A veritable flurry of letters about delinquent Letter-of-Reference Writers has appeared in my inbox. Coincidentally, my next piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education is about getting advisors and co-authors to read/edit things we write. With Letters of Reference (LoR), the problem seems to be a bit seasonal, I fear.
So: What to do when someone promises a letter of reference, there is a deadline, you gave them plenty of advance notice (+ reminders), you need that letter from that person (e.g., an advisor), and they do not write the letter (or letters) in time?
A serious example of this involves the need for support letters for graduate or postdoctoral fellowship proposals or other similar cases with drop-dead deadlines and a need for a letter from an advisor. In such cases, it is the responsibility of advisors who agree to write such letters to do so by the deadline, barring any unforeseen health or personal crises.
And if the letter is not submitted and the deadline is looming? The priority is to get a sufficient number of letters by the deadline. If a last-minute replacement can be found -- someone who heroically steps in to save the day with letter -- that person should mention that the advisor (or whoever) couldn't provide a letter, but that this in no way indicates a negative opinion of the applicant (if that is true; an advisor with no intention of writing a letter, for whatever reason, should state so well in advance).
Otherwise, if you can't find a replacement or if a replacement isn't allowed (because you have to have a letter from a particular person), you need to talk to someone -- a friendly committee member, a graduate program advisor, the department chair. That is, you need to talk to someone who can try to exert pressure in a way that you can't. You need allies. Some of us professors like to believe that we are semi-autonomous and can run our research empires how we want, but in reality, we have supervisors who (should) keep track of how and what we are doing; or, in this case, not doing.
Calling in the big guns to try to extract a letter from an advisor may not be the best way to ensure that you are going to get a positive and thoughtful letter, but if a person has a history of not sending in letters on time (despite promising them), someone in a position of authority needs to know this and rectify the situation. That may only be accomplished by alerting others to the situation. Ideally, any complaint would be backed up by documentation.
I appreciate that students and postdocs who need lots of letters from a particular person are reluctant to go this route, so I hope that anyone in this situation has some good back-up letters to alleviate the problem. This is a good idea anyway, as you never know what is going to happen to your preferred letter writers. Professors have health and personal crises, and so, despite the best of intentions, we may not be able to provide the letters you need, when you need them.
If the application in question is for a graduate program, it may be OK if the letter is a bit late. I can't speak for all programs, of course, but it sometimes takes a couple of weeks after the deadline for all the files to be completed. It is annoying for the staff person who has to chase down missing pieces of applications, but I know that some places will try to get a complete file for promising applicants. Some places won't bother, but some will.
Speaking only for myself here, if I am reviewing a graduate application of someone who appears to be quite impressive and who wants to work with me, but there is a missing letter, I may ignore the omission if the delinquent letter-writer appears to be somewhat ancillary and if the other letters are informative and detailed. If the missing letter is from someone whose opinion I want, I might contact them myself.
But that's just what I tend to do. Note that I am not on the admissions committee, so I may look at dozens of applications myself, but I do not have to deal with vast numbers of them.
I admit that, if I am not already impressed with the application, I will not make an effort to obtain a missing letter. The staff member who deals with admissions logistics may make an effort, but I won't make any special effort myself. There maybe cases in which that missing letter would have changed my mind completely so that I became extremely positive about a candidate, but given that there are so many applicants and many more outstanding applicants than can possibly be admitted, I err on the side of assuming that an otherwise-not-awesome application is giving me the information I need. And I don't even look at very incomplete applications (more than one letter missing).
This is where readers can leave a comment and say that if any application to their graduate program is in any way flawed, it is immediately shredded and sent to a landfill. Or, better, it would be great to have some helpful suggestions about how to extract an on-time(ish) letter from someone, particularly if suggestions come from someone with procrastination tendencies or such an insanely busy schedule that they only have time to write these letters on their iPhone while walking to a breakfast meeting. Do repeated reminders and guilt-tripping pleas work? If not, what does?