Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Recommenders: advice

So I'm applying for fellowships of various sorts for the first time since grad school--which means that, also for the first time, I'm confronted by the need to start finding recommenders from places other than grad school. Many of these fellowships only require two recommenders, and for those I'm set: Advisor is writing one and a good professional acquaintance (a well-known mid-career academic whose work I very much admire) has agreed to write the second.

However, at least one of these fellowships requires three recs, and I'm uncertain where to turn for that third one. My department chair would do it, and she's an excellent letter writer, but she's not in my field and I'm not sure that a letter from her would be remotely useful or appropriate. I could call upon another professor at INRU whom I've known since I was an undergrad and who's read pretty much everything I've ever written--but (a) s/he has gone above and beyond in writing me recommendations for everything imaginable for more than a decade now, and (b) I really want to get away from grad school recommenders, both because I think it will look better for my applications and because I'm genuinely interested in forging new relationships with mentor-type people.

Now, I have another possible third recommender, but I'm worried that we don't know each other well enough and that it might be presumptuous of me even to ask. We met less than a year ago, but we've had some fun interactions over meals at conferences; s/he read one of my articles and then engaged me in very complimentary conversation about it; s/he offered to read something else of mine--an offer that for various reasons I couldn't/didn't pursue. And oh yeah: this person is also kinda famous.

So I'm not sure. I guess it doesn't hurt to ask, but I have deep anxieties when it comes to making other people uncomfortable or putting them under any sense of obligation--and I worry that we might know each other well enough that Possible Recommender wouldn't feel able to say no. . . but would secretly resent the presumption.

Anyone have any pertinent advice, here?


Wol said...

I had a similar situation earlier this year. Asking for recs sucks--it's the thing I hate the most about the whole grant/job/whatever hunt.

I went ahead and asked a famous person who had recently chaired a panel I was on, and she said yes. I would ask your famous person. S/he sounds like s/he knows your work fairly well, even if you aren't personally close yet. And, much more important, s/he's offered to help.

Good luck!

Hilaire said...

Ew, I know how hellish it is asking for recs. I'd say what wol said, though - she once *offered* to read something. I'd say that makes asking her to write a letter for you entirely reasonable.

life_of_a_fool said...

I agree with wol and hilaire -- ask the famous person. Given that you know each other and she offered to read, I don't think it would be presumptuous. I have to think that everyone else (i.e., even the famous, established people) know how difficult it is to ask and that it is a necessary thing, and so will be gracious about it.

Julep said...

I am struggling with this same issue and recently decided to ask the person who knew me better than the more "famous" person. But because this person offered to help you, is famous, and is not a "grad school" mentor, I think you should go with her. I think it's important to get letters from people beyond just the professors you've taken classes with.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

If Famous Lady has read your article, said good things about it, and offered to read more, I'd definitely ask her. My experience with non-grad school recommenders has been that such a relationship would definitely be sufficient, and that people who are in a position to write authoritatively about others recognize that and see it as part of their professional obligations. I'd offer to send her your c.v., maybe something else to read if you have another article-length thing suitable to send her (although sending the grant proposal will probably suffice), and whatever more info she'd like, and give her lots of outs in case she doesn't feel she knows you well enough or just honestly doesn't have enough time. But definitely ask her - my prime non-grad school letter writer (who ironically now works at my grad school, but didn't when I was there!) has told me explicitly that she has people like that who write letters for her still. Anyway, the worst is that she says no, and you're no worse off.

(Do you ever feel like you wish you could ask blog readers to write letter for you? I do!)

Pantagruelle said...

Even when I was in my 2nd year of the PhD, my grad school mentor told me to get a letter for my job dossier from someone not at my grad school. Mentor counselled me to get one from a guy who edited a book volume that has my essay in it. I say go with Famous Person. If you don't feel comfortable with asking him/her, why not ask the editor of either the journal or book volume where one of your articles is published? He/she will know your work well, if only by virtue of editing it comma by comma and by being in your field. If Famous Person has done this or is likely to do this in the future, so much the better! If not, or if you don't feel comfortable (with which I'm entirely sympathetic at this awful time of year), you've got pubs, so go with one of those people.

Sisyphus said...

Yes! Ask the famous person! Sharing our work and asking each other for recommendations are an expected part of this profession, so it's not like it would be coming out of left field. (although it always feels like this weird and inappropriate thing when I have to do it, even though I know otherwise.)

Like other people say, give the famous person a gracious way out when you ask and all will be fine.

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, a recommendation from your current boss won't hurt. That person can address your sterling qualities of responsibility and perseverance, that you will actually follow through and add value to the fellowship program, etc etc. It's no good being brilliant if you're going to fink out.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I would so love to write a letter for you, as someone else suggested, for the amount of value you've added to *my* professional life as I read your intelligent, well-written, funny, perceptive blog!

Flavia said...


Aren't you the sweetest! I'll keep you in mind if I ever need a rec letter for. . . well. . . I don't know quite what. But I'll keep you in mind!

And thanks all for the advice. Will keep you posted.

Susan said...

And just to confirm, Famous Scholar probably almost expects it. Once you get to be famous scholar, people ask on the slimmest pretexts. (One friend called it the letterhead test).
THe thing is, you never stop needing letters, so once you reach a certain stage, you know you'll be writing a lot!