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08/23/2019

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JonnyDCTID

Thanks very much for posting this. I'm in a masters degree now and applying for admission to a PhD program. Would your advice be the same?

Marcus Arvan

Ack, I'm so sorry - I (mis)interpreted your query as about letters for a new PhD heading onto the job-market!

In any case, the short answer is: much of the advice I'd give is the same. Although I haven't served on a PhD admissions committee myself, my experience in grad school and the profession suggest to me that two things matter for recommendation letters to PhD programs: (1) the quality of the letter itself (i.e. how complimentary and detailed it is), and (2) name recognition.

In brief, my sense is that name recognition matters a lot, in the sense that admissions committees may be more likely to trust the judgment of someone whose work they know and recognize (i.e. a "name" in the field) than someone whose name they don't recognize, whose work they don't know, and whose judgment they therefore don't know how to evaluate. On the other hand, I have heard stories of "name" people writing really perfunctory letters that don't give committees much to go on, which can raise questions regarding how well the letter writer even knows the candidate or their work.

Long story short, you want to find (A) the best letters (content-wise), (B) written by the best people. Hence, why it is so important to get someone (a faculty member you can trust) to read and vet them, if possible. Otherwise, if you can't get them vetted, here's what I would personally do. I would probably choose one or maybe two letters by people who know your work really well (i.e. faculty in your Masters program), regardless of how well-known they are, and then, if you have any letters by "name" people, include letters by one or two of the most prominent people.

One final wrinkle, I think, is how well the letters fit your areas of focus. Suppose you focus primarily in Philosophy of Mind (or whatever), you're applying to programs that have a very good reputation in that area, your writing sample is in Philosophy of Mind, and so on. In that case, I think it would probably behoove you to include at least one letter by a well-known people who works in that particular area. It's fine if your other letters can speak to your general philosophical abilities--but if you're "selling yourself" as a philosopher of mind in the application process, it's almost certainly a good idea to have a specialist (especially a well-known) be able to attest to the quality of your work in that area.

I hope this is helpful, and am curious whether anyone who has worked in PhD admissions disagrees. In any case, apologies once again for misinterpreting your original query!

R

I agree that it's potentially beneficial to have letters from names that the people reading them are likely to know. I just wanted to add that that doesn't necessarily require them to be famous. If you happen to know that people in the department you're applying to *personally* know one of your letter writers I would make sure to include that letter in your application to that department, arguably even over someone more famous, as they're more likely to trust their friend's recommendation than some distant famous person. Especially when you have as many letters as the OP does this might end up meaning using different letters for each application (and asking your advisors some questions about their network).

JonnyDCTID

Thanks for that Marcus and R! It really does help a ton. No worries on interpretation. I think the initial interpretation is useful for many more people.

SM

I find the three letter cut off to be wildly inconsistent with the demand for both a teaching letter and an external letter. We often get advice that having a letter from someone external to your committee who can vouch purely for your scholarly chops is a good thing. But if a teaching letter is also a must, now we're down to including just a single letter from our committee? What if you have co-chairs? This all seems silly. Hiring committees should either not implicitly be demanding external letters or they should allow you to submit more than three. Then again, I suppose one should just follow your advice, Marcus: don't bother to submit the external letter to a teaching school.

Marcus Arvan

SM: I entirely agree. I think the three letter cutoff places candidates in an unnecessarily difficult situation. I don’t know why committees don’t just let candidates upload as many or as few as they wish. Sure, some candidates might upload too many, but in that case committee members can choose for themselves which ones to read, assign weight to, and so on. It seems to me much more fair to candidates to simply let them submit whichever batch of letters they think is best, rather than require them to make these kinds of very difficult decisions.

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