Letters of recommendation for a TT job: is Interfolio OK?
September 14, 2018 5:21 AM   Subscribe

I'm finally ready to apply for tenure track jobs in my field, creative writing/English. My question is, how are letters of recommendation typically handled for these jobs? Is it enough to get my recommenders to write a single letter and upload it to a dossier service like Interfolio, or does the letter need to be tailored to each individual job?

Obviously, the Interfolio/one letter option is easier on me and the people writing for me, but if it's not what's *done*, then I don't want to do it either. My question is about what the standard is right now. I gather that using a dossier service in this way was considered a bit gauche five years ago, but that things might be changing fast. Thank you.
posted by toomuchkatherine to Work & Money (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I can't speak for certain for your field, but for TT jobs in my field (astronomy/physics), using a service like this would be unusual. Ideally, your letter writers would craft (or at least tweak) the letters for different jobs. The letters I write for applicants applying to liberal arts colleges are different than the letters I write for applicants to Ivy League research institutions. Some of this is a matter of emphasis, but some of the letters can really be quite different.
posted by Betelgeuse at 6:23 AM on September 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

I was on the market in 2016. At least in my field, I think practically every position I applied for had a different system for uploading the letters. The positions I was applying for were also slightly different enough that my recommenders had to at least tweak things for each one.

I'd say even if a bunch of them are all through Interfolio your recommenders will need to do the same--sometimes that could just be switching out the school name; other times, that might be needing to do a letter more tailored towards an R1 vs. a SLAC; or speaking to your ability to teach a different slate of courses depending on the position.

(This is where you send your recommenders a very nice spread sheet with all of the due dates, instructions for uploading the letters, links to the job description, and a basic breakdown of the position-- "large R1; need me to teach first year Comp and Shakespeare"; "Small SLAC; Intro to Non-Fiction", etc.)
posted by damayanti at 6:25 AM on September 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

On the one hand, you will probably be lucky to even have one recommender who would be willing to tailor their letter to specific positions... On the other hand, having reviewed applications for tenure track and lecturer level positions in the last few years, sometimes it's obvious that the applicant (and through them, the recommenders) are just applying for anything they can without much discernment. It's more incumbent on you to write a cover letter that indicates you have given at least some though to the school to which you are applying, but it would certainly make a positive impression if your recommender was privy to your specific thinking. In other words, if you are applying to a large urban research institution in the Southeast, at least a few sentences in your letter should make the case for why you think you would be a good candidate in such a place. You likely already know that. But, if your recommender also spent a few sentences to indicate why you would be a good fit for a large urban research institution, that would best demonstrate that you were taking the position seriously. As I mentioned at the top, though, you will be lucky to have a recommender who has the time to do that.

One other thing - each school has their own legal/HR regime which impacts what they can ask for and how they ask for it. I believe at our institution we would ask for sealed letters mailed from your recommenders...
posted by Slothrop at 6:27 AM on September 14, 2018

Upon posting, Betelgeuse and damayanti might be in fields where recommenders are nicer... :) I applied for 47 positions coming out of grad school, so my recommenders might have just become worn down!
posted by Slothrop at 6:30 AM on September 14, 2018

Thanks all, this is really helpful.

@Slothrop, you're right—so far, two of my recommenders are strongly pushing to only have to write one letter for me, while one other (the oldest!) has said she's willing to tailor for each opportunity. I suppose I'll take what I can get. Thanks for the reminder about being specific and focused in my cover letters.
Also, many moons ago I wrote a master's thesis about Pynchon. :)
posted by toomuchkatherine at 6:32 AM on September 14, 2018

It depends on your field. In mine (vision science), it's fully expected that your recommenders will tailor your letter to each job, so Interfolio's dossier service isn't useful (although I've tangled with it, since some schools use their system to wrangle applications).
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 7:08 AM on September 14, 2018

One option would be to have your letter writers write two different letters--one for SLACs and one for research universities--and store these with a dossier service. This is what I did, and I landed a job.
Having been on a few search committees now, I don't think it matters that much if the letters are carefully tailored to reflect the demands of the specific position. All other documents, however, should be.
posted by frau_grubach at 7:08 AM on September 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

In my field (philosophy) most job applicants use Interfolio. One applies to so many positions that it just isn’t feasible for one’s letter writers to produce a new letter for for every application. (Perhaps they will write bespoke letters for a couple of jobs that are exceptional in some way.)

