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Recent Grad

I'm a recent grad from a small country without experience of US doctoral programs. But I do have suggestions depending on how much time you have:

1. The quickest way: if you have two published papers, send them to people you support or criticise. Be upfront about asking for feedback and also tell them about your circumstances and that you want to ask for letters.

2. If you have the time, write reviews in journals that accept them from students. This process usually helps getting in touch with people who might later agree to write letters.

3. Go to conferences and approach people casually but again, at some point, you should be upfront and straightforward about your aim to obtain a reference letter. Again, the fact that you have good publications helps here.

In general, I think people are going to be symapthetic.

Noah F.

This also seems like something that could be addressed (at least a little) in the statement of purpose. If you let the committee know that your home country doesn't use letters of recommendation, then it might go some way in explaining 'weak' letters.


Hi Anon Philosopher,

So letters are usually important, but nothing about you seems usual. The reasons why letters are usually important is most Americans do not publish, or even think of doing so, before starting their Phd. My guess is your publications will count for a lot and will override letters (as long as you mange to submit the minimum number) at some places. I would mention the publications immediately in your cover letter.

Second, I know how frustrating unreliable academics can be, but do whatever you have to do to make sure your masters adviser writes you a letter. Even if your publications can overcome things to a degree, it would be a big red flag to not have a letter from your masters's supervisor. I recommend going to him/her in person and explaining how important it is, and then asking them to upload it to server like interfolio so they only have to do this once.

So most American professors are aware that European letter writers are very "lukewarm" compared to Americans. So if you can just get the required 3 letters along with your publications and decent GRE scores, you should be fine. But do find 3 letter writers. My guess is you have had to come into contact with at least 2 other professors besides your adviser over the years? For you, I think just simply having the letters can help get you in so don't worry if one of the writers is leaving academia. I doubt most people will check anyway. You could try to send your paper to random academics and get a letter that way, but my guess is you do not have time for that. A one page letter is better than a two sentence letter. I have friends who have served on search committees and apparently a two sentence letter from a famous person is a thing, and it does not help the applicant.

GRE: Most schools (and not all PhD programs require them) have a strategy where they want applicants to meet a minimum score. Anything above the minimum might help a little but not a lot. Anything below is a big red flag. So study. If you are a reasonably smart person with a few months of studying (lots of materials for this online) you should be able to get the minimum score. I studied for two months and was fine. Besides, Europeans usually are much better at math and half the test is math.Good luck!

Sara L. Uckelman

My suggestion would be to write to the directors of the grad programmes you are interested in directly, and explain the situation to them. They will be the ones best positioned to tell you how strict the requirements are.

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