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Duplicating Letters of Recommendation
June 15, 2005 6:51 PM   Subscribe

I'm planning to apply to many, many graduate schools, and I need letters of recommendation. Asking each person to sign 20+ copies seems unreasonable. It is acceptable to submit photocopies?
posted by cribcage to Education (37 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Absolutely not. You've got to submit originals. Grad schools care a lot about letters of recommendation, and if people want to write them for you, it's not too hard to sign a letter, even twenty times. On the other hand, that is a lot of grad schools. Do you really need to spend that much money and apply to that many programs?
posted by OmieWise at 6:54 PM on June 15, 2005


What program are you trying to apply to? Might it be a better bet to talk directly with potential supervisors, choose the top 5 you want to work with, and only apply to 5 schools? Applications aren't cheap, either...
posted by PurplePorpoise at 7:30 PM on June 15, 2005


Also, if you look at the questions closely (assuming you're applying to the same type of school), the questions for recommendations are worded very closely. I applied to a few last year, and the only thing that needed to be changed was the "to whom it may concern" and that stuff. The bulk remained relatively stagnant. If you work it right, this can lessen the load of profs greatly!
posted by jmd82 at 7:33 PM on June 15, 2005


It's early yet, assuming you're applying for Sept '06 enrollment. Are you sure there's over twenty great grad schools that excel in the fields you want to study and are in locations you want to be in for up to seven years of your life?

To answer your question specifically, it was not at all acceptable to submit photocopies when I've done it. The biggest problem is that you will not be allowed to see them, so how can you photocopy them?

Secondly, they will all have different requirements (some will make the person fill out a form, some will want it mailed separately, some will want it sealed with a signature, etc) and if a student came to me with such a request it would make it easier to say no. If you're exceptional, I'd sit down with you and whittle your 20 down to six or seven max. If you really want to apply to 20+ find 7 groups of 3 people each, then :)

I don't know your field (and feel free to correct us, perhaps it's normal in some specialties to mass-apply) but it seems downright insane to apply that many schools, and I have a good feeling your potential evaluators will think likewise. It's a lot of work to do recommendations and you want to keep them in a good mood.
posted by neustile at 7:47 PM on June 15, 2005


The protocol for letters of recommendation varies quite a bit depending upon the discipline, so without knowing what sort of programs you're applying to its a bit difficult to answer your question. However, the following is generally true:

1) Photocopies are absolutely unacceptable. The school should receive original recommendations either directly from the recommender, or in a sealed envelope with their signature across the seal. Anything else is suspect.

2) Writing multiple recommendations in part of the job description of a college professor, not extra work they are doing as a favor to you. So don't feel bad about asking for multiple recommendations.

3) Most recommendations are fairly pro forma, and conform well to economies of scale. Once a professor has a rec written for you, in almost all cases sending an additional one out require only a bit of extra work - changing the address, tweaking it a bit to conform to the job description, and so forth. And chances are that s/he will pawn this off on their secretary, if they have one.

4) Do your profs a favor and make their jobs as easy as possible when you ask for multiple recs. Give them a list that includes the job description, name, and address of the person/dept. to send it to. If possible, group them into similar categories so that s/he can be more efficient about the tweaking (for example, if you are applying to some general history jobs and some Eastern European history jobs, tell your professor which recs are for the general job the same and which have to be tweaked a bit for the more specific job description).
posted by googly at 7:52 PM on June 15, 2005


One prof's view, as a writer and a reader of letters. They must be original letters in the arts and sciences fields, though most professors write a standard letter and simply modify it slightly for each new case, in some cases not at all. I spend hours changing addresses, small details, and printing out new copies on letterhead in letter-writing season (also for my PhDs on the job market).

So make it clear and easy. Meet with your recommenders and discuss your plans, why you are applying to the schools you chose, why so many (20 is a lot in most fields I know), and give her/him a copy of the best paper you ever wrote in her/his class, with comments, a resume/vita, and a well-edited version of your application essay -- variants not necessary unless they are really different, and then explain why that's necessary.

