Friday, September 28, 2007

Applying to Philosophy Ph.D. Programs, Part III: Letters of Recommendation

Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?

Part II: Grades and Classes

Good grades alone won't secure admission to a Ph.D. program in philosophy. Writing samples and letters of recommendation are also very important. I believe writing samples should carry more weight than letters (and admissions committees often say they do), but I suspect that in fact letters carry more weight. An applicant needs at least three.

Whom to Ask

If a professor gave you an A (not an A-minus) in an upper-division philosophy course, consider her a candidate to write a letter. You needn't have any special relationship with her, or have visited during office hours, or have taken multiple classes from her -- though all those things can help. Don't be shy about asking, we're used to it!

No matter how friendly they seem, you should be wary of asking for letters from professors who have given you A-minuses or below, since if they have integrity in writing their letters, it will come out that your performance in their class was not quite top-level. If a professor has given you both an A and an A-minus, there might still have to be some restraint in the letter -- though less so if the A is the more recent grade.

Letters from philosophers are distinctly preferable to letters from non-philosophers. Letters from eminent scholars are distinctly preferable to letters from assistant professors. Of course, these factors need to be weighed against the expected quality of the letter.

You may submit more than the stated minumum of letters, but be advised that three strong letters looks considerably better in an application than three strong letters and one mediocre one.

Although it's a delicate matter, you can ask a professor whether she thinks she'll be able to write a strong letter for you.

Should You Waive Your Right to See The Letter?

Most applicants waive the right, and some professors will feel offended or put on the spot if an applicant does not waive the right. However, I must confess that in my own case, I think I might be slightly less likely to say something negative, and I might think more carefully about how the letter will come across, if I think the applicant might view it. On the other hand, for the few very best of my letters, I might also slightly restrain my transports of enthusiasm. (I suspect professors don't really have good self-knowledge about such matters.)

Enabling Your Professors to Write the Best Possible Letters

Think of all those wonderful things you've done that don't show up on your transcript! You audited some philosophy classes at Harvard for fun (and on the sly) for a few weeks one summer. (I did this once, going to every upper-division class on offer for two weeks before Stanford's quarter started in late September; it was a kick!) Or you gave free tutoring to needy high school students. You won the Philosophy Department award for best undergraduate essay. All on your own, you read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason last summer and two commentaries on it. You play piano in nightclubs. You have a blog that gets 1000 hits a week. (But be careful what's on your blog, since the admissions committee might look at it!) You got a perfect 1600 on the SAT.

Your letter writers want to know these things. Such facts come across much better in letters than in your statement of purpose (where listing such things might seem immodest or irrelevant). In letters they can be integrated with other facts to draw a picture of you as an interesting, promising student. So give your letter writers a brag sheet and don't be modest! Sit there while they read it so they have a chance to ask questions. Explain to them that it's just a brag sheet and that you leave it to their judgment how much of that stuff, if any of it, will be useful to them in writing their letter.

Give your professors photocopies of all the essays you've written for them, including if possible their comments on those essays. I don't always remember what my students have written about, especially if it has been a year, even if the essays are excellent. With a copy of the essays in hand, I can briefly describe them -- their topics, what seemed especially good about them -- in a way that adds convincing detail to the letter and gives the impression that I really do know and remember the student's work.

Give your letter writers copies of your statement of purpose. If a letter writer says "Karen has a deep passion for epistemology and hopes to continue to study that in graduate school" and your statement of purpose mentions nothing about epistemology, it looks a bit odd. You want the portraits drawn by your letter writers and your own self-portrait to match. Also, statements of purpose are extremely hard to write well (more on that later!) and it's good to have feedback on them from your letter writers.

Give your letter writers your transcript. They may not know you have excellent grades across the board. Once they know this, they can write a stronger letter and one that more concretely addresses your performance relative to other students at your school. Also, they might be able to comment helpfully to the admissions committee on aberrations in your transcript. ("Prof. Hubelhauser hasn't given a student an A since 1973" or "Although Jill's grades slipped a bit in Fall Quarter 2006, her mother was dying of cancer that term, and her previous and subsequent grades more accurately reflect her abilities". Of course, they can't write the latter unless you tell them.)

