still meet "face to face" over Skype/Google chat/Facetime/whatever.
    – JeffE
    Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 20:28
  • something else that does not definitely mean yes or no? ... how long/or when you should [email] again?Immediately! You need (and deserve) a definitive answer. Their waffling may be an attempt to say no without hurting your feelings, so when you contact them again, give them an out. "I would appreciate a strong letter from you, but I will certainly understand if you have too many other demands on your time."
    – JeffE
    Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 20:36
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    Thanks for your response. To be honest, I disagree: I think if Prof. X does not think highly of my work and I ask him directly what he thinks of it, he will not offer a negative assessment out of politeness. His negative opinion may instead manifest itself through in insufficient enthusiasm in his reply, or if perhaps if he cuts our conversation short with some excuse. One way or another, I'm reduced to playing mind games.
    – robinson
    Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 20:49

I assume here that Prof X knows you (and not only your work). I also assume that you work is strong enough to ensure that you are eligible for a tenure-track position somewhere.

One thing you can do is contacting Prof X, asking him for advice regarding your application. More specifically, you can ask him to read your research project and giving you some hints about what can be done to make it "sexier". That way, you will certainly have a good idea of his opinion on your work. Afterwards, you can decide to ask him for a letter (in the best case scenario, he will volunteer before you ask). If he doesn't even want to read your research project, this is a good clue that he will not write a very good letter.

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    I disagree with this, although unfortunately I don't have a better solution. You propose to ask for a relatively substantial amount of Prof. X's time, with ulterior motives. It seems at least slightly dishonest, and could potentially cause resentment. Please keep in mind that most bigshots are asked to write a ton of rec letters, and do it cheerfully and conscientiously but would probably rather get back to their own work.
    – Anonymous
    Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 2:53
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    Actually I don't see a problem with this strategy. It actually might be beneficial in general to get this kind of feedback especially since Prof X is distinguished AND works in your area.
    – Suresh
    Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 3:56
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    @Anonymous: We're talking about letters for a tenure-track position, not to enter grad school. As Sylvain said, this works only if Prof X knows you personally, which limits a lot the number of requests for this kind a letters a professor can receive.
    – user102
    Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 8:39
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    Agreed. The best letters come from professors who know you well. You need to take time to cultivate that relationship (perhaps years in advance) and Prof. X needs to be willing to reciprocate on some level. If Prof. X is unwilling to invest the time, find someone else.
    – Ben Norris
    Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 10:24
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    @SylvainPeyronnet: That does not fit my experience at all. Most of the bigshots I know write ridiculous numbers of letters for graduate school admissions, fellowships, research internships, postdocs, faculty jobs, tenure and promotion cases, awards, etc.
    – JeffE
    Commented Apr 14, 2013 at 15:14

Here's another variation: email prof X and tell him you are thinking of applying for faculty positions. Ask if he has any suggestions of who might be willing to write you a letter of recommendation to help you achieve your goal.

This is pretty straightforward. If he is willing to write a strong letter, he will offer. If he is not willing to write a strong letter, he will not offer. And he might have some good suggestions for other possible letter writers.

  • I'm not so sure about this, because the people who can write a strong recommendation letter for you, if such people exist, are the people who personally know you (and your work). And nobody is better placed to know who knows you than you.
    – David Z
    Commented May 7, 2014 at 18:07

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