Give her/him at least a month's notice, and put all your materials in a folder with your name and the deadlines clearly marked in dark ink on the front. Provide stamped, addressed envelopes (ask your department offices for letterhead envelopes if possible). If you can do it, even set up the letterhead stationery yourself, printing out her/his return address and title (make sure it's exactly right) and the address of each school getting a letter on front page letterhead, in the form of a business letter. (That's above and beyond, but if someone asked me to do 20 letters, especially an undergrad applying to grad school, I'd be *way* pleased by the touch and a lot less likely to feel grumpy or rushed when I am writing the actual letter/s, which you want!)

Then a week before each letter is due send a short email reminding her/him of the deadline approaching, with the send to address in the body of the email (love to be able to cut and paste those, so if you can't do the letterhead thing, send a Word document or email with all the addresses so the prof doesn't have to type each one out afresh). Depending on the type of prof (absent minded vs. orderly, crochety vs. chatty) send *another* short friendly reminder email 2 days before it is due. If you are collecting the letters rather than having them mailed, let her/him know when you'd like to collect it/them a few days in advance.

I've done 20 letters for one person many times, usually grads on the job market, where the letters do differ by job, which can be hard work.

One other thing, which is if there are forms to go with the letters (too damn often) fill them out completely and correctly. ALWAYS waive your right to view the letter. An unwaived right to review is a flag to the reader, and an annoyance to the write. You want the writer to be candid, and the reader to expect candor. Include the forms, obviously, in the aforementioned folder, and make a copy so if one gets lost you can deliver a new one. My desk is always awash in letter requests and forms. I've lost them before.
posted by realcountrymusic at 7:55 PM on June 15, 2005 [2 favorites]


And to add, googly hit most of the same points well, and also added:
Writing multiple recommendations in part of the job description of a college professor, not extra work they are doing as a favor to you. So don't feel bad about asking for multiple recommendations.

Fair enough. But its an area where we have some real wiggle room. We can refuse if we don't feel we know the student well enough, can't write a good letter for them, or feel unqalified to recommend them for a particular field (unless all they want is a character reference). And we can put more or less effort into it without being called on minimal effort, though I've seen exceptions (one famous professor in my field tends to write two handwritten sentences on the form, usually totally vague).

Which raises the all important question: who you gonna ask?

Famous and senior faculty names can carry a lot of clout. Younger and less famous faculty may know you better and have more letter-fu. Balance those if you can. Don't only go for famous names. A long, thoughtful letter from someone less famous can make all the difference. Two vague paragraphs from a rock star can fall very flat.
posted by realcountrymusic at 8:02 PM on June 15, 2005


No! No, No, NO!
posted by abbyladybug at 8:10 PM on June 15, 2005


Thanks for the replies. I'm reminded of Regis Philbin's quiz show, where contestants could poll the audience -- and sometimes there would be an even split, while other times there would be a whopping majority, like, duh, the contestant should have known. Obviously the answer here is clear. Thanks again.
posted by cribcage at 8:38 PM on June 15, 2005


If a student, even the best student I ever had, asked me to provide 20+ recommendations, I would tell them to come back when they had narrowed it down to 6. Maybe 8, being generous. 20+ means that you haven't figured out what you want or how you would fit into the field, and that means you aren't ready for grad school, nomatter how much I think you're a great student. Grad school is not like undergrad, they are NOT interchangeable. Nobody has 20+ reasonable possibilities. Narrowing it down also means that I can start writing personalized letters about why you would be perfect for a school. With 20+ letters, you might as well photocopy them for as individualized as they will be.

Just my thoughts.

On preview, good luck.
posted by dness2 at 8:47 PM on June 15, 2005


dness2 is right. In many fields there aren't even 20 grad programs worth attending. In any case, I'd try to narrow that down. Among other things, most grad schools require an application fee these days ($75-100, as I recall).

Figure out the places you would most like to go, then have a couple of backups.

