How to list academic job references?
January 9, 2010 1:30 PM   Subscribe

Academic job filter: Whom do I list as references when applying for faculty positions while currently employed?

I am in my 3rd year in a TT position in a social science/humanities field. I really love my job and my colleagues, and would be happy to stay where I am for a while, but for one major problem: my current position is in another state/region from my spouse's, and there is really no place in the area where my spouse could work without making a pretty major downward career move.

There are two job openings in geographic areas that would provide many more opportunities for my spouse for which I'm considering applying. My dilemma is in listing references (no letters are required, just names/contact info). I have my dissertation advisor and a former committee member, both of whom I am still in contact with and will happily serve as references. For the 3rd person it seems like it would be best to list someone from my current institution, particularly my dept. chair, but I don't really want to tell my chair that I'm applying for jobs. The job market is tight enough that I don't really want to jeopardize my relationship with my current colleagues if nothing comes of these applications, especially since I'm up for 3rd year review this spring.

On the other hand, if I don't list my chair, will it look odd? My other options are either former professors or a former dept. chair from my previous institution (a non-TT job), but I haven't talked to these people in a few years and they have less relevance to the jobs I would be applying for.

Is it ever acceptable to list a reference but ask that the committee not contact them without contacting me first (i.e. if I am a serious candidate)?

Any help or advice is welcome. I hate applying for jobs but the two-body situation we have right now is becoming a major financial burden (and also kinda sucks on a personal level).
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (6 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I think everyone in your current department would understand your need to move to be near your spouse. I would talk to your current chair now and ask them to be a reference. If you are good they will immediately start petitioning your Dean for some sort of counteroffer to keep you. I have seen this sort of negotiation lead to a spousal hire.

If you are really uncomfortable talking to your current chair then explain in your application letter. It's not usually a problem but if they like you they will want to talk to your current chair before making an offer (which again kicks off the whole counteroffer thing). Beware though academics are not descrite and your application will likely leak out if you are called for an interview.

Really I woud be open. Academics move. There is nothing wrong
with that and especially pre-tenure you have to look out for your own interests.
posted by Fiery Jack at 2:18 PM on January 9, 2010

I've been on both sides of this equation: moved at third year on the TT to another institution (same two-body problem!), and sat on several search committees.

Definitely ask someone with whom you've worked in a professional capacity. I've seen the red flag raised several times on candidates who had been on the TT at other institutions and were still relying exclusively on their dissertation committee. If you are only listing your dissertation advisor and a committee member it can look to search committees like you've failed to move beyond your grad school years. Certainly you should have made some contacts or collaborated with people in your field by now, who can speak to your strengths as a researcher; if not, ask your chair, or a senior mentor in your department who knows your work. Academics move routinely, and a good chair (or a senior mentor in the department who knows your work) will completely understand.

The best, most complete reference packets I've seen as a search committee member have included a balance similar to the research/service/teaching triune that most institutions expect: get a reference who can speak to your teaching, one or two to speak to your research, and one to speak to your value as a professional colleague. You don't say what kind of jobs you're applying for (research? teaching?) but remember to tailor the kinds of references to this formula. Research-intensive institutions will be most interested in your research chops, so make sure you have more research references. Etc.

Good luck! It's a very tough time to be on the market right now & I hope you do super-well & can get closer to your sweetie!
posted by media_itoku at 3:42 PM on January 9, 2010

Good answers here. I also think that you should have a reference from your current institution. Just make it clear to your chair or whomever you deem suitable to act as a reference that the only reason that you would consider leaving is a personal one. This kind of thing happens all the time. Best of luck!
posted by ob at 4:14 PM on January 9, 2010

I've been in the same position. Fortunately I was in an understanding department and I had no problem listing my chair as a reference, but your department may not be so understanding. If that's the case, I would ask a trusted senior colleague to be a reference if s/he would be comfortable keeping it confidential.

You'll want a reference from your field who was not connected to your graduate program, in order to signal to prospective employers that you're developing in the field. The point of a reference from your current department, though, is not necessarily that--in some departments, especially smaller ones, you won't have a departmental colleague in your subfield. Rather, the point of a departmental reference is largely to assure prospective employers that you are not leaving because you're disgruntled or unable to meet expectations, but for other reasons.

That's especially the case if the move would be lateral or even downward in the academic pecking order. In that case, it's very helpful to have a letter from a senior colleague that says, in effect, "Anonymous is a great colleague, brilliant scholar, dedicated teacher, etc., and though it might seem odd, s/he is interested in your position at Podunk State for compelling personal reasons and would seriously consider accepting an offer from you." Otherwise, Podunk State might wonder why a T-T prof at Flagship U. is applying for their job; the obvious reasons are fear of a tenure denial or an attempt to negotiate a raise using a counteroffer as a bargaining chip.

Good luck!
posted by brianogilvie at 7:52 PM on January 9, 2010

Good advice here. As someone who's been on search committees, the questions that would come up are: is she looking to move because she expects a poor third-year review? Why no references who can speak to her teaching ability/experience (depending on the sort of institution you're applying to)? What has she done since her PhD?

If you're not comfortable letting your dept chair know you're applying elsewhere, then don't. But you'll want to have references that can address the points above. Research shouldn't be too hard; assuming you have an active publishing record, there should be other colleagues in your field who can act as a reference. Teaching might be trickier.

I'd also suggest contacting the search committee chair where you're applying and letting him/her know about the two-body problem. You don't have to go into tons of detail - just let them know that you're applying discreetly and would rather not share this with your current institution. This happens a lot, and will help allay any concerns they might have about your progress toward tenure at your current institution.
posted by chbrooks at 9:22 PM on January 9, 2010

I'm always a big fan of personal contact during job applications, because if they have already spoken to you, you'll be more than an anonymous letter. So call, like chbrooks said, and use this question to connect with the search committee chair. If you have other intelligent questions about the specific job, ask those as well. Make sure you thoroughly prepare this call, because this will be their first impression of you.
posted by eau79 at 5:35 AM on January 10, 2010

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