Query: Letters of Recommendation for Grad School

In blog talk, this entry qualifies as a “bleg,” but since I hate that term, I’m calling it a “query.”

Students sometimes contact me with questions about academic life on the mostly false premise that I know all about how it works, and how to negotiate the various shoals it presents. I do the best I can, but I always doubt the value of the answers I give, and could use a reality check on this one.

I recently got a query from someone interested in going to graduate school in anthropology. He majored in anthropology during his undergraduate years, and graduated from college a few years ago (two years ago, I think). He’s now looking to apply to graduate school, but faces the familiar problem of going back and asking for letters of recommendation from professors who may or may not remember him. He went to a large public R1 university where there was little one-on-one contact between professors and undergraduates.

Here’s a paraphrased version of his question:

Should I ask for letters of recommendation from professors who may or may not remember me (probably don’t remember me), or should I ask for letters from the graduate students and post-docs who taught the discussion sections for the lectures I attended? I’ve kept in touch with the latter bunch, so they have a better idea of who I am, what I can do, and my general fitness for graduate school. I’m just not sure it makes sense to ask for letters from people who don’t have tenure-track positions.

I told him that the ideal thing to do would be to find the sub-set of people who were then graduate students or post-docs but now have tenure-track/full-time positions, and ask for letters of recommendation from them.

Supposing that no one fits that description, however, he should go back to the professors he had rather than to people who are currently grad students or post-docs. My assumption is that admissions committees won’t take letters from the latter group very seriously. I don’t actually know that that’s the case, however, and seem to remember writing a few letters of recommendation when I was an adjunct without a PhD (not that I know how well they worked). Hence the query. (Incidentally, I think the relevant issue is not whether the faculty member has a tenure-track position, but whether he or she has a full-time position, regardless of its tenure-stream status.)

I understand the precariousness of this student’s predicament, however. How do you go back to professors who don’t remember you and ask for a letter of recommendation? What would they say in the letter about you, and on what basis? (“He was one of the many students to whom I lectured in the past few years. Frankly, he’s a blur to me–but an academically promising blur.”) Could you expect letters of that nature to be any good?

I came up with the following suggestion: Suppose that none of your old TA’s currently have tenure-track (or full-time) academic positions. Go back to them and ask for letters of recommendation from them, but have their letters co-signed (or even just signed) by the professor they taught for. That is, as far as I know, a somewhat unorthodox arrangement, but I don’t see anything wrong with it, and it seems to me to make the best of an otherwise awkward situation.

I’m curious what readers think.

19 thoughts on “Query: Letters of Recommendation for Grad School

  1. This guy is in a really tough spot. Your last suggestion is very creative, though–even if it presents some obstacles of its own. If I were the professor who was asked to co-sign such a letter, I could in good conscience do it only if I agreed with what the former TA says in his letter. Unfortunately, that condition would make this whole approach boneheaded: Why couldn’t the professor write that letter himself then? Perhaps a way out would be for the professor to co-sign it, adding that he holds this former TA in the highest regard and has enormous confidence in his judgment in his students’ abilities. That’s the best I can come up with as an immediate response. As we all know, letters have to be absolutely glowing or you wind up being damned by faint praise.

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    • I basically agree. Co-signing with the provision is probably sensible, though I still think the professor could co-sign the letter without adding an explicit provision (“I hold the TA in highest regard…”) on the assumption that the TA’s view of the student can implicitly be trusted.

      I think of it by analogy with grading. A TA is trusted to grade the students, and no one thinks that the TA’s submission of grades to the registrar must be accompanied by a proviso from the professor that says, “Please accept these grades some of them done by TA John Smith; I hold Smith in highest esteem.” It’s just assumed that if the TA was hired, his or her grading is reliable unless otherwise shown. And yet (in my experience, anyway) it’s the professor who signs off on the grades for the class as a whole.

      I’d say: if we accept the TA’s grades, but submit them under the signature of the professor, we can accept the TA’s letter of recommendation, but submit it under the signature of the professor. A letter is a bit different from grades, but similar enough for the analogy to work.

