Sunday, March 20, 2011

Recommendation Letters and Philosophy PhD Programs: Four Helpful Hints

Four suggestions from

The application process for graduate programs in philosophy is rigorous, time-consuming, and not for the faint of heart, the disorganized, or the procrastinator.  It is difficult to get a straight answer regarding what good PhD programs in philosophy are looking for, and my own impression is that connections, unknowable intangibles, and a bit of luck all contribute to who is accepted where.  However, there is some agreement that good recommendation letters are important, and these four easy tips can help make the process of requesting, and more importantly acquiring, high-quality recommendation letters a little less painful.

1.  Choose your recommenders carefullyMost people begin by thinking of professors with whom they have a good rapport, and this is not an altogether bad idea.  Usually professors like their better students, but a professor liking you does not always mean they think you are well suited for graduate study.  The most important thing is that your recommender has a strong opinion of your philosophical ability, and can talk about specific strengths demonstrated by your coursework.  Better to have a sterling recommendation from a full professor with whom you have little personal relationship, but who thinks you are going to be a great philosopher, than a lukewarm endorsement by the professor you love to talk to about jazz music.  It’s also a good idea to have at least some full professors as your recommenders, and if you had an adviser of any kind, they should probably write you a letter.  It looks odd when someone who spent a lot of time with you isn’t a recommender, since they ought to know a lot about you.  Finally, it never hurts to ask the big name in your department for a letter if you think they will write you a good one.  They were once in your shoes, and unless they’re total jerks, they’ll probably help a good student despite their busy schedule.
2.  Ask early, remind oftenA surefire way to guarantee yourself a less-than-stellar letter is to wait until the last minute to ask everyone’s favorite professor for a letter.  Most often they will say no, and if they agree you will probably not get the best possible recommendation from them, because these letters are time-consuming and take more thought than you realize.  Secure your letter writers as soon as you know who they will be.  A simple email or in-person request is sufficient, just ask them to be a recommender, and if they agree, give them an idea of when you will be getting back to them with more info.  Give them at least a month before your first deadline, and send an email reminder one week to ten days prior to that first date.  Those that haven’t taken care of it by then will probably complete all your letters once they realize that the first deadline is coming.  Most importantly, recognize that your professors are probably even busier than you are, and being respectful of that fact will make them more generous in their endorsement of you.  Being on top of things is one more positive comment that can be included in your letter.
3.  Be organized so they don’t have toThis is especially important if you are asking for a lot of letters with slightly different instructions.  I recommend creating an information packet for each recommender.  Start with a cover letter thanking them for helping you, and explaining what’s in the packet they are holding.  Write a master instruction sheet with a deadline and detailed information for each school you are applying to.  Include webpage links when possible.  You should also provide typed addressed envelopes, and if your department does not pay postage for graduate school recommendation letters, put postage on each envelope.  You can find this detail out from your department secretary.  Be aware that international mail requires extra postage, which you can calculate online.  Include any necessary forms, especially if any of your schools want a special recommendation form to be used.  Finally, include copies of any papers you wrote for that professor or exams you took in their class, as well as an unofficial transcript, resume or C.V., and writing sample.  The idea is to make this as easy as possible for your letter writer, and for them to be able to say as many good things as they can about you.  It would be a shame if they forgot about the A plus term paper you wrote for their class because you didn’t include a copy, and they might not realize that you are a straight A student with a great writing sample if you don’t tell them. 
4.  Say thank you, and keep them posted
Do not, I repeat, do not thank your recommenders with an email.  Take a few minutes to hand write a thank you note, the personal touch makes all the difference in the world.  And let them know how things turn out.  Some of your recommenders probably genuinely like you, and it helps them to see how their students fare in the philosophical community at large.  Remember, writing you a letter is a huge favor.  Not only is it a lot of work, they are also attaching their name to yours, and that should be treated as the gift that it is.  Don’t make your recommenders regret saying nice things about you, especially if they know someone on the graduate committee where you are applying.
I hope that these tips can help those of you who are just beginning the application process.  The most important thing is to be respectful of your writers’ time and aware that there is a lot that you can do to make this process easier for them.  After all, the goal is to get three or four outstanding letters that can help you get into the PhD program of your choice, so whatever is necessary to make that happen, just do it and be happy when it’s all behind you.

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