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When applying for post-doctoral and faculty positions you are typically asked for three (sometimes more) reference letters to support your application.

Given that it is competitive out there, it also makes sense to apply for all positions that are good matches to your qualifications and career development goals (in the case of post-docs).

Sometimes this may mean asking for several reference letters (or pre-application "can you support me if required?" requests) in a short space of time.

Also, there may only be a small pool of people (i.e. 3 or 4) who know your work sufficiently well to give an excellent reference.

I have also been told that referees want to help you out, and that there is no reason to fear asking them. And, that in many cases once a letter is written it can typically be quickly repurposed. But there must be a breaking point.

How do I manage this without being disrespectful? How many requests in a given unit of time is too many, or harms my credibility? I am asking this question in this forum, as I am interested in the norms in the academic world, which are often somewhat different than the rest of the working world.

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How do I manage this without being disrespectful?

Just ask. Ask at least a month before your first deadline. (Ideally, your writers should be people who know you well enough not to be surprised by your request.) If possible, ask in person. Give them as much information as you can about where you're applying, including your complete application package — CV, statements, sample papers, names of your other references, everything. Ask for feedback. Listen. If they agree to write you a letter, keep them regularly updated as your CV and application targets change.

Most importantly: Given your references a way to tell you which letters they've sent. This could be as simple as "Please send me email when...", or a private Google doc listing your application targets and deadlines. (From personal experience: Having a common Google doc for all your letter writers is particularly effective, since each writer can see when the other writers have sent their letters.) Check regularly that your references are actually sending their letters, and bug them mercilessly if they haven't yet. This is not being disrespectful; this is helping them to do the job they agreed to.

Finally, keep your references updated whenever you get an interview, get a job offer, or accept a position. Don't forget to say thanks.

How many requests in a given unit of time is too many, or harms my credibility?

That's entirely up the the individual writer. But as Rex says, it's common for one applicant to apply for dozens of positions. When I agree to be a reference for someone's faculty search, I generally expect to send letters to 30–50 different targets. I can use (nearly-)identical letters for most targets, but inevitably there are major variations. For example, tenure-track faculty positions, industrial research lab positions, and postdoc positions all require different letters, even when the applicant is applying to all three types of jobs.

Moreover, there is no standard mechanism for submitting letters. Some places want letters submitted in parallel with the application; others ask automatically when the application is submitted; others ask only when the application passes an initial filtering stage. Some places want letters by email; others use standard services like MathJobs; others use home-grown web pages; a rare few still require paper letters with wet signatures.

This is what agreeing to write a job letter means. Most faculty already know this and won't agree to act as your reference unless they're willing to do this much work. Still, just as it's important to ask "Can you write me a strong letter of recommendation?", it's important to be completely up-front about the scale of your request.

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Will the same letter do for many of the jobs to which you're applying?

In math, many jobs are on MathJobs, the recommender can upload a single letter, and the applicant cannot read it but can have it sent anywhere. I also know that some departments maintain files of letters on behalf of their students, with a similar purpose. There are also commercial services that do this, such as Interfolio.

I recommend seeing if similar services are available to you, and are acceptable to the institutions to which you'll be applying.

  • Interfolio is a great recommendation. There is potential, however, that some referees would like to reserve their right to recommend you for only jobs of their choosing. This is a bit of a minefield, and may be seen as an affront (e.g. see answers to academia.stackexchange.com/questions/5115/…) – user6670 May 1 '13 at 17:15
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I am not sure what would be called a norm since it is likely to vary from place to place, but more importantly person to person. I think a person is more liely to write many letters if you have worked more closely with that person, through for example thesis work etc. If you ask someone who has had little contact then the number is less. The basis for this i sof course that a person with whom you have worked much has more to say than someone you have barely talked to duing, say, a class.

The best approach would be to actually talk this over with the persons you wish to have writing letters. Explain what you will do and ask if they would be willing to write provide the letters for you. If you are open and frank about it they could provide you with a routine around the job that would work for both of you. What I personally feel frustrated about is if I am pressed into writing letters over-night, but if I have a say in when and with what head time I can expect then it is less of an issue. So, provide the basisi for a good working relationship.

A final point is that what is too much in this case highly depends on how you communicate your wishes or expectations and showing that you understand that writing these letters takes time and effort on behalf of your references.

So, sorry, no number can be given.

  • Okay--no number, but is it not fair to expect a certain performance from those with whom you have worked closely, published papers, have communicated respectfully and kindly your request, and have previously demonstrated willingness to support you? By holding back on a request when I really need one, it turns these individuals into gatekeepers of my success. Would these individuals really want to be thought of in this way? – user6670 May 1 '13 at 15:04
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    @user6670 It is the level of fair that is difficult to assess. You could ask for tens of letters over some time but hundreds would be going over board. So in general, I think communicating is a good starting point rather than just expecting letters to be written (particularly on short notice). In the end what is too much will be determine by your mutual relationsship. – Peter Jansson May 1 '13 at 15:42
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You should just ask. I'm sure the professors have all dealt with this many times, and will not have a problem with it; it's understood that sending out letters of reference is part of the job of being a professor and that candidates will be applying dozens of places. I'm sure your references will already have solutions they're comfortable with. If you're in a field where many physical letters need to get sent out, it's quite normal for a professor to simply give a copy of the letter to a secretary and have him/her make copies and send them out.

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For faculty positions it is not uncommon to ask for letters to be sent to dozens of institutions; I know someone who applied for around 80 positions, for example (which was noticed to be rather a lot by the people who wrote him letters, but they still sent them).

For postdoctoral positions, you should plan on fewer; in most cases, the letter is not the first step. You have a CV and presumably publications; you may have met your advisor-to-be at conferences; and so on. If the person/people in charge of hiring you seem potentially interested and you are serious about the position, go ahead and ask for a letter. If you are merely curious, try to do your part of the work first, especially if your former advisors etc. will have to tailor their letter each time. Sending one letter to eighty institutions is easier in most ways that writing five letters with different details. Still, that said, as long as you're pursuing reasonable opportunities and you're gracious, most people willing to write you letters will send as many as it takes. (Keep in mind, though, that if you ask for dozens of letters for postdoc applications and are never offered a position, it is probably not the case that you just need to ask more!)

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