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  2. Good point, Irfan. I just don’t think the analogy holds up. Accepting the TA’s grades does not mean that the professor believes they are entirely accurate. They simply need someone to do the grading and lead the discussion groups and may accept some to do that whose judgment they are not sure is sound. Moreover, any search committee member looking at such a co-signed letter knows that it is the TA’s judgment that is being expressed, not the co-signer’s, and may not give the co-signer’s signature much weight at all–and may even “blow it off.” Perhaps there is another path that your applicant can take. If he went to an R1 school as an undergraduate, maybe he doesn’t need too much in the way of recommendations to get into a fairly decent but not great graduate program. If he did well in his first year there, or even went so far as to get an MA, establishing a great record and getting to be loved by his professors, he could apply to a quality grad school for his Ph.D. and quite possibly get in. As you know, that sort of thing is often done.

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  3. Dr Khawaja and Dr Brakas (I Googled you),

    Thanks for your comments. I am the dude in question and your thoughts are definitely not what I wanted to see. My strategy for getting LoRs has thus far gone something like this (I am spelling it out here just in case):

    I have kept up a little rapport with five full-time professors. Two of them have tenure and three of them are adjuncts (I also keep up with a number of grad students/TAs and post-docs). With the full-timers, I basically try to keep up with their work and email them with praise about their papers, but the praise is cleverly disguised (if I may say so myself) as questions. (The praise is well-deserved, of course.)

    They know who I am, roughly. In addition to having a slummy lisp, I have a hillbilly accent, long blondish hair, and a laid back conversational tone. For some reason this made me stand out in Los Angeles. These personal features, coupled with the weird questions I raised in lectures, puts a face on the email rapport. However, as Dr Brakas points out, I need glowing recommendations (applying to Emory, Chicago, Stanford, and New Mexico) and I don’t think I can get those from these full-timers. I just didn’t have the time to pucker up and smooch heinies all afternoon. I know I can get them from the TAs. Or maybe I just need to stop rapport-ing with the full-timers and get down to business with them?

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    • Just an issue of clarification: you said you maintain rapport with five full time professors, “three of them adjuncts.” In most cases, adjuncts are considered part-time. To be more precise, they’re part-time at any given institution. In fact, even if an adjunct works at several different institutions and has a heavier workload than the average full timer, he or she is regarded as having several part-time jobs, not as a full-time instructor.

      There are some (very rare) exceptions to that rule, but I think it’s more likely that the adjuncts you’re talking about are part time instructors with long-standing adjunct status (informally: “senior adjunct”) in whatever dept they’re in. In the City University of New York, senior adjuncts were sometimes converted to full time status by virtue of their seniority, but when they were, they were no longer considered adjuncts.

      It occurs to me that it may be a mistake to equate post-docs and grad students as we’ve all been doing. I actually know very little about post-doctoral status and what it implies. PoT blogger David Riesbeck (“djr”) is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Rice, which (I think) is the functional equivalent of a full-time non-tenure-stream faculty position, so he may have a better sense of the post-doc/grad student distinction as re letters of recommendation.

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  4. Let me edit that post. (Always read what you post at least twice! I should take my own advice.) So:

    Very important distinctions to keep in mind. Nice job.

    I’m afraid I can’t say anything encouraging. The position to be in, of course, is to have worked as an undergraduate student with a full time, well-known professor who thinks you’re really great stuff. You’re not in that position. Even so, by all means work with those who are now full time professors so they can see that you are really good. It just might work, especially if they are now at prestigious universities.

    I can’t come up with anything better than that and what I’ve already said. I still think my last suggestion would give you a shot at getting into one of the grad schools you listed.

    May you be successful in getting into one of th0se schools or one equally to your liking.

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  5. For whatever it’s worth, I have written recommendation letters for students despite not being in a tenure-track position. I of course don’t know how they were received, but in the sole case where the student was applying for graduate programs in my discipline (rather than law school, fellowships, etc.), she was accepted to multiple programs. I can say with some confidence that my letter mattered, since the student’s background in Greek was deficient relative to the usual standards of M.A. programs in Classics, and of her three letter writers I was the only one who had taught her Greek beyond the introductory level. That’s some limited anecdotal evidence that tenure-track status isn’t a necessary condition for a valuable letter. That said, I’d think it obviously best to minimize the number of non-TT people you have writing for you. Honestly, I think the more important question if I were reading applications would be the amount of teaching experience the writer has, not whether she is tenure-track or not.