Give your letter writers the cover sheets and envelopes for all the schools you are applying to, along with an overall cover sheet designed by you. Envelopes should be addressed but needn't be stamped since they'll be going out in the unversity's mail. The overall cover sheet should list the deadlines for all applications. It should also specifically highlight schools that request online letters and for which, consequently, there is no school-specific cover sheet.

Give your letter writers all this material at least a month before the first application deadline.

Gentle Reminders

Professors are flaky and forgetful. They are hardly ever punished for such behavior, so their laxity is unsurprising. Also, it's part of the charm of being absent-minded and absorbed in deeper things like the fundamental structure of reality!

Consequently, it is advisable to email your letter writers a gentle reminder a week before your first deadline. If you don't receive an email in reply saying that the letters are sent, send another reminder a week after the deadline.

Don't panic if the letters are late. Admissions committees are used to it, and they don't blame the applicant. However, if the letter still isn't in the file by the time the committee gets around to reading your application it will probably never be read. (You may still be admitted if the two letters that did arrive were good ones.)

It's also advisable to call the schools a week or so after the deadline to confirm that your application is all in order. Departmental secretaries sometimes goof things up, too.

Advice to Letter Writers

Reading hundreds of letters of recommendation, things become something of a blur. Most letters say "outstanding student" or "I'm delighted to recommend X" or "I'm confident X will succeed in graduate school in philosophy". It would be strange not to say something of this sort, but still -- my eyes start to glaze over. I suspect that trying to detect nuanced differences in such phrases is pointless, since I doubt such nuances closely track applicant quality. More helpful: (1.) Comparative evaluations like: "best philosophy major in this year's graduating class"; or "though only an undergraduate, one of three students, among 9, to earn an 'A' in my graduate seminar"; or "her GPA of 3.87 is second-highest among philosophy majors". (2.) Descriptions of concrete accomplishments: "Won the department's prize in 2006 for best undergraduate essay in philosophy"; or "President of the Philosophy Club". It's also nice to hear a little about the applicant's work and what's distinctive of her as a student and person.

Regarding those little checkboxes on the cover sheet ("top 5%, top 10%" etc.): My impression is that letter writers vary in their conscientiousness about such numbers and have different comparison groups in mind, so I tend to discount them unless backed up by specific comparison assessments in the letter. However, my experience is that other people on the admissions committee often take the checkboxes more seriously.

Most letter writers write the same letter for every school and simply attach it to the cover sheet rather than addressing the specific paragraph-answer questions that some schools include on their cover sheets. However, if you think an applicant is a particularly good fit for one school, a specifically tailored letter that explains why can be helpful.

Part IV: Writing Samples

49 comments:

Ponder Stibbons said...

Thanks for the most detailed advice I've read on this issue so far.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

You're welcome! I've found I've put a lot more time into this series of posts than I intended, so I'm glad people are finding them useful.

Stephen said...

I should add my thanks, as I've been lurking and checking for updates several times a day for the past week. I'm not surprised that it's taken you so long, and I appreciate your taking the time, as you've provided the level of detail that anxiety-ridden grad-school applicants can usually only dream of. Thank you!

Stephen said...

What do you think about giving thank you cards and/or gifts to recommenders after they have provided letters? I regard it as simple courtesy to send a thank you card or note, but I am less sure about gifts.

In the past, I have included a very small token of my appreciation (a "fancy" chocolate bar) with the cards, thinking that anything more might be embarrassing or inappropriate. However, I sometimes think such a small gift could seem a little cheesy. Should I not bother? Could I send something a little more substantial, such as a gift certificate to a book store or restaurant?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Stephen! That's a good question. I think the best thanks is to keep in touch with your letter-writers. Let them know which schools accept you and (though it may seem embarrassing) which schools don't -- and ultimately where you end up going.

I myself have always felt a little embarrassed by, and not sure I could accept, large gifts. A group of students once gave me a $100 Barnes & Noble gift card. I didn't want to refuse, but also it didn't seem entirely appropriate. My compromise was to accept the card but also to inform them that I was simultaneously donating $100 to the UC Riverside Philosophy Club.

