You would think this would be simple. You need a letter of recommendation. You contact someone you think could write one for you. You ask them to do so. Job done, right? For some reason, I continue to encounter students who do not do a good job with this step. Those students need help, and I am here to give it to you.
The academic career system is predicated on other academics vouching for you. This process ensures that someone familiar with the position’s demands and your abilities can evaluate your preparedness for the position. They then write an analysis of your preparedness in a letter of recommendation. Letters are ubiquitous and are variably important, depending on the position to which you are applying. We will cover elsewhere who you approach to write for you. Here we will discuss how to approach a potential letter writer.
Once you have identified who you want to contact, you have three options: email, phone call, in person. In all cases, the specific phrase you need to use is, “Would you be willing to write me a GOOD letter of recommendation?” The good is important. It is often implied, but you need to make it explicit. Otherwise, you may end up with someone writing you a letter of recommendation which is not good. It is possible even if you ask them to write a good letter that they will not. But most academics are professionals, and if they feel they cannot write you a good letter when asked explicitly, they will tell you. You have three options for initiating this request:
Email. This is the easiest, lowest-stakes, and generally preferred method. You have time to compose your message and consider how you want to phrase your request. In general, you should open with the position to which you want to apply. If you have not been in contact with the person for a year or two, you may mention your current position or your interest in the new position. The only reason not to use email is when you have an individual whom you know who does not rapidly (or ever) respond to email. Then you may need to resort to other means.
Phone Call. This requires some preparation and timing can be problematic. You need to reach them when they are available to listen to your spiel and are not distracted. After the usual opening pleasantries, you can ask, “Is now a good time to chat?” If not, you may ask about a time to schedule a call. You should have a plan for what you want to say. If it has been a while since you have been in contact, you should chit-chat about your current status and ask how things have been for them. You can then make your request.
In Person. This is usually done with individuals you see regularly and it is just as easy to ask in person as it is in email. Usually you won’t need much of a lead-up, but asking, “Can I ask you something?” is a decent opener. As with other steps, explain what you are applying for and then make your ask.
For phone calls and in person asks, ALWAYS FOLLOW UP WITH EMAIL. Send them an email reminder of your request. After you receive a “yes”, regardless of contact, make sure to send a follow up reminder a couple of weeks before the due date. Reasonable people will find this helpful and not irritating.
What if you get a “no” response? That’s fine, it’s better to know before they send off an unflattering letter! Thank them and, if appropriate, you may ask their advice for whom else you could ask. Hopefully they will give you some constructive advice and, if not, you haven’t lost anything.
Most professionals who are willing to write letters of recommendation are not scary. It should not be an anxiety-inducing experience to ask for a letter from someone with whom you have worked. Most professionals will be flattered. Try to be realistic about it. What’s the worst they can say? “No”, and then you know they would not be a good writer! It’s a win-win. Be bold and respectful and everything will be fine.