How to write an external review letter

It is summer, and many of my tenured colleagues around the country are writing external review letters evaluating the scholarship of candidates for tenure or promotion. In an era with a shrinking proportion of academic jobs holding the chance of tenure, it becomes more important for those of us who hold tenure to understand the role of the tenure and promotion process.1 This blog entry has a brief description of the role of external review letters, the advice I generally give colleagues when they have the chance to nominate external reviewers for either the tenure/promotion-to-associate step or promotion-to-full step, and what is important for an external review letter to contain.

The brief, tl;dr version of my plea to letter-writers:

  1. Spend 80% of your time/words explaining how you look at the candidate’s vitae and scholarship in the context of your and the candidate’s area, written for fellow academics who are in other disciplines — either a college/university-wide faculty committee or a provost may treat your letter as critical to the decision. Trust that a provost and faculty can count articles; what your readers need is your disciplinary (or interdisciplinary!) perspective.
  2. Read the writing samples and comment on them — explain what you learned from them, or if necessary, why you did not learn from them.
  3. Update your vitae before sending it with your review letter, and include everything that puts your position in context — that is, brag to make clear your expertise as a member of the field. Do not omit editorial board service, service as a program officer in a funding agency, or the like.
  4. Keep your tone civil.
  5. Do not accept an invitation to write a letter if there is a clear, discoverable conflict of interest and/or if the candidate explicitly asked you to be willing to be an external reviewer.

About external review letters

In colleges and universities where scholarship is a requirement for tenure, one common part of the review process for tenure and/or promotion to associate and full professor is the evaluation of the candidate’s scholarship by a small and critical group of external reviewers who are themselves accomplished scholars in the area of the assistant or associate professor up for tenure/promotion. In my current college at Arizona State University, we try to ask potential external reviewers to commit to writing for us in February, six months before the external review letters are due, and we send them an electronic packet of information that is a good part of the overall tenure/promotion portfolio. This packet contains the candidate’s vitae, summary statement, and a sample of scholarly writings (in my college, generally but not always refereed articles).2

When written seriously, these external review letters become critical aids to the review process — they provide ballast (and occasional counterweight) to the judgments that the candidate’s close colleagues bring to the table. When written poorly, external review letters can sink even a worthy portfolio; I have seen the occasional well-intentioned one-page “this is a fine fellow/gal and you should help him/her” review letter. Depending on the number and quality of other external review letters, that type of letter can be a kiss of death and should add a thousand years in purgatory to the letter-writer’s afterlife. The bottom line is that the external review letters are an important evaluative tool that is independent of the candidate and the institution. It’s not a perfect process, but it’s important.

Advice for candidates who can nominate external reviewers

I have told dozens of colleagues over the years that at the tenure stage, the most critical qualification of an external review letter is the ability to put your scholarship in a broader context: what does it contribute to the field? It does not matter if you and they are on the same side of a disciplinary divide if they cannot write a competent review to save their lives. As an historian, I cheated when putting together my nominee list: I read a sample of book reviews from all my potential nominees. After deleting the peers who had written incompetent or capricious reviews, I was left with wonderful scholars whose judgments of my own work was unknown for the most part, but where I could say they had demonstrated competence and fairness. Most education faculty do not have that type of public writing sample for potential external reviewers, and they have to seek out potential external review nominees reviewing in the wild — as conference discussants, as lit review writers, as solo authors writing lit review sections, and the like. It’s an invisible part of the tenure-track life.3

One other absolute item: do not solicit potential nominees. The request needs to come directly from the institution. I do not care who advises you otherwise; that behavior comes from the 1970s, not today.

Advice for external letter writers

For external reviewers who are new to the genre, I’ll describe one common order of topics, and then focus on the qualities of superb review letters. First, a common order:

  1. Brief statement of one’s qualifications in the field. (Shortish paragraph)
  2. Brief statement of one’s working relationship to the candidate, and where appropriate (usually!), a clear statement that there is no identifiable conflict of interest. (1-2 sentences)
  3. Brief statement of what you reviewed before writing the letter. (1-2 sentences)
  4. Brief paragraph summarizing what you think the contributions of the candidate are to the field — both the quality of and the extent of those contributions, in a way that is written for a competent scholar in another field.
  5. As part of that paragraph, it is often useful but not always necessary to describe the common trajectory of competent scholars at comparable points in their career (compared with the candidate). What is critical is a description that is targeted at the common decision issues. So, not necessary is the following: “Historians who earn full often apply after their second monograph published by a university press.” More useful: “Historians who earn full in my field commonly have the following profile:…”
  6. There should be a longish section of the letter devoted to analyzing the candidate’s contributions to the field. This section should focus on ideas and absolutely devote space to the writing samples sent to the reviewer — if you just write this section from someone’s Google Scholar citation page, well, we can see the same data, and you’re not adding anything! Explain qualitatively what the candidate’s contributions are, if possible what you have learned from the scholar’s work, and what the writing samples tell you about the body of work. Your job here is not to critique the individual pieces but to put them into the broader context of the scholar’s career and potential future work.
  7. Look back to the vitae and mark the year when the candidate arrived at the institution. Spend most of the time talking about scholarship produced while at the candidate’s current institution. If appropriate, talk about prior work in the context of the candidate’s scholarly trajectory.
  8. As part of that longish section, discuss the publication outlets, less as prestige indicators or proxy rigor than as an indication of focus and audience. Who would be reading this scholar’s work, and what does that tell us about her/his likely impact now and in the future? How does that compare with more direct evidence of impact, such as citations?4
  9. If there are serious flaws in the record, explain them as clearly and with as neutral a tone as possible. In this type of letter more than most, you are explaining more than you are relying on your authority as an expert; your readers will need to know the reasons behind your judgment. Rewrite as many times as necessary to remove all emotion other than sadness that you couldn’t say more positive.
  10. Following that section, depending on field, write a (usually short-ish) passage on other dimensions of scholarship that are relevant. If grantwriting is relevant, explain what the common expectations are, why those are the common expectations, and how the candidate’s profile looks. As appropriate substitute translations, creative scholarship, editorial work, and so forth for grantwriting.
  11. Where the candidate has graduated doctoral students or otherwise mentored new scholars (e.g., postdocs), explain how your field judges that type of mentoring work. What pops out at you, and why?
  12. Where asked, the paragraph before the anodyne closing will have an explicit recommendation. I hope you received the institution’s tenure and promotion guidelines in the packet, and if so, please do not go by the all-too-common seat-of-pants-and-my-professional-socialization judgment. Depending on what you are asked to do, you may explain whether the candidate would earn tenure and/or promotion at your institution.

That’s a common order of things. Now, why did I make the five recommendations at the top of this blog entry?

  1. Spend 80% of your time/words explaining how you look at the candidate’s vitae and scholarship in the context of your and the candidate’s area. This is where you provide the greatest value for your time. Let others count. Trust me on this.
  2. Read the writing samples and comment on them. Yes, I’ve seen too many letters that make clear that the external reviewer was too “busy” to read the materials. Do your job if you said yes; show that you read everything. Corollary: make sure you set aside enough time to read all of the materials and time to write the letter (at least a full day, the first time you do it).
  3. Update your vitae before sending it with your review letter, and include everything that puts your position in context. Do not omit editorial board service, service as a program officer in a funding agency, or the like. This should be a no-brainer, but I have seen external reviewers omit critical details in their vitae, where I knew what was omitted and could explain that the faculty member had been on the editorial board of Universally Regarded and Read Journal.
  4. Keep your tone civil. Do not make me call your mother about how you wrote the letter.
  5. Do not accept an invitation to write a letter if there is a clear, discoverable conflict of interest and/or if the candidate explicitly asked you to be willing to be an external reviewer. I’ve said no for one of these reasons. I don’t know who nominated me (hoped it was an administrator, not the candidate).
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Notes

  1. … and not botch it through carelessness. []
  2. Some places allow the candidates to nominate all of the external reviewers, some (like ASU) have nominees identified by both the candidate and the candidate’s supervisor, and while I have never worked at a place like this, a few only have administrator-nominated reviewers. In some cases the candidate can see the letters that are submitted, while at ASU and many other institutions, the letters are supposed to be read only by the various review committees and administrators who participate in the internal process. []
  3. For administrators who nominate external reviewers, we have almost no chance to engage in this type of legwork, which is why it is all the more important for candidates at places where they nominate reviewers. In the past few years, I have generally taken more than half a day for each candidate going up the following year, trying to find a range of external review nominees who are clearly experts. Thus far at ASU, out of several dozen nominees, I have been disappointed by the quality of one external review letter from someone I nominated. I wish it were zero. []
  4. Many of my colleagues will vehemently disagree with a deemphasis on prestige/acceptance rates. I think demonstrable impact is more important. The most important article in mathematical demography in the past 40 years was published in a periodical compendium of sources. []