A small token, like the fancy chocolate bar you mention, doesn't seem inappropriate to me, exactly, though my reaction is ambivalent. I appreciate the gesture, but I also don't want to take anything of even small financial value from students. I'm similarly ambivalent about "thank you" cards. I appreciate the thought, but it doesn't seem necessary and a little bit corny.

One disappointing part of a teacher's career is this: We foster (or like to think we foster!) excellent students, we see them off, then never hear from them again. Every year there are a couple of students I'll never forget. Years later, I wonder where they'd ended up.

How about this, then, as the best thanks: Write a thank you note five years later. A much delayed thanks, but very meaningful!

jesse said...

Thanks! What a helpful post.
If you wouldn't mind answering a few specific questions...

I'm a current MA student in an interdisciplinary program, International Relations and Philosophy, with a top ten ranking in the former and a low one in the latter. I have found that my interests reside largely with philosophical inquiry and lesser with IR, although I think (and it has been suggested) that I would have a better shot at a Poli Sci PhD program.
Any thoughts?

Additionally, (and with embarassment) my early college days were academically spotty. I had a number of unfortunate incidents (family sickness and death) that I had a really difficult time with. My grades suffered but ultimately improved. All the while I was at a small state college and then later at a midranked small liberal arts college.
My grades are now excellent, I've been actively presenting my work at conferences and have a publication pending in a second tier peer reviewed journal.

Any advice you can give would be most appreciated.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi, Jesse! I'm reluctant to get into the business of advising about specific situations (except for UCR students), but I'll share my perspective on some of the broader issues:

* Early academic mediocrity is definitely a drawback in an application, but it's one that can be overcome with consistent success later, if your letters and sample are also excellent.

* Interdisciplinary students or students in other majors can make the crossover into philosophy if they show a track record of getting top marks in classes taught by philosophy professors and get letters from those professors.

* It does matter how the M.A. program is perceived by the committee. Especially if it's not a philosophy M.A. program, you'll need to convince the committee that your good grades were in genuine philosophy classes with genuine philosophy professors.

* To any rule, there are always exceptions for truly extraordinary cases.

Jesse said...

Thank you for the general advice. I'm sure there are others out there that might be in similar positions, so I hope my question and your reply are helpful.
Thanks again! And thanks for all of the posts, comments and replies.

Joel said...

Eric,

I want to apply to PhD programs in the states. I recieved my undergraduate at a small school (finished with like a 3.5 overall and almost all A's in philosophy). I am now doing a MA at Birkbeck.

Here's the rub: I need to apply to the schools by this January, but I only have 1 term under my belt with 2 more to go plus a dissertation. So, I dont have much to show for my current degree, nor do I have a way of representing what I will accomplish. AND due to this, I don't really know my professors very well yet.

Is there any way I can showcase what I will do in this MA? Should I have my undergraduate professors who know me better also write letters of recommendation?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Joel, if you have done very well in the first term of your M.A., that will definitely be a boon to your application. As an admissions committee member, I'd probably weigh your B.A. and M.A. records about equally at your stage. There's definitely no harm in having letters from your undergrad professors. It would be good, though, to have at least one letter from your M.A. professors. If a professor has given you a solid A, you shouldn't hesitate to inquire about whether she'd be willing to write a letter. No extended personal relationship is necessary. You'll have to apologize for the late notice, though!

A beautiful sample might make a big difference in this sort of case.

TW said...

I have been out of school for a year and am no longer in the city where I went to college, so I have been e-mailing my professors to ask if they are willing to write me letters of recommendation. A couple of them have been unresponsive. They might just be too busy to reply, so I will try again, but in case they fail to reply again, how many times should I keep asking until I take a lack of response as an implicit refusal to write? (In one case, I have already asked twice, at reasonable time intervals.) If professors are reluctant to recommend a student, is it normal for them to ignore the student's requests rather than reply saying that they do not want to recommend him/her? In my case, the professors concerned have either 1) agreed to write me a letter when I was still in college (but kept procrastinating on the task then, until I unwisely gave up pestering him on that), or 2) highly encouraged me to go to grad school. So I have little reason to think that either of them would not want to write me a letter. Their unresponsiveness however is a little worrying, especially since it's only about five weeks more to the earliest deadlines.