    But let’s just say you have five letters, two from tenure-track people and three from non-TT or even adjunct folks. If your grades are good (especially in the discipline) and your application has other strengths (writing sample, GRE scores, etc.), then I’d think you have a reasonably good chance of getting into a quality program. Perhaps not one of the best programs out there, but a good one that could perhaps help you move on to one of the best if you decide to continue on.

    Honestly, I think my ability to offer advice or speculate about this question is limited more by my unfamiliarity with anthropology as a discipline than anything else. I know classics and philosophy, but I hear that things are quite different in other areas. Still, it doesn’t sound like the problem is insurmountable.

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  6. Thanks. This is all excellent advice/encouragement.

    There is another path I could pursue that is a little different, but again I don’t know what the reception would be like. I am thinking of getting LoRs from two TT anthropology professors at UCLA and a third from the history professor (PhD, American history, UCSD) who “discovered” me at a community college in California. He is the academic head of the Honors program at the school. However, the two anthropology professors are archaeologists, and I am aiming for the cultural anthropology programs at my four choices (archaeology and cultural anthro are both sub-fields within anthropology).

    At this point I am confident that I can get glowing recommendations from all three professors. Anthropologists generally favor interdisciplinary approaches, but any feedback from you guys on this possible path would also be appreciated. I’d hate to wander down a path that doesn’t lead to anywhere nice…

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    • Despite the fact that none of us here know much about anthropology as a discipline, I can’t imagine how the strategy in your preceding could go wrong. But as Jurgis says, you should ask around.

      One place to start might be the Institute for Humane Studies, which will (or should) have contacts in anthropology, and advice for anthropologists. But given the economic state of higher education, I find it hard to believe that a Dept of Anthropology would insist on LORs in subfields of anthropology. The reason is that I doubt that most anthropologists end up teaching in Depts of Anthropology. (How many are there? How many will exist when your degree is done?) I would guess that many anthropologists end up in Depts of History or Area Studies (e.g., Near East Studies). And if you do, you’d end up teaching courses that were strictly speaking “outside” of your discipline. So if you’re applying to anthropology grad schools from an undergrad program, I find it hard to imagine that anyone would insist on LORs specifically from anthropology. After all, you majored in anthropology during your undergrad education and studied other things as well; you didn’t just specialize in anthropology and nothing else.

      But all of that is mere philosophical speculation. Here’s a link to IHS to put you in contact with people who (hopefully) don’t have to speculate. There’s a webinar advertised there for April 21 that’s relevant. But there’s contact info for a more personalized approach, as well.

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      • Well, I think you should strive to get letters from anthropologists, but I doubt it makes much difference whether they’re specialists in the same subfields you want to work in. I imagine there are plenty of anthropology departments around — anthropology was one of my first academic interests, and when I was an undergraduate I used to hang out mostly with sociologists and anthropologists, so perhaps I’m just overestimating their numbers — but any anthropologist will know enough about the other subfields to teach an intro course, so it shouldn’t be a problem. So too, having a letter from someone in another discipline shouldn’t be a problem, so long as that person can speak to strengths that are relevant, which seems easy enough. I still think you should set your sights as broadly as you can afford to, applying not only to the best programs in your field but also to some fairly mid-level ones. The main reason for this is that any graduate program these days is receiving more applications from qualified candidates than they can admit, and you’re likely to be beaten out at the best programs by people who have all the extra things that you don’t. That said, not only can you use a less-than-top-tier program as a way to move on to someplace better, but it’s not at all unreasonable to attend a less-than-top-tier-program for the full Ph.D. Given the state of academia these days, you shouldn’t go to graduate school unless you’re interested enough in the subject that you would be content — not happy, but content — to leave the field after the Ph.D. for economic reasons. The sad truth is that even if you go to the best anthropology department in the world, you could end up unemployed once you finish the degree. If you’d be willing to take that risk, then if you love doing anthropology, there’s not much reason why you shouldn’t spend 5-7 years getting funded to do it in a mid-level program rather than a top-level program.

