How to Choose and Use Academic Recommendations

As I am in the process of applying for academic jobs, I am confronted with the important matter of who to ask for a recommendation and why.  This raises an important issue: what are references for?  What kind of reference is most useful or impressive?  I don’t have the answers since I have only been on the applying side and not the hiring side, but I do have thoughts.  My hope, though, is that others who may know more than I do will weigh in in the comments!  Please, inform me and/or correct me!

So, here are some of my guesses, reflections, and thought.

1. What are references for?

On a basic level, they are a way of making sure that who you say you are in your CV is really reflective of your personality, character, and competency.  Thus, it is important to get someone who knows you pretty well (i.e., someone you actually took a course from or who knows and has read your work in some detail).

2. How many recommendations will I need?

Most hiring institutions will ask for three.  And, most of these do not specify any further.

3. Do I need to know someone famous?

Well, the short answer is no.  I mean, not everyone who would be a good candidate happens to also be D.A. Carson’s or N.T. Wright’s apprentice (though I know someone who is 🙂 ).  You need men and women of integrity, hopefully in full-time teaching, who can vouch for you.  Ideally, one of your recommenders is a senior scholar.  What is a senior scholar?  Whether they are well-known or not, a senior scholar is a full professor (tenured, in American terms, a ‘professor’ in UK terms) and has a strong publishing record.  Don’t panic, most of the time your doctoral supervisor will fit this bill.  Another good test of a senior scholar (in New Testament) is membership in SNTS.  Now, if they happen to also be Richard Bauckham or Stanley Porter or Beverly Gaventa – that is a boost and will help.

4.  How do I choose my three?

As I said, the first should be a senior scholar, hopefully in the primary field of study you are applying to.  And, hopefully you have taken at least 2 courses with him or are supervised by her.  As for the others, I have some ideas, but these are just my opinions.  First, you want to diversify.  Having all three from the same institution is not ideal unless you are at Duke or Cambridge (and the like).  See if someone from your master’s institution can also write one.  Or your undergrad if you studied biblical studies.  Now if you studied classics in undergrad, a rec from your history prof would also be attractive (I think).  Having two from your PhD institution is not bad at all.  When it comes down to it, try to make sure they really know you and know your strengths.

5. What are the referees going to write about?

Frankly, I don’t know.  Partly it depends on how they know you.  Partly it depends on what you’ve done and what your strengths are.  And, partly it depends on the nature of the job you are applying for.  Once again, ideally, you want one of them who can speak about your teaching abilities.  Also, at least one of them should know your writing and research potential and capabilities.  If you are applying at a seminary, perhaps the hiring committee would be interested if a referee could comment on your maturity and character.

6. I DON’T KNOW THREE SCHOLARS, what do I do!!!!!

Well, that is a set back.  If you could turn back time, I would tell you to begin your PhD with the idea that you will attend conferences, look for teaching opportunities, and dialog over email with scholars not only for the purpose of learning for your thesis and strengthening your skill set, but also for establishing yourself in a scholarly community that is mutually beneficial (i.e. ‘schmoozing’).  As a Christian who is trying to be Christ-like I know it is not pious to kiss up to the big names and ignore other students and so-called ‘nobodies’.  And, I discourage you from having an atitude that would foster these negative patterns.  At the same time, it doesn’t hurt to be a bit bold and try and get to know some scholars in the field (while not snubbing others).  How?  This is tough because everyone is different.  An important and easy way is to attend and present papers at smaller conferences (like regional SBL).  The smallness lends itself to being in such close quarters that it is easy to strike up a conversation.  You may have to have to guts to say to a scholar if they tell you they liked your paper, ‘Would you be interested in having a copy; also, I would be happy to receive comments and feedback in more detail’.  Is this annoying to scholars?  Well….often…yes.  But, not always.  And most scholars will say no if they don’t want to.

All in all, though, I can’t underestimate the importance of attending and especially presenting papers at conferences (especially the British NT conference if you study here).

7. How do they know what to write?

I usually email some information to my referees such as my CV, a sample cover letter, a short note on my ministry experience and current involvement, and anything else that will help them ‘remember’ me (if it has been a while).  You may even want to phone them at first as that form of contact will help them to see how important they are to you and how much you will appreciate their support (I sound like a politician, don’t I?).

8.  How do I know if my referees will say good things?

You don’t.  They seal the references and send them in directly.  But one can hope that they would turn you down for a reference if they did not plan on supporting your job application.

