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07/19/2021

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Letters

A side issue: resist the temptation to get many letters. Some people seem to think the more the merrier. But in fact, I think - due to a salience bias - people reading a file often remember a weaker letter. So if you have three good strong letters, and one okay letter, a committee member may focus on that one. They may even see it as "more honest". So do not be tempted into an arms race with numbers of letters.

Timmy J

A slightly different side issue: I think it’s wise to ask every single person who you think *can* write you a strong letter to do so. Not because you’ll use them all (Marcus and the previous commenter are right about this) but because it’s good to have good people think good thoughts about you and then write them down. Later when some such person is e.g. thinking about who to invite on their next edited volume, they’re more likely to think of you. There’s something at least very like the Franklin effect to think about here.

William Vanderburgh

Letters are not that useful to most committees, I think, so don't go overboard. Three is perfect; five is overboard. Have one that speaks to your research, another to your teaching, a third that's more general, and you've got it covered. Committees know that letter writers tend to oversell things, so they discount the praise somewhat and substitute their own judgement on your writing sample, teaching materials, and other evidence in the file--focus on making those things excellent. Having a letter from a well-known person who honestly says "best student I've had in a decade" certainly won't hurt, but even that isn't likely to be definitive in any given search.

If you use a credential service and have a (reliable, experienced) placement officer, try requesting five letters and then having your placement officer recommend which three to send (and to tell you if any of them should not be used).

If you have been out of grad school for a year or more, be sure to have the chair of the department where you have been teaching write you a letter (that's a sensible fourth letter). If they can't/won't, that probably tells you something important.

P

I think it depends what your AOSes are when you go on the market. For example, if you list ethics and political philosophy as AOSes but don't have a single political philosopher vouching for you then I think it's worthwhile to try to connect with a political philosopher who can do so. Likewise for other common AOS pairings like metaphysics and phil science or metaphysics and epistemology.

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