I am a tenured professor planning about seven years past the Ph.D. Over the past few years, I've applied to a handful of jobs (I haven't been looking aggressively — just applied to the good opportunities that came up, along with 500 other people).

My references usually come from:

  1. My Ph.D. advisor (who has moved to a new institution since I finished my Ph.D.).
  2. Another professor who taught me in graduate school.
  3. A mid-career professor from another institution who has read some of my publications. He's not a super-star academic that anyone from any field in my discipline will know, but he is established and well known within my particular field.
  4. (For jobs requiring four reference letters) another professor from my graduate institution.

This is basically the same set of letters I have used since I was on the market as an ABD student seven years ago. They worked back then for finding a tenure-track job, but I'm wondering now if I should shake things up – perhaps get away from having any letters from people at my graduate institution other than my Ph.D. advisor, for example. I worry that the letters from professors who only knew me in graduate school will seem stale (and frankly, I haven't had much contact with these people since I graduated, so they probably can't comment in detail on what I have been up to since I was a student).

If I don't continue to rely largely on letters from professors at my graduate institution, whose letters should I replace them with? People who I think were anonymous reviewers for my books and articles? People who I think wrote letters for my tenure review? People in my current department whom I trust (this is tricky, of course, since I don't want to advertise too loudly within the department that I am applying for new jobs)?

I'm in the humanities, for what that's worth.

  • 4
    Incidentally, in math (where postdocs are expected), it would be very uncommon for all of your letters for your first tenure-track position to all come from your graduate institution. Usually, active young people get letters from well-known experts from around the world who know their work best. I don't know what's typical or good for humanities, but if you've been on search committees, maybe that gives you some idea for your field.
    – Kimball
    Commented Aug 8, 2017 at 0:07
  • The most important consideration in choosing reference writers is that they should have something useful to say about relevant aspects of your work. That would generally mean work done in the last few years, not your work in grad school 7 or more years ago. Apart from co-authors, you could also consider prominent people in your field if you know that they are aware of your work and like it. Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 4:41

2 Answers 2


At 7 years post PhD, your letters are getting stale, in that your PhD advisor, probably is no longer the person most familiar with your work. The person who taught you in grad school is definitely not going to be the most familiar with your work. It sounds like you did not provide a list of names when you went up for T&P. If you did, you should reconsider those names.

Some possible ideas of letter writers:

  • Find someone who is teaching from your book(s)

  • The person you most like having a beverage with when at a conference

  • The person who has, or that you would ask, to write a blurb for your book jacket

  • Someone who has invited you to give a research seminar or be on their conference panel

  • A trusted colleague in your department or at your university


I went on the job market after getting tenure at my first institution and know that references can be tricky.

Your original sources would be appropriate to attest at your potential success as a junior candidate, but not as much for positions at your level. Also, search committees may question why you couldn't or didn't have newer references (for instance, they may question if you are difficult to work with).

I selected for my letters: a co-author on several of my papers (who could attest to my scholarship and work style), a prior co-worker who left our department the year before (hence, avoiding the word of my job search getting out), and my mentor i was paired with for a national fellowship (who could attest to my potential/abilities as an independent investigator). I also had a trusted colleague in my department who provided me with a reference and kept my search confidential.

Good luck!

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .