Letters of recommendation for a faculty job: teaching observations


How do you get a (teaching) job without experience, and how do you get (teaching) experience without a job?

Sure, graduate students teach. However, graduate students typically don’t get to own their own curriculum, nor do they have the often have the chance to teach a full lecture course. The same is true for most postdocs.

That makes applying for faculty positions at teaching-centered institutions kind of tricky.

Search committees are aware that for most applicants, genuine opportunities to teach substantially are hard to come upon. It would look good if a grad student or postdoc landed such an opportunity and did well, but search committees are aware of the fact that many potential top notch faculty members just don’t have a lot of teaching experience. It’s not a dealbreaker, but it is a mitigating factor. Some people on search committees would love their applicants to have long and serious adjunct experience, but others also might prefer to think that their top candidates have not been driven to adjuncting for lack of finding an awesome postdoc. (People are filled with all kind of irrational biases, after all.)

What can job candidates for a teaching-centered institution do to make sure that limited teaching experiences are represented as well as possible?

Here’s one suggestion: Make sure that at least one of the letter-writers will spend more time writing about teaching than research, and that the prose demonstrates specific and direct knowledge of the candidate’s teaching, gained from observation.

Here’s another suggestion for applicants: Make sure that all of your letter-writers are familiar with your teaching and interactions with students. Ask them to stop by and watch you as you are teaching a lab section. Even if they only watch for five minutes, remarks about your teaching will have much greater credibility if your recommender explained from personal observation. (Also, if you’re mentoring undergrads, make sure that your advisor knows exactly what you’re doing with these students and can describe your specific role in the successes of these students.)

Consider what it is like for a member of a search committee, wading through a mass of applications for a tenure-track teaching position. The committee doesn’t want to waste its time with someone who hasn’t communicated a sincere interest in teaching, and ideally will find someone who already has some real experience. Committee members want information about the teaching of applicants that is validated and supplemented by recommendation letters. Talk by an applicant is cheap, but a recommendation constitutes evidence.

It is huge if recommenders spend a two solid paragraphs, or more, explaining things that the applicant does while teaching, how they personally observed that you are an effective teacher. I haven’t been on an academic search committee in several years (as my university hasn’t really hired any scientists in several years), but to my recollection these kinds of remarks are scarce.

The first time I applied for faculty jobs, one of my letter-writers wasn’t a tenured faculty member, but was a full-time non-tenure-track lecturer who was responsible for coordinating labs which I taught. I saw him teach a bit, and he was crazy good. As he was my boss of sorts, asked him to drop by when I was teaching. He had some great constructive input for me, and we continued to talk about teaching once in a while. I didn’t cultivate this relationship with the purpose of seeking a letter of recommendation, but when I realized that he would be a great letter-writer I didn’t hesitate asking him. I think his letter made my application stand out. That was one recommendation letter that wasn’t from a fancy-dancy big name person, and making that choice on my part told the search committee what my priorities were.

If your letter writers are research-focused people, it couldn’t hurt for you to ask them to watch you teach for just a little while. It would be good research on their part for the letter they wil be writing. If these people don’t have the time to do this little favor, then I don’t think you could count on them for taking the time to write a solid letter, which should be taking at least 45 minutes and perhaps much longer.

And, of course, the letter that gets sent to a teaching institution should look different than a letter sent to a research institution. If you’re applying for both kinds of jobs, then you’ll have to break it to your letter-writer that they need to draft up two letters.