I too would seriously counsel a student who wanted 20 letters to think more clearly about the choices s/he faced. If it's just to be sure you get in someplace, be aware that the odds don't really go up the more places you apply. Most top programs admit the same few students for the most part, and then fight over them.

Plus it's highly advisable to visit as many of the schools (or rather programs) to which you apply as possible in the fall and meet the faculty and students. It can make all the difference. Hard to do that 20 times.

But good luck indeed.
posted by realcountrymusic at 5:04 AM on June 16, 2005


Let me second (or third) the recommendation to visit the school. My wife has completed graduate school and I am currently entering my last year (both in art) and visiting the programs (we visited seven or so, many 'famous') made a huge difference. In the arts anyway, the cliche applies : you are interviewing the school as much as the school is interviewing you. That would be another factor that suggests you limit your applications.
posted by Slothrop at 7:00 AM on June 16, 2005


The most important aspect of any good graduate program - espirit de corps, morale, buzz, juice, a sense of mission -- cannot be judged from websites, or even phone conversations. You need to sit at a seminar table, have coffee with some current students, and judge the passion of the professors for their field. Visiting is crucial, and at top programs in my field (I teach at one) we almost never admit a student we haven't met to the PhD program unless they are coming from abroad. Just a fact of life. There are some highly motivated and serious people at the top of the food chain in what is one of the most competitive career tracks out there because the job market is so poor. To compound that, universities fund too many PhD students because a) there is high attrition and b) it stocks their ranks with cheaper instructional labor, further cutting into the market value of your degree as such.

The single most important thing to do before applying to a PhD program, at least, is to judge yourself with brutal honesty against the most academically passionate and ambitious people you know. It's a monastic commitment. It seems unlikely that someone applying to 20 programs has fully completed that process. Not meant as an insult, but if you have what it takes to make a serious career in academia (if that is your grad school track) you will get in *with funding* to at least one of the top few programs in your field, and likely more than one. The talent in that applicant pool is extraordinary.

You can make it from further back if you are lucky and devoted and smart. But it's a lot harder. It sucks. But it's the truth.
posted by realcountrymusic at 7:32 AM on June 16, 2005


I applied to about 30 schools, and bugged my referees with piles of letters for three months :)

It worked, more or less - I'm pretty happy with what I ended up with.
posted by azazello at 7:44 AM on June 16, 2005


Maybe that was 20. In any case, it is absolutely not uncommon in technical fields to apply to 10+ schools, and I had special circumstances (early underachievement) which caused me to hedge my bets. My advisor applied to 30+ schools for his tenure track.

The forms are boilerplate in my field, and take two minutes to half an hour for the referee to complete once they have written the actual letter (which goes with the questionnaire form) - and they certainly will use the same letter for all of them regardless of school. Provide them with addressed stamped envelopes and the forms, and a few weeks of time before the deadline (this is obvious).

I always waived my right to review the letter. I don't know the magnitude of the effect this makes, but I'm guessing waiving is good.

I would be very apprehensive of the advice to narrow it down to under 10 schools. Applications, like letters, also conform to the economies of scale. After the first 5, the rest will usually take maybe about an hour to complete. If you feel at all insecure about your chances of getting into your programs, there is no reason not to apply to a ton of schools.

I would also be very apprehensive of the advice to not apply without visiting the programs in advance. I know it wasn't possible for me to visit programs outside my state in advance, and I know there is a ton of nice schools where I would have been happy in my field (again, the advice that grad schools are not interchangeable is bunk in many fields). Apply. If they accept you and you're on top of the applicant pool, they'll invite you for a paid visit. It's not shameful or unwise to apply to a lot of places if you have doubts about where you want to go. (I especially find realcountrymusic's advice very unhelpful.)
posted by azazello at 8:06 AM on June 16, 2005


(I especially find realcountrymusic's advice very unhelpful.)