        Otherwise put, what else are you going to do with your life? Wouldn’t you rather get a PhD in anthropology and then work as a bartender for the rest of your life than just work as a bartender for the rest of your life?

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      • @Dr Khawaja.

        Thank you. This is very helpful and, quite frankly, humbling.

        With regard to the sub-fields I suspected as much, and I have a strong suspicion that an LoR from a historian will make my application package stronger (again I am only considering anthropology programs; the webpages of most graduate programs in anthropology make it clear that interdisciplinary approaches are more than welcome, even preferred; this is logical when you think about the fact that anthropology doesn’t really have a theoretical base of its own; it simply borrows from philosophy and sociology and sometimes economics and applies those theories to mainly non-state actors). My question here, though, is whether or not a full-time professor with tenure from a community college will “count” as full-time to the graduate admissions offices where I apply (Emory, Stanford, New Mexico, Chicago). What, if I may ask, is your intuition on this?

        And, just because I am an ass, I have to whine about IHS a little bit. As you may have guessed, I have a little bit of a beef with explicitly libertarian organizations (even though I am libertarian, small-L, myself), especially ones that operate out of Washington. The summer of my freshman year I attended an IHS seminar at Cal. The lectures were stimulating, and I enjoyed them on IHS’ dime. For that I am grateful. But the vibe was a bit too Atlanticist for me; it was a bit too stuffy. In fact, I only made three friends at the whole thing (a sexy Left-wing Jewess studying sociology at Cal, a stoner/social worker from Rutgers, and Rick who now blogs with me at NOL). The way that they shamelessly hawked for “talent” was very off-putting. Maybe that’s just the hillbilly in me. With that being said I didn’t think to reach out to their anthropologists and I’ll definitely do that. Just curious: Is IHS an organization that you would consider being a part of? I ask because while I have many reservations about Washington-based non-profits, the networking strengths of IHS are undeniable and I do share their commitment to broadening academic dialogue.

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        • Ah, I hadn’t picked up on the community college dimension of your question before. I see your point, but in this case, I think the letter is likely to be an asset if his point is that he “discovered” you at community college and you went on to UCLA.

          I also understand and sympathize with your concern about IHS to some degree. I’m not part of IHS in any recognizable sense. I went to some of their seminars as a grad student in the early-to-mid 1990s, sometimes by invitation and sometimes by application. I guess the “height” of my involvement came in 1994, when I got a summer fellowship from them. But I have not had any sustained involvement since: what I do doesn’t really intersect with what’s central to their organization. But their networking and other resources are too good for you to let mere distaste for this or that aspect of the organization stand in the way of interacting with them. They have no choice but to hawk for talent in order to survive, and marketing has become an unavoidable feature of academic life generally. That wasn’t true when I started out, but it’s become true in the last 15 years or so, and it will remain true for the foreseeable future.

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      • @Dr Riesbeck

        Thank you. Those are my sentiments exactly, so it is nice to see them coming from somebody else.

        In regards to my choice to only apply to four programs, my logic runs something like this: I am trying to send in perfect applications. This requires, in my mind, a familiarity with the work of professors that I want to reference in my SOP (I have hand-picked three professors from each program that I have chosen to reference). Time, therefore, is limited. I have three top-tier schools and one mid-tier school in mind. I know I’ll get into the mid-tier school. In my anecdotal experience, rankings mean less in anthropology than they do in other disciplines. My professors at UCLA, for example, had the usual PhDs from schools like Harvard, Cal, Northwestern, and Chicago, but also from programs like Rochester, Davis, and Penn State.

        I have already exceeded my wildest expectations in regards to education. I never thought that I would ever have a degree from college, much less encouragement from smart people to continue with my studies. I won’t consider myself a failure, then, if I get rejected by the big boys (or even the smaller boy).

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  7. Sounds like that might be good enough, but I really don’t know: How important is it in your field for letters to be from the very specific sub-field you wish to enter? I’d ask around.

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  8. Pingback: Calls for harsh criticism: my first (of four) graduate school statement of purpose | Notes On Liberty

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