How to Ask for a Reference in Academia

Nearly every university student at some point needs to ask for a letter of reference for some purpose. You might be applying for a job inside or outside of academia, or for postgraduate study, or for funding to support study or research. Lecturers consider it their duty to provide support to students in the form of letters of reference, so you should not be shy about asking for one. However, there is an established etiquette around this that you should learn and follow.

Not all references are alike. When you need a letter of reference, you should investigate carefully and make sure you understand the nature of the reference that is needed, and that you communicate this clearly to the person whom you are asking for a reference. References can be of very different types; many non-academic job applications require the person to merely fill out a form, whereas the standard academic reference involves writing a one-to-two page letter detailing the nature of the letter-writer's relationship to the applicant and the applicant's qualifications. In some cases you are asked to merely provide names and contact information so that your reference-writer can be contacted on your behalf, while sometimes you are expected to personally arrange for letters to be sent. Sometimes a reference can be uploaded to an online form or sent via email, while sometimes it must be provided to the applicant as a hard copy and passed along with the application.

It is YOUR responsibility to find out all the details and to provide as much information as possible to the person whom you are asking to be a reference for you: whether a form or a full letter is needed; how the reference is to be delivered; to whom the reference should be addressed (provide a name with title and a full address); when is the deadline for the reference. Never put your reference-writer in the position of having to go digging for these kinds of details.

Short notice is bad form. You should always give plenty of advance notice to anyone from whom you are asking for a reference. If you need a university lecturer or tutor to compose a letter on your behalf, and if it is the first time you have ever asked this person for such a letter, you should give that person no less than three weeks advance notice. Writing a letter takes time, not just for composing it, but for doing a little background research to recall your past work and qualifications - remember that university lecturers work with dozens and even hundreds of students. Also, university lecturers have very busy schedules with multiple deadlines to meet, and they have to incorporate your request into their workflow. Once a lecturer has written one letter for you, subsequent letters that you might need can be produced with less advance notice - but you should always allow at least one week. Never ask for a reference with only one day's notice - it is bad form to put your lecturer in the position of having to meet so short a deadline, and such a request reflects very badly on you.

Reference requests are a face-to-face matter. When you are asking a university lecturer or tutor for a reference for the first time, it is not sufficient to merely send an email with your request. You should arrange an appointment to meet personally with the person in order to explain what your goals are and to establish the fact that you would like to ask for continued support from the person as a reference-writer. That meeting provides an opportunity for your potential reference-writer to collect information from you that can be used in composing a letter. Once this relationship is established, future letters of reference can be requested with just an email or telephone call.

Applying for a Postgraduate Reference

References are very important in helping to evaluate an applicant, and you should therefore choose your referees with care. If you are applying for any kind of academic position - whether to a programme of study or to an academic job - then your references should be individuals in authoritative positions who can comment on your academic abilities and who have been in a position to assess your work in the past. They should be able to comment impartially on your work.

Your referees should definitely not be personal contacts; don't present a reference letter from a priest or a family doctor or friend. Especially when you are applying for a programme of study, what is looked for is not a personal character reference, but an assessment of your abilities and your aptitude for study.

Ideally you would obtain a reference from a teacher or academic advisor. In some cases that might be problematic - for example, if you have been out of school for many years and have decided to return to study. In that case, you can ask for a letter of reference from an employer - but their letter should then speak to things like your analytical skills, or your writing or speaking ability - things like your punctuality or your ability to "work in a team" would not be particularly relevant.
If your referees are teachers, choose those who have taught you in anthropology; if you have not studied anthropology or cannot get a letter from an anthropology teacher, choose someone in the most closely related subject. If you are a foreign student whose native language is not English, do not choose language teachers to write your references, as indications of your language level are provided elsewhere in your application.

If you have been enrolled in more than one institution in the last two years, it is a good idea to get a letter of reference from each of them. If you are applying for an academic job, don't present a letter of reference from a former student - you should always present letters from persons in positions senior to you.
Make sure that the person you choose will necessarily give a positive reference: give them plenty of advance notice, and take time to meet them in order to explain your motivation for postgraduate study and the reasons for your choice of programme, or if you are applying for employment, to explain the nature of the position you are applying for. Don't be shy about reminding them of your strengths and the relevant aspects of your experience that you would like them to highlight in the letter.

Writing a Teaching Philosophy

For those who want to go on to a career as a professional anthropologist in academia, teaching is part of the job. University teaching usually begins at the student stage, as students studying for the PhD in anthropology often lead tutorials, and in later stages of study may teach their own seminars. When preparing credentials to apply for a teaching job at any level, it is always a good idea to prepare a statement of one's teaching philosophy. Below are some webpages that offer useful tutorials on preparing a Teaching Philosophy:

University of Minnesota

University of Michigan

Washington University in St. Louis

The Chronicle of Higher Education

The link below downloads a short but very useful piece written by the editor of the journal Slavic Review. It outlines very clearly the process that a journal article goes through from submission to publication - something anyone considering submitting an article should understand. (The file is a PDF)

Journal Etiquette