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Asking for Letters of Reference

November 30, 2015

walker artIn contrast to the previous post that draws on the advice of others, below are some my thoughts on job and graduate school requests for letters of recommendation.  Some of the points may seem overly simple, but based on my experience over the past couple of decades, not considered by many applicants.

Who should I ask to write a letter of recommendation?  Generally, if three letters are required, each letter should discuss a specific aspect of the applicant’s potential. Together, the letters should make up a non-redundant complementary whole.  Ideally, for a graduate school application, one letter should highlight academic performance, one research potential or work ethic, and the third letter can highlight another relevant qualification/experience of the candidate, or combine some variation of the first two.  For a job application, the three letters should highlight different strengths/experiences the applicant brings to the position that may or may not include academic and research performance.  Regardless, the three letters should not all focus on your excellent ability to count widgets, unless the position you are applying for is that of a professional widget counter.  Redundant letters are wasted opportunities to show breadth.

Note too that applicants occasionally think that if three letters are required, six are better.  This is not true.  Assuming the logistical possibility of even submitting more than the required number, the first three letters received will be considered and the remainder tossed.  Too, letters from parents, laterally ranked co-workers, clergy and other personal acquaintances are not of value, except perhaps in rare circumstances.

In my opinion, the best way to ask someone to serve as reference or write a letter of reference, is something like “Will you be able to write me a strong and supportive letter of recommendation?”  If uncertain of what their response might be, give them an easy out like “I realize I have only taken one class from you” or “Although you have only known me for six months . . .”  If the response is no, weak, or a qualified response, the writer is essentially saying ask someone else.  Whereas a reference letter that notes limitations is wholly acceptable, a letter that notes mediocre performance is a death knell.  If an applicant does not have three professors or employers to provide strong supportive statements, that is a problem the applicant needs to address separately.

When should I ask for letters of recommendation?  One month’s notice is a reasonable expectation for writing letters of support.  I will not consider requests with less than two weeks notice except under the most exceptional of circumstances.  Realize that faculty are flooded with requests at this time of year.  For me, writing the first letter for an individual student will take at least one hour to review their documents and compose the letter.  Additional letters for the same individual take less time as the first letter is generally adapted for the additional recommendations.

What information should I supply to the writer for a letter of recommendation?  The short answer is – everything the writer asks for.  Specifically, supply a copy of your transcript, resume, a final version of your statement of intent, any relevant test scores such as GRE, and all the forms, contact information web addresses, and due dates for the letter.  Everything provided must be in final form unless you are specifically consulting with the individual on your draft statements.  Make the final forms available at the time of the ask.  That is, don’t ask for the letter one month before the due date but provide the necessary materials five days before the deadline.

What should I do after I supply all the information to the letter writer?  Check with the writer one week before the due date to verify they wrote and submitted the letter.  Right or wrong, ultimately it is applicant’s responsibility to follow-up and not assume the writer submitted the letter.  For example, I recently ran into a student I wrote a letter of recommendation for a summer fellowship.  I asked if they received the award.  They responded they had not and I commented that was unfortunate because I thought their application was strong.  The individual then noted that the other two letter writers did not turn in their recommendations on time thus voiding the application.  The fact is, when checking in with the letter writer, some will need the reminder and others will simply be appreciative of your professionalism in staying on top of the application process.  For most electronic applications, both the student and letter writer receive confirmation once the letter is successfully submitted.  Although I rarely have this happen, a simple note by the applicant to the letter writer thanking them completing the task goes a long way (see point 3, slide 9 from the presentation referenced in previous post).

What should I do after the application, letters, and paperwork are all submitted?   Let your letter writer know the status/results of the application.  If someone goes to the trouble to write a strong letter, that also means they are interested in your career development.  Keep them informed – this is also a good practice if you want them to serve as a reference in the future.

An important note on job references – When using an individual for a reference on a job application, inform them of that fact.  THIS IS CRITICALLY IMPORTANT because a former employer, supervisor, or work related person who is listed on a job application, but not asked to serve as a reference, can be legally bound to only provide a prospective employer with your dates of service and job classification.  That is, they cannot and will not serve as a true reference.

Typically, such requests for employment verification are referred to the Department of Human Resources.  Listing someone as a reference is a completely different matter.  If not explicitly understood that you are asking the individual to serve as a reference, their best option is to consider the request simply one of employment verification.

Generally, references are not contacted until after an individual is interviewed and “short-listed” for a job.  After such an interview, contact your references and let them know to expect contact from the potential employer. Provide the reference with basic information about the job so they can adequately speak to your abilities for the position.  Also, supply the potential employer with the best form of contact for the reference, and note if they will have restricted access for a period of time such as being on sabbatical, out of the country, etc.  Again, staying in touch with your references lets them know that you are take the process seriously which assures they will as well.

Best wishes!

Preparing for Academic and Career Transition

November 30, 2015

photo[1]Tis the season for graduate school and employment applications.  Therefore, I have spent a good bit of the past month writing letters of recommendation for an array of student applicants.  As a university faculty member and museum employer, I offer guidelines to students on this process.  The guidelines are not necessarily those I created, but rather flow from conversations with my colleagues both within and outside of higher education.  Here are three relevant slideshare presentations.

  • Here is a presentation I gave to graduates of the AmeriCorps NCCC Southern District Teams.  The presentation includes results of my informal faculty survey on their recommendations when applying to graduate school.
  • Here is a presentation I routinely give to graduate students in the Anthropology Department at the University of Memphis.  The presentation is based on my question to area employers, “If you could tell graduate students about one professional standard that is routinely violated but is of critical importance as they embark on their careers – what is that standard?”
  • Here is a presentation by my colleague Amy Santee on a critical career tool – developing a digital presence.  Amy delivered this presentation in a recent workshop to graduate students in the Anthropology Department at the University of Memphis.

And here is a post that discusses the many aspects of asking for letters of recommendation for both graduate school and other types of applications.

Happy Festivus!

Avocational Archaeologists and the Designation of a World Heritage Site

November 16, 2015

Here is a link to the article below where I talk about the important role of avocational archaeologists in the recent designation of the Poverty Point site in northeast Louisiana as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  I conclude that this type of engagement is critical for the future of archaeology.


Do Micro-credentials Have Value?

November 9, 2015

stoneAt the University of Memphis, there is not a good course offering on writing skills for graduate students.  In my anecdotal and formal evaluation experiences, poor written and verbal communication skills are a serious deficit for our college graduates.  There are a half-dozen or so MOOC offerings that address written communication on various levels.  I came across one called High Impact Business Writing reviewed the overall content and thought  the offering was appropriate for one of my students in particular.  I then noted that the course was part of a Career Readiness specialization of offerings that seemed to address aspects of training the student would find useful based on their career interest in museum administration.

When I reviewed the suite of nine courses in the specialization, I realized that much of the content expands on what I now cover with all of my advisees in our biweekly workshop meetings.  I began meeting with my student advisees biweekly because:

  • I found that I was having to repeat discussions with each of the graduate students whose committee I now chair, so we started meeting as a group to better use my time and for the students to learn from each other.
  • I see my job as their advisor to not just guide them through the graduate program to get a degree but also prepare them for jobs when they graduate.  Most students are poorly prepared for this part of their career.  They know how to get an A in class but are less skilled at writing a cover letter for a job application.  (Anecdotally, our workshop cover letter discussions have resulted in students getting  paid internships at the Met in New York, solid full-time employment, scholarships, etc.)

I recommended to one student that they consider completing the Career Readiness specialization offering this past summer.  At $350.00, that is about the cost of one graduate course credit at the U of M.  We discussed what the specialization means on a resume.  I noted that if one were applying for a job in higher education, perhaps not much.  But if one were applying for a position, where the importance is less the degree and more what you can do the first day on the job, I am convinced that such micro-credentials are becoming increasingly meaningful.

In this way, I continue to consider MOOCs as a supplement but not replacement for current higher education models.  In fact, perhaps MOOCs allow traditional higher education institutions to stop trying to do things they are not doing well, have MOOCs take on that role, and allow higher education to focus on what they are currently good at.

I asked the student to give me a candid blurb about their experience with the Career Readiness specialization.  They responded:

The Coursera MOOC’s on the career specialization track have been very useful and enriching. Learning professional business strategies will assist me in my future career and these courses have offered a wonderful outline of the skills needed. I found the financial and leadership courses to be the most helpful.

The Career Readiness specialization seems an excellent example of how micro-credentials can work.

Prehistoric Earthworks of the Mississippi Valley

October 26, 2015

PEMA new website recently launched that promotes the Prehistoric Earthworks of the Mississippi Valley from Iowa to Louisiana.  I have been thinking about the need for such a website or piece of promotional material for several years.  As the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum in Memphis, I regularly meet visitors heading north or south along the Great River Road or  I-55 corridors.  When I ask, “Are you interested in other prehistoric sites along your route?” most often the response is affirmative.  In the past, there was no single piece of information I could provide to guide that visitor.  In fact, because the various prehistoric earthwork venues are scattered across several states, and typically, state agencies do not cross-promote, there was no single website devoted to these sites of American Indian cultural heritage either.

Although intuitive, survey data confirm that cultural heritage tourists overwhelmingly select their venues for visitation via mobile/web resources and/or word of mouth. Unfortunately, today the only mobile resource that truly synthesizes museum venues is Wikipedia but not in a manner conducive for planning travel.  Individual states such as Louisiana have developed, or in the case of Mississippi, are developing prehistoric mounds trail tours. However, these projects, without exception, are restricted to intra-state sites, again ignoring many cultural heritage venues that are nearby but in adjoining states.

A single regional, or even national resource to promote prehistoric venues is a first step in addressing the problem. An ideal organizational form is based not on geopolitical boundaries but on natural or cultural parameters. For example, recent Civil War and Civil Rights trails follow sets of historic events that cross state borders. Given the north/south travel along the I-55 corridor and proximity to the Great River Road, coupled with extant prehistoric earthwork sites, the Mississippi River drainage is a useful natural and cultural feature on which to organize an interstate prehistoric mounds trail.

To put the idea into practice I involved students in courses I teach at the University of Memphis in applied anthropology and museum studies. Students in my classes always create some product that will live real-time in an area museum or digital space.  For several years I suggested a student take up the task of creating a brochure that promoted the prehistoric earthworks along the Mississippi River.  In my Applied Archaeology and Museums class in the Spring of 2014, a graduate student, Allison Hennie, took up the challenge and created the brochure.  This past year, we applied for and received the Southeastern Archaeological Conference Public Outreach Grant to expand the brochure, print and distribute copies to the venues listed, and create a digital presence for the information.  The Prehistoric Earthworks of the Mississippi Valley website and linked brochure are a result of that process.  The hard copy of the brochure is an 11 x 17 front and back six-fold that will be available at all the listed venues within the next two weeks.  (If you are a venue or cultural heritage agency that would like copies of the brochure, please drop me a note.)

In the coming months we will evaluate the traffic on the website, visitor comments, and check-in with the museums and prehistoric sites included in the brochure to get their feedback.  We will then incorporate their recommendations into the website and a further revision of the brochure.

I will appreciate your comments on this project.  Note that the website is specifically designed for viewing on mobile devices.  What works?  What does not work?  What suggestions do you have to make the website or brochure a more effective resource for information about the prehistoric earthworks along the Mississippi River?

Co-Creation and Public Archaeology

September 28, 2015

AAP coverIn August of this year my colleague Elizabeth Bollwerk and I published a special thematic issue of the Society for American Archaeology’s  Advances in Archaeological Practice titled Co-Creation and Public Archaeology.  The practice of co-creation has proven a guiding force in my professional practice over the past few years.  I initially came across the concept in Nina Simon’s synthesis and elaboration of an ongoing discussion in the museum community over the past couple of decades.  Since that time I have developed my own understanding of the co-creative practice that prioritizes addressing the community’s expressed needs.  In 2012, along with Natalye Tate, Elizabeth and I co-edited a volume of Museums and Social Issues on the co-creative theme.  As someone who has worked as an archaeologist for the better part of my professional career, I am very pleased with the publication of this new peer-reviewed volume on the subject of co-creation by a leading organization of professional archaeologists in the United States.  I believe an application of the co-creative practice will be key to the future of the discipline.

Below is the abstract to the Introduction Elizabeth and I co-authored with a true leader in the field of public archaeology, Carol McDavid.

This paper serves a dual purpose. First it is an introduction that aims to frame a set of papers that describe and discuss the process of co-creation in a variety of archaeological projects. We discuss the challenge of community engagement in public archaeology and offer co-creative practice as a method for improving our relationships with descendant communities and the general public. We begin by providing a definition of public archaeology and a brief overview of its evolution over the last few decades. Second, we discuss co-creation’s origins and utilization in the museum and business sectors, where the process is applied to address challenges similar to those archaeologists face. We then demonstrate how co-creation fits into the public/applied archaeological framework. We argue that co-creation must be both co (that is, share power in some way) and creative (that is, not just do the same things better, but do something new). Within this framework, we discuss how co-creation aligns with and informs current trends in public archaeology practice drawing from the case studies included in this issue. We conclude that co-creation has an important place on the collaborative continuum and can help our discipline become more responsive to the needs of our many publics.

And here is the table of contents for the volume that includes studies from throughout the Americas.  I hope that you will find these articles helpful as you go about your professional practice.

  • Co-Creation as a Twenty-First Century Archaeology Museum Practice
    pp. 188-197.  Robert Connolly.
  • Survivance Stories, Co-Creation, and a Participatory Model at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center pp. 198-207.  Kimberly Kasper and Russell G. Handsman.
  • Making the Past Relevant Co-Creative Approaches to Heritage Preservation and Community Development at Hualcayán, Ancash, Peru pp. 208-222. Rebecca E. Bria and Elizabeth K. Cruzado Carranza.
  • Co-Creation’s Role in Digital Public Archaeology pp. 223-234.  Elizabeth Bollwerk.
  • Promoting a More Interactive Public Archaeology Archaeological Visualization and Reflexivity through Virtual Artifact Curation  pp. 235-248. Bernard K. Means.
  • Co-Creation of Knowledge by the Hopi Tribe and Archaeologists pp. 249-262.  T. J. Ferguson, Stewart B. Koyiyumptewa, and Maren P. Hopkins.
  • Sleeping with the “Enemy” Metal Detecting Hobbyists and Archaeologists  pp. 263-274.  Matthew Reeves.
  • Cemeteries as Participatory Museums: The Cemetery Resource Protection Training Program across Florida pp. 275-290.  Sarah E. Miller.
  • Building Capacity for Co-Created Digital Moviemaking through Youth Programs pp. 291-300. Teresa S. Moyer.
  • Turning Privies into Class Projects pp. 301-312. Kimberley Popetz

Survey on Archaeology Blogs

August 27, 2015

fleurFleur Shinning from Leiden University in the Netherlands is conducting graduate research focused on the use of blogs and social media and how they contribute to the accessibility of archaeology.  Her intended result of the project is to make archaeology more accessible to a wider public.  She is soliciting input for her research in the form of a survey from readers of several blogs in the UK and USA.   The survey is well-organized, reasonably painless, and can be completed in less than 10 minutes.  I encourage you to click on this link and complete the survey, with the possible payoff of winning a subscription to Archaeology magazine and knowing that you are contributing to a project that focuses on expanding public access to archaeology.




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