Brad C said...

Hi TW,

I will be interested to hear what Eric says, but I think you should consider contacting the department assistant to see if he or she can tell you (a) if the professor is around and checks email, and (b) find out whether they got your email in particular.

Dept Assistants often play a big role in making professors fulfill their obligations and in making them a little more prudent.

If you do this, please keep in mind that the person will be doing you a favor, so be very nice when asking and thankful for any help given.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

TW: It's hard to know what's going on, but it is true that some professors are just flaky about email. I like Brad's suggestion of contacting the department assistant/secretary. I'd just ask the secretary what the best way to get in contact with the professor is. Some people are more responsive by phone. A few really need to be tracked down in person (but then are very warm and supportive when you do see them). I agree that it's annoying and irresponsible.

It's also of course possible that they're sending a signal by not replying, but few philosophy professors would, I think, actively encourage someone to consider graduate school in philosophy unless they thought that person had considerable promise, and few professors would so soon forget a student they thought had considerable promise. So if you were reading their earlier signals correctly (were they positively encouraging or merely "yes"-ing you?), the more likely hypothesis is that it's just flakiness.

Kara said...

I came across your post while Googling etiquette for LoR (but I'm applying for med school). Thank you so much for this posting, it was very informative and helpful!

TW said...

Eric and Brad,

Thanks for your advice on unresponsive professors. My fears were overblown - I did eventually manage to get responses from them, and have been admitted into a 'top' program.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Congratulations!

John said...

Thank you for all the helpful information. I have a slightly different question. I have been working as a high school physics teacher overseas for 2 years and am planning to apply to for a doctorate program in philosophy this coming fall. I was a physics/philosophy dual major as an undergrad. My question is whether or not you think I should include a letter of recommendation from my current employer regarding my abilities as a teacher or my involvement in the school community, etc... I have three philosophy professors who will write me a recommendation, but I was curious if I should include this additional one as well. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the advice! I'm wondering if it'd look better to get letters from full professors, well known and respected in the field, who's class you did well in but who might not know you personally, or get a letter from someone (maybe an adjunct) who you had a more personal relationship with?

Furthermore, I don't know how I did compared to the other students (rank-wise as you suggested would look good in a letter) so I couldn't include it in a 'brag sheet,' would normal recommenders look for that or should I ask them to find out? Thanks for any help.

Brian said...

I am trying to decide on a source for a recommendation letter. I have two (full) professors writing letters but am unsure about which one of the two remaining professors to actually go with for my third. One is an assistant professor whom I have taken several courses with (4). The other is an adjunct who I am currently interning for as a TA. The former knows my work as a student, while the latter has a unique perspective of my abilities on the "other side of the podium." By strength of title, the assistant prof. looks like the right one to go with, but having strong letters from full professors already, should I go with the adjunct I am interning for? Any help is appreciated and thanks again!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Sep 24: Obviously the expected quality of the letter needs to be balanced against the prestige of the recommender; there's no formula for that. But I wouldn't put a *lot* of weight on personal interaction. There are many students I like personally for whom I couldn't write strong letters, and there are students for whom I'd write strong letters based solely on performance in class. Think mainly about how impressed the professor seemed to be by your written work.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Brian: The admissions committee will probably be more interested in your work as a student than in your work as a t.a. Without knowing the details, it seems to me likely that the letter from the Asst Prof would help you more (assuming that you did very well in those courses).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

P.S. Anon Sep 24: On your second point, I probably wouldn't be that directive with your letter writers.

Katelyn said...

Hi, I am currently an undergraduate in philosophy at a state school. I have gotten excellent grades in all of my philosophy classes, but the small size of our department has resulted in my taking several courses from the same professors. Right now I have two definite letters of recommendation, but I do not know what to do about the third. Is it alright to approach a professor that I had for a 300-level course as a freshman if he gave me an A+ but I never went to talk to him in office hours? Also, I am doing very well in all of my philosophy courses this semester, but all of them are with professors that I have not yet had before. It would be pushing it on deadlines to wait until the end of the semester to ask, but is it unwise to ask someone who has yet to give you a final grade? Thank you very much.

Shawn said...

Prof. Schwitzgebel:

Very helpful posts! This is a real service to prospective grad students. Thank you.

Regarding the line, "Although it's a delicate matter, you can ask a professor whether she thinks she'll be able to write a strong letter for you."

I think this is right but feel a bit more emphatic. I think you have to ask.

The first professor I ever asked for a letter of recommendation said 'yes,' and then something to the effect of, "Never ask someone if she can write you a letter of recommendation; ask if she can write a *strong* letter of recommendation." Since it's customary to waive the right to see these letters, this is one of the few ways to get an idea of what might go in the letter (before it's too late).

I have asked for strong letters from professors who I was *sure* would assent (ones who gave me A's), only to find they were lukewarm. On the other hand, a fairly prominent professor whom I knew for only one quarter surprised me by agreeing to write a strong letter. (I only asked because I was in a pinch time-wise and fully expected a 'no.') It's hard to know what people really think of you unless you ask.

The real benefit of asking for a strong letter (which in my experience has never felt awkward or delicate) is that it opens up a dialog. It gives the professor a chance to express a reservation and the student a chance to address it (or, more likely, to look elsewhere). If a philosophy professor says, "I can say positive things about you, but I've only had you for one class," while a biology professor says, "I've seen your work for four years and think you're a great talent," well, then you can make a choice about which letter you want. But I think this only happens by asking for a strong letter. Otherwise, the dialog won't/may not take place.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Shawn, thanks for your reflections on that. I think there's a lot in what you say, but I wouldn't recommend it as a firm rule.

One downside to consider is that if the professor does express reservations, it will be hard to say that yes you do want the letter anyway (and then the professor's reservations might be substantially more likely to appear in the letter than if you hadn't had that conversation -- just a guess). So this is a plan you should only pursue if you have more than the minimum number of professors to choose from. A tepid letter is better than no letter, and we do accept some people with two strong letters and one tepid one. Also, professors might have different ideas of what a "strong" letter is. In my mind, if a professor at a large and moderately selective college says that a student is the best student that year, that is already a fairly strong letter even if the professor doesn't rave -- though the professor might not view it as such.

So... it's complicated!

Said said...

Again, thank you for the information and advice.
I am primarily interested in philosophy of mind. I declare it to be so in my personal statement and it is the topic of my writing sample. I was wondering whether it is important that my letter recommenders be within the same field. Thank you for your time.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

It's nice if one or two are in the same subfield, but I don't think it's all that important.

Michael said...

Excellent advice here. Thanks for the info! A quick question: is there a limit to a reasonable number of recommendations I can ask a professor to write? I've been advised by a former philosophy PhD admissions member to apply to 20 or so schools, but I don't want to overly burden my recommenders because I respect their time and I don't want any subconscious annoyance affecting the recommendations. It may not be a problem though, as the same recommendation could be reused. Is there any standard etiquette for this?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Most letter writers will use the same letter for all your recommendations. However, with different forms for all the schools, including some hard forms and some electronic forms, it can get a little burdensome to do too many. I would say 8-10 applications is not at all unusual, but once you get toward 15-20, my impression is that the professor will it is a bit of a hassle. It still might well be worth asking for letters to that many places, depending on your situation. After all, we're talking about weighing a minor hassle against your future life path! Whatever you can do to minimize the hassle for the professor is probably worth doing if you are asking for 15+ letters.

One thing I wouldn't recommend is having some letter writers write to some places and some to other places. Letter writers will assume that they are writing for *all* the places you are applying.

Michael said...

I really appreciate the advice. One of my letter writers expressed disinterest at the prospect of doing 20 recommendations, so I'm whittling down my list accordingly. Fortunately, I was not perceived as inconsiderate for requesting so many, so it was definitely worth the shot asking. And actually, I'm much happier applying to 10 or 12 schools that I now have more time to fully investigate and establish contact with key faculty. Thanks again!

Alex G said...

