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Mark Alfano

Interesting question, Kyle. I'm afraid I'm not in a great position to answer, since I'm only one year out of Ph.D., but here are some thoughts that might seem sensible:

1) It's probably too late for this, but I'd strongly recommend NOT losing touch with your dissertation committee, or at least a couple of them. Make a point of keeping them informed of what you're doing and planning. That way, if you ask for an updated letter, they'll be in a position to help.

2) On this score, it's probably not a terrible idea to send your publications to your advisors and other letter-writers when they come at. Of course, don't necessarily send all publications to all letter-writers, but try to send everything that you think they might actually write about if they update your letter. They probably won't have time to read what you send, but they might get to the abstracts, and at least they'll know you're working.

3) From what I can tell, it's OK to have more than just three or four letters, so it should be fine to have letters from both your dissertation advisors and the people you've met since finishing the dissertation.


Hi all,

I was told that it would be a good idea to get a letter about teaching, service, etc. from the department chair at your first job (if it's not TT) and that it would also be a good idea to get a letter from somebody in your field of some prominence who is not on your committee. (Can't do the first until you get your first job, but it might be possible to get the second with some networking if you start early enough. If you don't, that's probably not a problem but it's something to aim to have at some point.)

Also, I've been told that too many letters can be a bad thing. The thought is that too many letters can distract from the good things in the initial letters. Also, if you have good reason to think that the initial letters contain good stuff, additional letters can either confirm this stuff or call it into question. At some point, additional confirmation does you little good but one letter that calls into question the good stuff can really hurt your application.

Anyway, that's what I've been told over the years.

Marcus Arvan

A quick follow-up on Clayton's comment: I too have heard that a single negative or even lukewarm letter can hurt you a great deal as an applicant. With this in mind, it may be a good idea to ask potential letter writers if they are willing to be forthright about the quality of the letter they are apt to write. I suppose a good letter-writer should offer up this kind of information to begin with if they intend to write a lukewarm letter, or else decline altogether -- but, seeing as I've heard stories of bad letters, this apparently isn't always the case.

Kyle Whyte

These are all great points. I just remembered this discussion, from the Leiter report, that is related to this discussion, and which connects to Marcus' point, somewhat.


Richard Brown

It seems to me that as a general rule you want your letters to be from people who are familiar with your work and what you are doing. It may be your committee folks, if you keep up with them. But if you present at a conference and have a commenter and they like the paper then it is certainly ok to ask them for a letter at some point. Or, if you have written something it is good to send it out to someone who works in that area and ask for feedback.

Kyle Whyte

Richard: That's an interesting idea. So, in the sorts of cases that you mentioned, would the content of the person's letter primarily be about the significance and quality of your research? This person probably wouldn't be able to comment on your collegiality, right? So a letter from that person would then fit into a suite of letters that comment across a lot of different dimensions of your professional life?

Richard Brown

Yeah that is one way to do it. When I was on the market I had one 'teaching' letter from someone who had observed my class (as part of the college's regular once-a-semester evaluation). They wrote something nice, so I asked them if they would write a letter emphasizing the nice stuff, and they did. I also had letters from my committee members on my research but I also had a letter from a senior philosopher who I had invited to give a talk at a department colloquium. They had a good time and we had some very interesting discussion so I asked if they would write a letter talking about me as a 'young colleague' and they did...so I think it depends on the interaction. If you get along with someone (i.e. trust that they won't screw you by writing a poison letter) and they are familiar with your work then you should ask them for a letter, and it is ok to ask for them to highlight specific qualities.

Of course I never read these letters (and I sadly did not think about having them vetted by someone), but I did end up getting a job so they couldn't have been all bad!

Mark Alfano

Vetting is important. I've heard enough substantiated poison pen (well, usually just mediocre pen) stories to be sure of that. Get your placement director to look at the letters, if s/he is willing (which s/he should be, though some seem to be too lazy or deferential to do it).

Richard Brown

I have never done this, but I have also heard of people sending their letters to some trusted colleague of theirs (former grad school pal, etc) for vetting. It seems quasi-questionable to me but if it is done with sufficient discretion I think this might work. Thoughts anyone?

Mark Alfano

I'd only recommend this if your departmental placement advisor is too cowardly or lazy to do the job him/herself. Most of the top departments vet letters as a matter of course. It therefore doesn't seem inappropriate to get your letters vetted, as long as you don't try to read them yourself.

Richard Brown

Mark, I was thinking more along the lines of someone who had been out for a few years. Someone who was 3-4 years out from defending at the GC but was still on the market wouldn't be able to have the GC do anything for them, could they?

Marcus Arvan

Richard: I'm 4 years out, going back on the market, and when I approached my grad department's placement director, she was happy to help! Maybe not all GC's are like this, but I suspect many are. Even if one's been on the market a few years, one's department still has an interest in one finding a good (it looks good for their placement record). But more than that, I suspect (or at least hope!) there are other GC's who would help with these sorts of things just of out good will.

Kyle Whyte

Richard: I agree with Marcus that placement offers should stick with candidates for some years after graduation. If someone thinks the placement director won't do this, he or she should demand it, or try to make the department add that into the placement director's job description. It's only in the department's best interest to do so. In addition to having quality researchers and a good intellectual culture, placement is a pretty big factor in raising the morale and perception of a department.

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