Well, that’s all I have to say.  Now, please, let me hear from you in the comments.  How to do references help you get a job?  What can you do to make this element of your application better?  I would suggest, of course, lots of prayer.


As some of you know, an ongoing interest of mine is the question of the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament.  Steve Moyise and Maarten Menken have been editing a series of books on how NT authors use certain Old Testament texts.  The series began with Psalms (2004, T & T Clark), and then, Isaiah in the New Testament (2005, T & T Clark).  We now have Deuteronomy in the New Testament (2007; T & T Clark).  These edited volumes follow the pattern of studying OT books according to their importance in the NT as demonstrated in the frequency of quotations and allusions.

In the Deuteronomy volume, we see a very fine cast of scholars thinking together about the use of Deut. in the NT.  Notably, we see contributions by Steve Moyise (Mark), Maarten Menken (Matthew), Michael Labahn (John), Roy Ciampa (Galatians and Romans), Brian S. Rosner (1 and 2 Corinthians), and Gert Steyn (Hebrews).  As we move down the frequency list (Psalms, to Isaiah, to Deut. and so on), it becomes harder and harder to analyze the whole NT from this perspective as fewer and fewer citations/allusions are detected.  Thus, we see a noticeable absence of reflection on, for instance, Ephesians and Colossians, and most of the General Epistles.

I will not examine the book chapter by chapter because, frankly, the details of the chapters are primarily descriptive and only really interesting to someone who is studying the subject in depth.  My interest in the book is more in terms of why Deuteronomy is so frequently referred to, not just how it is.  In Timothy Lim’s chapter on the use of Deut. in early Judaism, he points to the notion that its popularity probably comes from its use in liturgy (see esp. 15).  In favor of this, he also mentions the Jewish practice of carrying phylacteries and ‘mezuzot’ which would have included texts such as ‘Deut. 6.8; 11.8).  And, Lim notes that the Decalogue also appeared often in such liturgical texts.

What about the NT?  M. Labahn argues that Deut. was of interest to John (the Evangelist) because of motifs that easily derive from it such as Love of God and Care for God’s Commandments.  One cannot ignore, either, how important for Jewish messianic expectations, to hope of the ‘Prophet to Come’.

In Romans and Galatians, R. Ciampa gives a exegetically rich intertextual investigation and his concluding statements are particularly insightful.  He eschews Francis Watson’s approach to Paul and the OT.  Ciampa, instead of seeing two opposing voices in Deut., takes a more covenantal approach as reconfigured in terms of the cross.  Thus, he responds to Watson as such: ‘If we grant that Paul perceives that Christ’s coming has brought about the transition from curse to blessing that was anticipated in Deuteronomy 30 in a surprising way, it opens up the possibility that Paul views some texts as reflecting divine guidance and instruction for the situation in which Paul’s readers find themselves as believers in Christ.’ (116).  I think Ciampa is on to something, but the challenge is to determine which texts are which!

Ciampa’s covenantal perspective on Paul’s Christology and soteriology suggests that ‘in Paul’s view God has fulfilled the theological programme of Deuteronomy 30 through Christ himself, and that has brought about significant implications for understanding how the realities of curse and blessing, death and life, disobedience and obedience, sin and righteousness are conceived in light of the good news of Christ’s achievement’ (117).

Though I won’t go into detail, Brian Rosner’s work on 1-2 Corinthians in this volume is equally cogent.  He would probably agree with Ciampa’s covenantal approach, but his perspective on the Corinthian Correspondence highlights more Exodus and Passover themes that come from Deut.

Whenever I review books that consist of multiple-contributors, I am disappointed when there is no concluding chapter.  Such a chapter is needed, I think, to give coherence to the whole book.  This Deut. volume (as the others) lacks such a post-work reflection.  In a final chapter we hope to see the commonalities in the various approaches, wider themes that emerge, significance dissonance among the chapters, and perspectives for the future.

Nevertheless, I am collecting the whole set of these books as they are excellent specimens of how to approach the Old in the New in a sophisticated way which considers the early reception history, the vorlage, important literary questions regarding the nature of intertextuality, and also hermeneutic principles and approaches appropriated by the NT authors.  I am quite sure that another volume on the minor prophets is in the works.  I eagerly look forward to it.

NB: In the introduction to this Deut. volume, Moyise makes the caveat that this study could not do an in-depth look at the Decalogue in the NT.  Even though the contributors did touch on this as relevant, this is still a study waiting to happen.  Future doctoral students should keep this in mind.


Thoughts on Presenting a Scholarly Paper

This past week was about the sixth or seventh time I have presented a paper in a conference and I am actually starting to feel more comfortable with the whole process.  As I have been reflecting on the conference, I thought I would share some thoughts, both as a presenter and an audience member.

1. Always have some kind of handout.  Now, I prefer to give out the whole paper because (a) it is easier to follow along (especially if the audience members nod off!), (b) it can compensate for talking a bit too fast, and (c) it allows the reader/hearer to reflect further on your paper and offer you more specific feedback at a later time.  The disadvantages are that it is costly and time-consuming to offer and there is a higher potential for someone stealing your work.  Nevertheless, if you do not feel comfortable giving the whole paper, have some kind of outline and especially your thesis statement(s).  A short bibliography is always welcome.  Put your email on there as well so you can receive feedback.

2. Stay Focused – Some paper presenters tend to digress from their manuscript and do asides.  It, for me, is barely tolerable once or twice, but certainly do not make it a habit.  Try to stick to your guns (although jokes tend to be more welcome).  These asides add more time on your paper and can get irritating (as it breaks up the coherence of your paper sometimes).

3. Pause – intentionally take a drink of water or just stop and take a breath every so often (at the end of a section) so people can mentally settle and/or catch up.  Build such pauses into the timing of your paper if need be.

4. Summarize, summarize, summarize!  In the writing of your paper (not in asides) summarize what you are saying and what you have said repeatedly.  It may seem too repetitive to you, but it is very helpful for those who are just listening.

5. Biblical Texts – if your paper is based on a biblical passage, have a handout with the text on it in English and also Greek/Hebrew.  Don’t assume your audience knows the passage by heart.

6. Don’t quote German unless you absolutely have to or unless you are presenting at SNTS.  Please think of those of us that can barely read it, let alone try to recognize it by ear.


1. Don’t Backlash -some questioners have an angry tone and mean spirit in their interrogation.  Don’t stoop down to their level and lash back.  Try to resummarize what they have asked, but as if it were done in a more neutral way.  Then answer the question.  I have failed in this area where I get defensive and over-compensate by bringing up every argument I can think of to overwhelm them.

2. Answer questions concisely- this is hard, but most people don’t want to hear a long answer.  Often a really long answer means either (a) you are trying to show off, (b) you are having a private conversation with the questioner publicly, which is also annoying, (c) you don’t really know the answer, or (d) you are thinking out loud and the audience members are all looking at their watches.

3. Don’t feel too proud to say ‘I don’t know’, but it is not bad to venture an idea after saying this (but briefly).

4. If the question is completely off the topic, but interests you, give a quick (30 second) answer and say, ‘for the sake of those who have more questions about the paper, catch me afterward for a longer answer’.

5. If the questioner makes a statement instead of a question (i.e., ‘I think that your ideas are…’) feel free to say, ‘Thank you for giving me something more to chew on on this topic’ and move on.  Those who are just making a comment, in my opinion, often just want to tell you something and are looking for feedback.  But, not always.

As I am presenting soon at SBL, I will get another chance to practice what I preach!  See you in Boston!

British New Testament Conference – Days 2 and 3

I only have a couple of minutes this morning to report to you that the second day of the BNTC was a rewarding day. We had an afternoon plenary session with Loveday Alexander who offered a careful consideration of how to navigate between a wildly far-fetched maximalist approach to Luke’s use of Hellenistic literary sources (novels, myths, philosophical maxims) and a classic minimalist approach that just recognizes quotations. She was especially keen on pointing out how Christ is compared with Bacchus in religious art in the reception history of the NT. There is much more to be done here, but I suspect she will be doing much of it!

In the night plenary (beginning at 8PM!), Dale Martin offered a discussion of how Jews and Christians (especially Paul) understood demons and angels. Though his paper was quite complex, the basic point was to argue that Paul followed an LXX/Hebrew Bible tradition of considering angels to be one specific kind of being and demons another kind – thus, the two should not be as easily collapsed into one category ontologically as has been assumed in modern and medieval Christian mythology. Very stimulating discussion afterwards!

In terms of seminar groups, I was involved in Hermeneutics.  We had several good papers with mine being in the late morning.  It was a small but quaint group (4 people total) and I received very helpful feedback.

The publishers displays were particularly impressive with really good discounts.  Continuum editor Haaris Naqvi told me it was a good conference for them in terms of commissioning books and building author-publisher relationships.

Day two saw some really good proper English rain.  We expected a visit and short speech from Bishop Tom Wright that never happened.  Sad.

This year, in my opinion, was a bit unusual in that we had a number of scholars come from American institutions to give papers.  The British NT Conference is getting international attention!

On Day 3, we had one final seminar session and a final plenary.  In the final plenary Eddie Adams offered a captivating look at the issue of house churches and early Christian meeting places.  Adams primarily argued that NT scholars have overdrawn evidence to suggest that houses were nearly the only place CHristians met for worship.  Adams, both from a literary and archaeological perspective, argued that we must give more weight to other options as well including shops, bathhouses, storehouses, and outside locales.  Very interesting.

On a personal note, I had some great lunch and dinner discussions with some fine scholars.  I was particularly impressed with such folks as Todd Still, David Horrell, Loveday Alexander, and Barry Matlock.

For sometime now a small group of scholars have been unsatisfied with the current ‘seminars’ system and, though the idea of revamping the system was brought up at the business meeting, there a decision to put off further discussion for another year.  Personally, I like the current system.  Though in seminars scholars are segmented and divided into sub-disciplines, this is complemented by plenary sessions which everyone attends.  Contrast this with SBL where scholars from various NT sub-disciplines almost never interact unless they consciously choose to go to sessions outside of their field.

Overall, many commented to me that this was a very enjoyable conference.  I take for granted how lovely Durham is, but many really enjoyed touring the cathedral and learning in such a historic environment.  At one point I was disappointed that we did not invite C.K. Barrett to come and participate in the conference as many would have liked to meet him (he is 91 years old now, but is still quite active in preaching and also still writing and publishing).

Next year the conference will be in Aberdeen and, though Andrew Clarke gave the pre-welcome introduction and speech on behalf of Aberdeen, he commented that they are yet to have a chair in NT to give a welcome.  I look forward to seeing who fills that position.

Finally, I agree with several scholars who observed that this years’ plenary speakers were especially excellent and we had an excellent selection of discussions on various parts of the NT, various methodological issues, and both very senior scholars (in prestige) and some younger ones as well.

British New Testament Conference – Day 1

Here in Durham we just completed our first day of the BNTS conference.  Nearly 200 scholars (record numbers for the conference, I think) arrived mid day here and we had a lovely time in St. John’s gardens greeting one another.  A number of publishers made it this year with a total of 17 conference tables needed to display their wares (SPCK, Continuum, DEO, SCM, Equinox, STL/Paternoster, CUP, Sheffield, Baker, Hendrickson, WJK, Eerdmans and more!).

Our first plenary speaker was John MG Barclay (one of my supervisors).  His lecture was on grace in the Wisdom of Solomon and in Romans 9-11.  Barclay has been dissatified with scholarly treatment of Pauline soteriology, not as much from the standpoint of law, but of grace.  Little work has been done on gift and exchange theories in the ancient world and the conventions of Paul’s time.  Barclay argued that, despite the fact that Paul and the author of WS (here on AWS) both seek to explain why some receive grace and others do not, and both refer to the history of Israel, they work within completely different paradigms.  The AWS argues that Israel is a recepient of God’s grace, mercy, and privileges, because they were acceptable recepients of that gift.  The AWS believed in a moral order in the universe that can ultimately explain why Israel was privileged over other nations.  Paul, on the other hand, refuses to make this connection.  Israel was chosen, but God’s choice is utterly unpredictable and incomprehensible.  Paul refuses to set up a system of moral order that makes Israel as a logical recipient lest God’s grace be reduced to some kind of natural selection process.  This, Barclay argues, is unsettling and powerful as Paul bucks ancient conventions of gift exchange where gifts are understood to be given to those who are particularly worthy to receive them.  There was much more to this paper, but I offer to basic outline (I hope I got it right!).

More to come!  My paper is today as well.

Check out the latest biblioblogs carnival

I just saw the latest Biblical Studies blog carnival.  This is, I think, my first time getting mentioned!  I would just like to take a moment and thank all the little people that made this dream come true… 🙂 

This is pretty good timing.  I could use the extra exposure because I am presently applying for teaching jobs beginning fall 2009.  Please keep me posted on NT jobs that may not be as visible (like those that do not make it on SBL’s career center).  Also, I would appreciate prayers- this is a stressful time!