I think you should really ask people in your feild about this because, as this thread shows, what’s normal varies..
posted by HoraceH at 9:18 AM on September 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

Hi, I'm a tenured faculty member in an English department (although in a different subfield than you), and this exact question has popped up on my social media feeds recently. There has been pretty much UNANIMOUS consensus in those discussions: Each of your recommenders writes a single letter that you use for all of your applications. Your recommenders do not, in other words, customize your letter for every job you're applying for, and everyone who was a letter-writer seemed to agree that they would find it highly unusual if an applicant or an advertising institution asked them to customize their letters of recommendation.* Interfolio was acknowledged as the best and most widely-used dossier service.

I like the idea of asking for two different kinds of letters from your recommenders --one for teaching institutions and one for research institutions -- but I think that you could also just clearly ask your recommenders if they would be willing to address both your publications/research/writing and your teaching in their letters. Just be sure to give them some material (like your teaching portfolio and statement of teaching philosophy) that they can read over so that they can talk about your teaching.

Do you have a faculty member in your department who helps with job-placement? I'm a little worried that your question is a sign that you're not getting great advice from your advisors about the TT market. I especially hope you have someone you can talk to who has been on the market themselves sometime within the last ten years. If not, there's a lot of talk about the job market in English happening right now on Twitter -- and there are a lot of full-time faculty on Twitter who have volunteered to read drafts of job letters and other materials for applicants on the market this year. Search for #JIL and you'll find the stream of academics who are offering job-market advice. On the whole, the general tenor of those conversations seems generous, supportive, and caring. You might also look at Jonathan Kramnick's recent articles for the Chronicle of Higher Education on the job market.

*Even if a faculty member only advises one or two students on the job market, for example, each student could be applying to somewhere between 19 (nonfiction and mixed genre), 23 (poetry and mixed genre) and 28 (fiction and mixed genre) TT positions. Most of us are still writing for former students, too. If you're just writing for one student in creative nonfiction and you customized every letter, you might have to write as many as 19 customized letters. If you were writing for three students in fiction, you might have to write as many as 84 customized letters. Even those of us who are despondent about the state of the job market probably couldn't manage it work- and time-wise. Academia is a small world so it's pretty common for recommenders to end up talking at some point -- on the phone, in the course of another email stream, or at a conference -- with a faculty member on a search committee that's considering your application. A lot of "customization" happens through this back-channeling, for better or worse.
posted by pinkacademic at 9:20 AM on September 14, 2018 [6 favorites]

Most of my recommenders just wrote one letter that was multi-purpose, though one of them gave me word doc that had the position named and I could change it to suit and then convert to pdf and that was great. If your letter writers are comfortable with that I highly endorse it.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:12 AM on September 14, 2018

Oh and in my field you just attached your letters to your application, there wasn't any kind of third party involved.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 11:24 AM on September 14, 2018

Seconding pinkacademic. For your field, Interfolio is expected. If one of your recommenders has a special "in" with one of your schools, you can see if they'll follow up with an email/call to someone they know in that department.
posted by TwoStride at 5:53 PM on September 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I had set letters from everyone but my principal letter writer/dissertation advisor. He agreed to do personalized letters for the jobs I was most excited about, but I understood that this was above and beyond.
posted by umbú at 7:42 PM on September 14, 2018

I used to work at a university doing work like this, and we requested letter writers upload the documents themselves to our interfolio application system. The applicants generally did not upload their letters directly from their interfolio, although I do remember we made a few exceptions. The letters were mostly tailored for the job. Additionally, when our professors needed to write a letter for a previous student seeking academic positions, the profs wrote and saved a general letter and had their assistants update the letter to contain info about the position and university to which the applicant was applying. The assistant was the primary contact person for the submission of letters. This was standard where I worked, but I can't speak for other universities.
posted by Penguin48 at 1:18 AM on September 16, 2018

FWIW I'm in the life sciences. I used Interfolio on my last job search, on the advice of a friend who did a successful search last year, and it was totally worth it (even worth paying for extra deliveries). In this competitive era of needing to apply to 50-100 postings in a single cycle, it is completely unreasonable to expect your recommenders to customize their letters (extracting even one letter can be difficult for past advisors who are hard to reach and overextended), nor is it wise to expect them to be organized enough to keep track of so many letters on your behalf on top of their actual jobs.

Interfolio allows you to submit your letters using any web form (it gives you special e-mail address aliases so that when the institution requests your letter, Interfolio forwards it to them right away) and also allows you to set up deliveries to any e-mail address, so there shouldn't be any worry about incompatible systems.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:45 AM on January 18

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