Thursday, October 10, 2019

Applying to PhD Programs in Philosophy, Part III: Letters of Recommendation

Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?

Part II: Grades, Classes, and Institution of Origin

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

Who to Ask

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

No matter how friendly they seem, you should be cautious about 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 notch. 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 minimum of letters, but be advised that three strong letters looks considerably better in an application than three strong letters and a mediocre one.

Although it's a delicate matter, you can ask a professor whether they think they can write a strong letter for you. If you feel doubt, and if you have a backup letter writer in mind, tactfully asking is probably a good idea.

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 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 would 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 went to a bunch of talks at the APA last year when it was in town. You gave free tutoring to 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 two thousand Twitter followers. (Be careful, however, what you say on publicly viewable social media, since admissions committees might discover it.) You got a perfect score on the SAT. You work with a local charitable organization. You're captain of the college debate team.

Your letter writers want to know these things. Such facts come across much better in letters than in your personal statement (where they 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! Err on the side of over-including things rather than under-including. 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 realize that much or most of it might be irrelevant to their letters. If you're embarrassed, feel free to blame me! ("Well, on Eric Schwitzgebel's blog, he said I should give you a brag sheet with all of this kind of stuff, even though it's kind of embarrassing.")

Give your professors copies of all of 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 personal statement. If a letter writer says "Augustin has a deep passion for epistemology and hopes to continue to study that in graduate school" and your personal statement says 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, personal statements 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 2003" or "Although Vania's grades slipped a bit in Fall Quarter 2016, 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 a list of all the schools you are applying to and their deadlines, ideally with the first deadline highlighted. This serves several functions: It tells them when the letter needs to be completed (the first deadline). It makes it convenient for them to confirm that they have received all of the schools' letter requests and sent out all of their letters. It is an opportunity for them to provide feedback on your choice of schools. (Maybe there's a school that would be a good fit that you are needlessly omitting?) And it gives them an occasion to reflect on whether they might want to customize their letters for some of the schools.

Maybe I'm a little old fashioned, but I prefer all of this material printed in hard copy. Then I can just staple it together and easily access everything I need. But it probably wouldn't hurt to also send it electronically, for professors who prefer things that way.

Give your letter writers all of this material at least one month before the first 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 confirmation from the schools (some will give you confirmation, some won't) or from the letter writer, 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.)

If the school doesn't provide electronic confirmation that your application is received and complete, it might be advisable to email the secretarial staff a week or so after the deadline to confirm that your application is all in order.

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 2018 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 some schools' cover sheets ("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 sometimes take the checkboxes more seriously.

Most letter writers write the same letter for every school rather than addressing the specific paragraph-answer questions that some schools ask. However, if you think an applicant is a particularly good fit for one school, a specifically tailored letter that explains why can be helpful.

Gifts of Thanks

The best gift of thanks that you can give to your letter writers is to update them on your admissions and rejections from time to time. Even if it's a complete whiff and you're rejected everywhere, please do tell them. Also, maybe about year later, after you're in a graduate program, or alternatively after you're out of academia into the world of business or elsewhere, an update on how things are going is lovely to hear!

Personally, I -- and I suspect most letter writers -- prefer not to receive chocolates or gift cards or such. Of course, we appreciate the thought behind such tokens, and there's nothing wrong with expressing appreciation this way. If you do this, please keep the monetary value low.


Applying to PhD Programs in Philosophy Part IV: Writing Sample

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Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your PhD series Professor. It has been very helpful, especially for an international student like me. I have a question not related to the post, but to the overall application process. I was wondering if you recommend contacting the professors I have in mind as potential supervisors before submitting my applications. Since my area of interest is specific, usually it is only one professor in the programs I am applying to is working on it. If you recommend contacting them, what should I share with them? Just general self-introduction and the project I have in mind, or should I also share the writing sample with them beforehand?

Best Regards

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Oct 27: Best not to contact the professors. Although some professors welcome contacts from interested undergraduates or graduates who have engaged seriously with the details of their work and have specific questions, when the contacts come during PhD application season, they tend to be perceived as attempts to game the system. The best time to reach out is after you have been admitted. At that point, professors are generally quite interested to hear from you!

Jake said...

Hi Eric, thank you so much for these posts. I am wondering whether it is especially helpful to receive recommendations from professors at other universities, assuming that the outside professors are about as well known as the professors who taught me in undergrad. The outside professors have said very positive things about my work, but they do not know me as well as professors from my own institution. Would it be beneficial to seek one recommendation from outside of my university, or should I choose the professors who will write the most informed letters?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Jake: As you might expect, it's a tradeoff. However, it is definitely impressive if an undergrad can get a strong letter of recommendation from a professor at another university who was not one of their ordinary course instructors. It shows initiative in connecting with, and impressing, others in the field.

Jake said...

Hi Eric, thank you for getting back. I suspected that there wouldn't be an easy answer to that bit. While I'm here, I am also wondering if you have advice about two features of the writing sample.

First, should I include an abstract within the sample?

Second, some professors have suggested that I try to keep the sample as close to the minimum length as possible; if the range is 15 to 25 pages, then I should try to write 15 pages. Based on your posted advice, I know that it would be better to submit a longer sample if it were the only way to show my best work, but I am trying to figure out whether it's really beneficial to hover around the minimum length. Suppose that I have a 15-page version and a 20-page version, and that they are equally well-written and -argued. The 15-page version stands on its own, but the longer version has room to elaborate on some points which are interesting but non-essential. Should I be inclined to send the shorter version, or the version which has more room for elaboration?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

There's no need for an abstract, but you can include it if you want. On length, sometimes tighter is better, but not at the cost of the kind of depth that shows you're doing the kind of work expected in grad school. So it could go either way.