I have a fairly technical question, that may be just over-thinking it: on the addressed envelopes, should I put as a return address the letter writer's name and work address?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

It doesn't matter much, but I'd leave the return area blank.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your blog. I recently asked a professor for a letter who had given me very good comments at the end of a class I had with him. He told me that although he was happy to write it, my performance in one class constituted a small segment of work and he didn't know if it would be enough for the PhD committee. I thought it a bit odd. Do I have to take more than one course with a professor for him to become familiar with my work? Another one also thought being an assistant professor that he was not established enough and again he didn't think that he knew my work that well (I had written 4 small and one big paper and gotten an A in his class as well). I have to say I feel kind of bewildered about all this. This means that I cannot apply this year and all my plans have come to naught. Would really appreciate your thoughts on this as it would help me figure my next step from here.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That is odd! Maybe it's a hint of some sort. Or maybe they aren't familiar with the application process. One possibility would be to show the professors your entire transcript so that -- assuming it's excellent -- they can see both that you have performed well across the board and also that there aren't going to be three professors with whom you have taken multiple classes who would all be good candidate letter writers.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for responding so quickly. I actually told him that I have only taken one course per professor and he said he will write the letter and was just concerned that it would not be very detailed(!?). It's ironic that I just received an email from the school asking me to evaluate that same professor for tenure. But would you say that having a letter from an associate professor won't carry much weight and perhaps I should try and take an additional course with a full professor? Thanks again in advance for your reply.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Give the prof the tools to write a detailed letter: your essay with comments, a brag sheet, your statement, your transcript, etc.

Not a huge difference between Assoc Prof and full Prof -- more relevant is whether the person is known to people on the admissions committee.

Anonymous said...

Hello,

Regarding the letter of Recommendation for a PhD program how important it is for it to come from a professor that is very well known, I am Bulgaria and our teachers are not recognized internationally. Is this a minus?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

It's a minus but a minus that can be overcome with enough compensating things on the pro side.

Anonymous said...

In evaluating the application of a prospective PhD student how important is the writing sample? What about the language exams? Thank you!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Language exams not very important. On the writing sample see my detailed comments in my post on that.

TheMosby said...

Hi Eric,

I have a bit of a problem. I'm applying for PhD programs for Fall 2013, and I still need a third recommendation letter. Do I ask the relatively new professor who is helping me with my writing sample? Or do I ask the more distinguished and well-known professor that I've had a class with, but have no relationship with? I'm leaning towards the former. I suppose the general question is: Do admissions committees look down upon recommendations from relatively new professors?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

It's not so much that they look down on recommendations from new professors as that they don't value them as much. (Maybe that's a difference that doesn't make a difference, or just a correction of tone.) But of course that needs to be weighed against the expected quality of the letter!

Farshad said...

Hi again,

I'm Farshad. Thanks a lot for your reply about my Gre scores. As I said, I'm Iranian and sure that the U.S. philosophy professors know nothing about the place I got my Masters in philosophy and the professors who write letters in support of me. So, I wonder whether their letters have positive role in my application. Is it worthwhile to try to improve these letters?

Farshad said...

I should add that a philosophy lecturer at Tufts university who I had an online course on moral philosophy and got A, accepted to write a letter for me, but about other two letters, I should ask my Iranian professors.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Farshad: Yes, that sounds reasonable.

Zonum said...

I don't know if this is still being looked at, but is a letter of rec better from a professor who gave you an A in an upper-level course as a sophomore, or a professor who gave you an A- in a graduate course as a senior? (All other things being equal)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

It could go either way. I'd chat with the profs to get a feel.

Anonymous said...

Hello Professor,

Your blog is so helpful!!! Thank you!

I also have a question regarding the letters of recommendation: I had two supervisors for my master´s thesis - one from my Uni and an external supervisor (who is a very well known philosopher). He is very kind and really supervised and read my thesis, and also read an older seminar paper that I have written. If two letters of recommendation are required for PhD applications, can I ask him to write one (if he wants to, of course) although he did not teach at my Uni? I guess we are usually expected to provide letters from profs. that we had classes with at our Uni, are exceptions admitted? The point is that he knows better what I m interested in and how I write than profs from our school...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Dec 10, 10:10: Letters from outside profs are fine -- in fact, good! (It might look odd if they were *all* from outside profs.)