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 Michael Kremer

Just a note: It may be that the person who declined your request for an updated letter was not lukewarm at all, but simply did not feel up to date with your work (and did not feel they had the time to read new work to update their letter responsibly).

Filippo Contesi

Thanks for all this, Marcus. It's very helpful stuff. I thought I'd add a comment from the perspective of a UK-based job hunter. We don't have placement people in the UK and so have no way, as far as I'm aware though I'd love to be proven wrong, to evaluate our letters of reference. As a matter of fact I'm concerned about my letters at the moment, as I have no way of telling what they say and stupidly forgot to ask for a "strong" letter when I asked for them two or three months ago. It looks a bit rude or awkward to approach my referees now to ask!

Marcus Arvan

Filippo: Interesting. I would be surprised if someone would write you a lukewarm letter without letting you know. In my experience asking people for letters, people will typically let you know if they have any concerns about the quality or relevance of the letter they will write on your behalf.

Sam Duncan

What do people think about letters from people who are technically not philosophers but have some serious philosophical interests? I could get very strong letters from both a political theorist I know and an economist whose interests are mostly in political philosophy. Would that be helpful or not? I thought it might be since one of my areas is political, but given the knee jerk reaction philosophy professors often have to other disciplines I wasn't sure.

Friend of Sam

I think the important thing is for the letter writer to be someone whose name will be recognized. If the person has some sort regional reputation only, then their letter will count for nothing (or less). Similarly, if the letter writer is unknown to other philosophers (those reading the letter) because they are not themselves a philosopher, then it will count for nothing. If a file has letters in it that count for nothing, it tends to lead committees to think that the applicant has poor judgment. After all, you get to choose your letter writers.

Filippo Contesi

Thanks so much, Marcus!! Your comment matches that of a UK-educated person, so there is hope there is a wide practice of being upfront about letter quality on the part of referees. This is very reassuring for me.


Thanks so much for this post, Marcus (and for the whole job market boot camp series, which I have personally found to be incredibly useful.)

Quick question, either for Marcus or for anyone else who may be able to answer: most job ads ask for 3 letters or more. Say you have 2 strong general letters and a strong teaching letter. Could you just use the 2 general letters and the teaching letter? Or will it look weird to not have 3 general letters? Let's suppose the ad doesn't specify -- just asks for 3 letters.

thanks in advance!

Marcus Arvan

Thanks for your kind words, anon.

For research jobs, send the 3 general letters.
For teaching jobs, send 2 general letters and the one teaching letter.

Simple as that! Research schools care most about research, and teaching schools care about both. Your teaching portfolio will give research schools a sufficient idea of whether you're a competent teacher, and they can always contact your teaching reference if you include it on your CV (as you should).


Thanks, Marcus.

quick follow-up/clarification: say you've had your letters vetted and have been told your third general letter is somewhat weak -- not terrible, just not the strongest. should you still send all 3 letters to research schools? Or just 2 plus the teaching letter (assume the other 2 and the teaching letter are very strong)?


As always, an informative and helpful post. I'm wondering how many times someone would need to observe me teach for it to be appropriate for me to ask for a teaching letter. Is one observation sufficient? Should I ask before or after the observation? Thanks!

Asking For A Friend

Hey Marcus,

Thank you so much for doing this series! Two quick questions re: job letters:

(1) Would an ancient person getting a letter from a (reasonably famous) classicist be a plus, a minus, or neither? (Say hypothetically this ancient person took a grad seminar with the classicist and has them on their committee.)

(2) In applying for teaching jobs, if one's best teaching letter would come from a long-term NTT person with virtually no fame in the field, should one scrap that letter? Use it in addition to a teaching letter from a more famous person? Just go with it alone?

Marcus Arvan

@Asking for a Friend: Thanks for the kind words - glad you've found it helpful!

On (1), it seems to me like it would be helpful. I will say that, at least anecdotally, that more and more people that I know seem to be skeptical of the value of recommendation letters in general. Letters are so inflated these days that it can be hard to know what to make of them, and it's not always clear how well what they say tracks merit/promise/accomplishment/likelihood of succeeding if hired. But, that being said, to whatever extent that letters play a positive role, I suspect a letter from a noted classicist might be helpful.

On (2), I'm not entirely sure, but my anecdotal sense is that with teaching letters, it's really the content that matters, not so much who wrote it. Further, when it comes to content, my sense is that what matters is not even so much whether the person thinks you are a *good* instructor, but rather the *picture* of your teaching that they paint. That is, my sense is that a good teaching letter will describe in vivid detail how your classroom works and what they observed (i.e. how you engaged with students, how students react to your pedagogical choices, etc.). I actually think this might be worth discussing more on the blog, and I plan to run a post on it tomorrow!

Anyway, hope you find this helpful. I'd also be happy to share your questions on the blog's main page if you'd like more responses than you are likely to get on this thread (given how old this thread is). So, if you'd like for me to do that, just let me know!

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