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Securing Strong Letters of Support

Nearly all applications and nominations require accompanying letters of support or, at the very least, contact information for referees. Though reference letters can make or break an application, they (at times) are given less thought than other aspects of the application.

So, how can you choose referees who will best represent you?

Tailor your references to the award.

Ask yourself: who should be your referee based on the award that you are applying to? While you might have a handful of colleagues that you frequently rely on, change up your reference list. Think about who can best speak to your eligibility for a particular award? For example:

  • For a teaching award, it can be helpful to have a past student or mentee write on your behalf. They can directly address your impact as a teacher and a mentor.
  • Reviewers for a travel award, such as a Fulbright, will likely want to hear from someone who you’ve collaborated with internationally, or who can address your ability to serve as a cultural ambassador.
  • For research awards, consider letters from your department head, the dean of your college (in some cases), dean of research, past collaborators, and/or top researchers in your field. For the latter, it can be helpful to have someone outside your university speak to the impact of your research on their work, on the work of others, or on an area of study.

If you are early career faculty, your reference list should no longer be comprised solely of your dissertation committee.

This can make you appear like a student and it doesn’t shine a light on your new role as faculty member. So, think about how you can expand your references in your first years as faculty.

Read instructions pertaining to references closely.

Oftentimes you can find this type of advice in the FAQs.

  • If the application says references are optional, provide references nonetheless. But make sure your letters will enhance your application. Be mindful of advice about who not to use for a reference. For example, the following is the Sloan Foundation’s advice to applicants for a Sloan Research Fellowship:

“Selection Committees recommend that letters of support be submitted by someone who can speak objectively and knowledgeably about the quality and significance of a nominee’s work. Letters submitted by co-authors, personal associates, or professional mentors are, in this sense, less useful to Selection Committees than letters submitted by those with more professional distance from a nominee’s work.”

Here the Foundation strongly suggests that you avoid references who may be seen as having a clear bias or a conflict of interest when writing on your behalf. 

  • Many awards specify the need for letters of support from scholars outside of your home institution. Be on the lookout for such advice. It is important to have at least one individual write on your behalf, who is not from NC State. This is especially true in the case of research awards. 

Seek out referees who are past recipients.

These individuals were selected because they fit the profile of who the granting organization funds. Given that, they’ve gained a certain level of credibility in terms of speaking to the potential of a future awardee. Whenever possible reach out to past collaborators, current or past colleagues, etc. who have won the award that you are applying to. And, of course, seek their support in other ways: ask for advice, sample materials, and/or ask if they are willing to read your materials before submission. 

Draft materials (at least in part) before contacting referees.

Your referees are busy people and writing letters can be taxing when multiplied across all of one’s contacts. Make it easier for your referees to support your application by doing the following:

  • Contact referees early, but not so early that they will forget that you’ve asked for their help. Ideally, you should ask for a letter of support with at least one month lead time.
  • Provide drafts of materials so that your referees more fully understand your proposed project and past work. ALWAYS provide an updated CV.
  • Guide your referees by letting them know what you would like them to highlight about your candidacy. This can also help assure that all of your letters don’t read the same. In that respect, consider asking each referee to address different aspects of your candidacy based on your individual relationship/history. 
  • If you have time, provide phrases that referees can directly use in letters of support. The easier you make the process, the more likely you will receive a strong rather than perfunctory letter. 

Set clear deadlines.

The semester gets busy so it is important to provide an internal deadline that is before the actual deadline. Also set internal deadlines for yourself to send reminder emails. 

Do not recycle letters.

Always seek out new or updated letters. If you had someone write for you in the past, make sure that you highlight what has changed about your candidacy since they last wrote. You want to avoid stale letters at all costs. Reviewers can tell when a letter has been recycled. For some awards, your application may stay active for 2-3 years. In this case, it is still important to update your application or nomination packet with the most relevant information.