Assembling the Dossier

When a job ad asks that letters of reference and transcripts be sent, it is always acceptable to send them from the dossier you have set up at the Graduate Dossier Service at the Career Centre located at the Koffler Centre (214 College St.). The GDS offers a reliable service at very reasonable rates. There is no charge for registering with the Service, only for mailing out the dossiers. Courier service is available at additional cost. See their website:

Individual letters of reference sent directly to the institution by the recommender are almost never necessary.

Summary of Dossier Contents:

  • Letters of Recommendation (3 required, including one from your adviser; up to 5; generally that includes 2-4 letters that speak to your research and 1-2 about teaching.). You can have more on file at the Dossier Service and specify which ones you want them to send.  (See below for more detail.)
  • Official SGS Transcript (you do not have to include that when sending the dossier if it is not requested). Other official transcripts may also be kept on file.

Almost all job ads ask for 3 letters. It is quite common for more to be sent. While 3 is an acceptable number (especially for someone early in a career), having 4-6 letters in a dossier is more typical. More than 6 are too many.

Ask your referees to send their confidential letters of reference to the Dossier Service, which provides a form to accompany these letters, attesting to the confidentiality of the letter. Provide a copy of the form (or the URL) to everyone you ask to write a letter for you. Give everyone enough time to write a positive and extensive letter for you!

Keep in mind that the Service becomes jammed during the job-rush fall season. Allow them time to meet your deadlines. During the past academic year, the GDS was open on weekdays (only), from 9:45 AM to: 6 PM (Mondays), 8 PM (Tuesdays), and 4 PM (Wednesdays through Fridays). The telephone number is: 416-978-8015.

The dossier service will tell you if letters have been received. If you don’t know that all your letters are in hand when requesting your dossier be sent out, make sure that it is not being held by the Dossier Service while waiting for a letter you have told them to expect. Asking for confirmation that your dossiers have been sent is ok.

A candidate’s dossier typically includes a recent letter from her or his adviser. That letter usually comments on the anticipated completion of the thesis, if not yet defended, or the scheduled date of the defense, or, once the thesis is completed, mentions the success of the defense. (Note re the word “recent” at the beginning of this paragraph: two years after the defense, you can probably stop asking your adviser to update the letter unless he or she has something new to say. If you do ask for an update and haven’t otherwise been in contact, write a note about what you’ve been doing and send a current C.V.) The adviser’s letter is usually the most full of all the letters in the dossier: it may describe the thesis and its research in some detail or it may speak to other aspects of the candidate’s career and future potential as a scholar, teacher, or colleague.

All dossiers should include a letter from someone who has seen the candidate teach. They often also include someone who is in a position to assess teaching evaluations or has a larger perspective to offer (for example, a T.A. coordinator or an Undergraduate Chair).

However, while dossiers should speak both to teaching and research, they usually emphasize research. (That, after all, is how you are best known to most of your graduate instructors.) Because such dossiers are what search committees are accustomed to seeing, you should generally not send out a dossier that is weighted towards teaching more than towards research. (That’s why a teaching dossier is sometimes asked for: to balance the professional dossier.) Exception: if you are sending your dossier to an institution known to hire individuals solely for their teaching (such institutions are chiefly U.S. and have a heavier course load), then you would, of course, want your letters to emphasize your role as teacher. Individuals who expect to apply to both teaching and research universities may therefore wish to keep additional letters in their dossier and specify which ones are to be sent to which institutions. (That kind of tailoring of the dossier to be sent out is always an option.) When both a teaching dossier and a professional reference dossier are asked for, it would not be unusual for a letter from the same individual to appear in both. (Remember, however, that the teaching dossier is a non-confidential document.)

Dossiers often include letters from faculty who have taught the candidate in a course during his or her Ph.D. studies. They often include letters from other members of the candidate’s dissertation committee. They might include individuals for whom the candidate has done research or assisted in editorial or academic administrative tasks. Don’t hesitate to ask your adviser for help in choosing others to ask.

Letters occasionally come from faculty at other universities than your home institution. For example, after the defense, dossiers often include a letter from the external examiner. (You will receive a copy of the external examiner’s appraisal of your thesis. If you receive praise there you can be sure the same words of praise will appear in any letter she or he writes for you.) Similarly, if you send a book manuscript out to a press for evaluation and get a glowing assessment back, the press may be willing to put you in touch with your assessor, who probably be quite willing to put a similar letter into your dossier. Occasionally other possibilities arise: individuals who have already taught at universities other than that granting their Ph.D. typically include a letter from that institution; a senior faculty member at another university or a scholarly editor at a journal might become acquainted with your research through conferences and publication, and might indicate willingness to write on your behalf.

Except in cases of unusual distinction in an M.A. program or notable success in another kind of advanced graduate program, letters that antedate the beginning of current or recent Ph.D. studies are not ordinarily included.

Generally speaking, letters from senior faculty carry more weight than those from junior faculty. On the other hand, while a letter from someone whose name will be recognized by the recipients is always nice, enthusiastic letters from people who know you well are always more helpful than letters from those whose acquaintance with you is only superficial and whose comments are, of necessity, brief.

Show those who will be your letter writers your C.V., and, if possible, your letter of application as well. Chat with them in ways that will be helpful for them (and thus for you). It’s ok to guide them a bit in what strengths you are hoping to have them speak to. (“I particularly wanted to ask you to write because you could talk about …”)

Plan your dossier as you go along: for example, it’s much better to ask now for a letter from someone who has just seen you teach (or has just seen you give an excellent seminar) than to wait several years and ask when you are going out on the market. By then the recommender’s memory will be fuzzy; right now s/he still recalls vivid confirming details! You can always ask the individual to update the letter if you are concerned about it seeming out of date.

Please remember to give your writers time: letter writers who are told that they must get their letters to the Career Centre by this coming Friday may not be as well disposed to the person they are recommending as those who feel that their own busy schedules and timetables are being respected. (On the other hand, professors really can be as absent-minded as the stereotypes suggest. So it is appropriate to check to see if the letter has gone in when you expect it to, and to remind the individual—gently—when necessary.)

Finally, when asking a faculty member for a letter, try to phrase your question discreetly; don’t make it seem like a demand. Say something like: “Would you feel you could write a strong letter for my dossier?” If the individual seems hesitant or asks if s/he could think it over, don’t press.

Adapted from the University of Toronto Department of English Placement Office