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Provost's Search Committee Tutorial: A Primer

Please Note: This is not the tutorial but a narrative version of tutorial materials, a primer if you will. Reading through this material will NOT give the necessary certification for serving on a faculty search committee. It is designed instead to offer all who are interested a chance to become familiar with the material covered in the tutorial prior to taking the tutorial and/or a chance to review material and references for individual topics after you have taken the tutorial.

If you would like to actually take the tutorial please click here.


7. Reference Letters


If there is a discrepancy between the CV and the reference letters, should the reference letters should carry more weight?

Here is an exemplar from UVa:

A search committee had identified a good pool of candidates for the position they were looking to fill, including one woman who looked like a great possibility, in a field in which women are highly underrepresented. However, the letters of recommendation from her references were not as strong as her CV might indicate.

Instead of taking the letters at face value, and dismissing the candidate from the group of top choices, the search committee chair acted on his knowledge and experience, noting that some referees tend to be restrained when writing letters of recommendation, or simply have a low-key style of writing. He was also aware of recent research which indicated that recommenders in academia tended to describe women as more communal and less agentic than men even when they had equivalent qualifications, and that that difference negatively affected the hirability ratings of women (Madera, Hebl and Martin, 2009).

The chair called the key recommenders to discuss the candidate further. The head of the lab in which the candidate was working as a postdoc was very enthusiastic about her, saying that she was really the top person in his lab; much better in fact, than several of the men from the same lab who had applied for the position.

A key factor that weakened her reference letters was the fact that she was a more recent Ph.D. graduate, had spent considerable time building new equipment, and consequently was somewhat behind her competition in terms of analysis and final results. The lab head made it clear that the candidate's demonstrated potential was as high as that of any previous scientist in her position, and that one year later, with her full results in hand, she would be one of the hottest candidates in her field nationwide. At that point the department would stand little chance of attracting her to UVa.

The search committee ended up recommending unanimously that the female candidate be pursued as an exceptional opportunity hire. The search chair, and others in the department, realized that they might have lost out on hiring a great colleague if they had not paid attention to the discrepancy between the recommendation letters and the apparent excellence of the candidate.

An earlier study of recommendation letters for faculty positions at a large medical school found that letters written for women tended to be shorter and to lack basic features that were included in men's letters, such as mention of the applicant's research or mention of a title like “Head of Pediatric Cardiology” (Trix and Psenka). Here is the abstract:

This study examines over 300 letters of recommendation for medical faculty at a large American medical school in the mid-1990s, using methods from corpus and discourse analysis, with the theoretical perspective of gender schema from cognitive psychology. Letters written for female applicants were found to differ systematically from those written for male applicants in the extremes of length, in the percentages lacking in basic features, in the percentages with doubt raisers (an extended category of negative language, often associated with apparent commendation), and in frequency of mention of status terms. Further, the most common semantically grouped possessive phrases referring to female and male applicants (‘her teaching,’ ‘his research’) reinforce gender schema that tend to portray women as teachers and students, and men as researchers and professionals.


Fraser, G. 2008. Personal communication.

Madera, J.M, M.R. Hebl and R.C. Martin. 2009. Gender and letters of recommendation for academia: Agentic and communal differences. Journal of Applied Psychology. 94(6): 1591-1599.

Steinpres, R.E.,  K. Anders and D. Ritzke. 1999. The impact of gender on the review of the curricula vitae of job applicants and tenure candidates: A National Empirical Study. Sex Roles. 41(7/8):509-28. Retrieved on May 23, 2005 from

Trix, F. and C. Psenka. 2003. Exploring the color of glass: Letters of recommendation for female and male medical faculty. Discourse and Society. 14(2):191-220. Retrieved on May 23, 2005 from



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