Writing External Letters for Promotion and Tenure

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We just went through P&T “season” in academia and I was asked to write about a half dozen external letters and I read several dozen written for our many faculty who were going up for promotion and tenure.  I learned some lessons I wanted to share to make the process easier for you, when the day comes when you get asked to write an external letter.

What is an external letter?

At most institutions, one of the criteria for promotion from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor is developing a regional and national reputation.  For promotion from Associate Professor to full Professor, it is developing a national and international reputation.  There is a lot of data that contributes to this distinction, but one of the most important is external letters.

External letters are solicited from faculty at other institutions, in your discipline, at or above the rank to which you are promoting.  That is, if you are promoting to Associate Professor, external letters from other Associate Professors or Professors will be solicited.  They may know OF you and possibly know you personally but have not worked substantially with you.  This is because the point of the letter is to find out what an unbiased individual in your field knows about you and your work.  In almost all cases, external letters are solicited by the department chair, although one private institution I know of has their faculty contact possible letter writers.

Once an email is sent to a potential letter writer, they respond yea or nay.  If there is a potential or actual conflict of interest, it is brought up at this time.  For example, one faculty member for whom I was asked to write a letter has done several research projects with me and currently had a couple of projects ongoing.  I told the department chair this in replying to their solicitation and they agreed this was too much of a conflict of interest so went on to ask someone else.

The letter writer usually gets the department’s promotion and tenure guidelines and the faculty member’s CV.  They may be given student evaluations, an explanation of what to write, and other supporting documents.

How to write an external letter

If you are provided with directions, follow those carefully.  Some institutions specially ask “would this person be promoted at your institution” and others explicitly direct you to NOT indicate if the person would be promoted at your institution.  Some will provide specific items they want you to comment on.  Some will give you very little direction.  Read and follow the directions.

Something I noticed in several letters I read this year and appreciated was opening with a brief note of thanks.  Something along the lines of, “Thank you for providing me the opportunity to review Dr. X’s application and provide this letter of support.”  It struck me as gracious and generous and I’m going to start doing it.

You should start with how you know the candidate.  Have you ever worked with them on a committee?  Met them at a conference?  Worked on a paper with them?  Know them purely by reputation?  This allows the reader to put your letter into context and make sure a conflict of interest does not exist.

As usual, I like a five-paragraph essay format, so the final sentence in the opening paragraph lists the major items you are going to cover.  This is almost always teaching, research, and service.

Each paragraph then summarizes what the letter writer believes are the most salient points in the applicant’s career that makes them suitable (or not) for promotion.  This assures the reader that the writer actually evaluated the candidate’s application packet.  It also highlights important parts of the candidate’s career so the reader can put the information in context.  Personal experiences and perspectives can reinforce some ideas.  For example, one letter I read this year said, “Dr. Y was the “it” professional at this national conference.”  That suggests the candidate has a solid, wide-reaching reputation.

The conclusion paragraph should include the letter writer’s ultimate recommendation and summary.  Usually, this is “I enthusiastically support Dr. X for promotion to Professor based on…”

If you decide to not recommend the candidate for promotion and/or tenure, you should be explicit and declarative.  The department head needs to be able to understand your reasoning so they can advise the candidate and the faculty at the candidate’s institution.  A negative external letter is a pretty big deal.  It’s not impossible to successfully go through promotion and/or tenure with a negative letter, but it’s going to make the process much more challenging.

Conclusion

Writing external letters is a professional responsibility higher-ranked faculty members have as part of being in academia, similar to doing peer reviews for journals.  It’s an important and serious responsibility which can have significant consequences on the career of other faculty members.  If you agree to write an external letter, take it seriously and make sure to follow the instructions.

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