Technical fields may well be very different from fields in the humanities and social sciences, azazello. I'm giving you the views of someone who writes many (probably well over 100) letters of recommendation a year, and reads more as a member of admissions and search committees (not to mention grant review boards, prize committees, etc.). And I'm a decade into my career, split over two universities and two different disciplines. So I've seen a lot. Not to mention that once, long ago, I went to grad school too.

I suspect the difference of fields lies behind our divergent perspectives. I am specifically talking about PhD programs in the arts and sciences, and students largely oriented toward academic careers. I should perhaps have made that more clear.
posted by realcountrymusic at 8:19 AM on June 16, 2005


Oh yeah -- in what fields are grad schools "interchangeable?" I can't even fathom what that word means applied to something as complex as grad school seen as a life-stage.

and to clarify:

Unfortunately, speaking for my own (top) program, if you didn't make the effort to visit us in the fall, you'd not be likely to be on the list of admits we subsidize to come back and visit (this time with us doing the selling) in the spring, unless you applied from Asia or were disabled enough to make travel hard. Maybe it's an Ivy League thing. It's elitist, and it always was.
posted by realcountrymusic at 8:40 AM on June 16, 2005


I also think 20 is too many...There are 20 grad schools worth attending in a lot of fields, but you won't be working in the whole field, you'll be working in an area within a field. There aren't 20 grad schools worth attending in an area of a field.

If I were you, I would think about the profs you want to write letters for you and invite them (individually) out to lunch. Tell them what you're interests are if they don't already know. Tell them what other factors are important to you (geography, urban/rural, department size etc.) and tell them what schools you're considering and ask them for help in narrowing your list. Besides getting some good advice, profs who have been consulted about school and have discussed with you why those schools will be good matches will be in a great position to write you outstanding letters.

As to visiting: I would not visit before applying. They will likely pay you to come out after you get in. I'm also at an ivy, but unlike realcountrymusic's experience my school subsidizes visits by all grad students admitted.

What's more, we don't look too kindly on people visiting before applying -- not many people try it and those who do find themselves with nothing to do -- we get hundreds of applications each year and nobody is sitting around waiting to meet and talk with people all the people who may or may not apply. We're busy. We can't spend all our time chatting with all the people who may apply, especially when only 20 or so will get in.

At least one faculty member here will not meet with applicants if he is on the admissions committee because it would give that applicant an unfair advantage.

What you can do to get a sense of the department (and I agree that you'll need a good sense of the place before accepting an offer) is head to conferences and chat with people there. Also, if you know what area you want to research you can find grad students researching in that area and email them (but really, this is more something you do after you get in... nothing you find out this way is likely to be a deal-breaker. They'll just be things helpful in deciding to accept one offer over another).

Finally, there's no way I would write one student 20 letters.
posted by duck at 9:49 AM on June 16, 2005


I wrote this earlier, then JRun ate the post, so now it duplicates a lot of what has been said already.

I could understand applying to many (more than say, 6) places for law, business, or medical school. I wouldn't advocate this strategy for engineering or hard science, though. Applying to 20+ programs indicates that you haven't done your homework.

I think I've said it here before, but it is worth repeating since this topic comes up often on AskMe: for these fields, nothing is more important to your success in grad school and beyond than your relationship with your advisor/PI. You should make every effort to get to know the person who will supporting you for 5+ years before you sign on with them. While the overall strength and reputation of the department is important, you are probably better off with a good PI in a "lesser" department than a bad PI in a strong department. Good in the sense that you get along with them, they have consistent levels of funding and publishing, and they are well respected in the field.

Ideally, I think the process would go like this: somewhere in your sophomore or junior year of college, you identify a professor or subject that you find interesting. Take everything they teach and work in their lab for a summer or part time during the school year. If you decide that you'd like to go to grad school in the field, sit down with that professor and ask about other schools that are strong in whatever subspecialty. They should help you identify a handful of programs and PI's. You then could narrow this list by whatever criteria are important to you. This professor will write your strongest recommendations, because they know both you and the PI. If invited, make a visit to the schools where you are accepted. Sit down with the PI for an interview and tour their lab. Go to lunch with their grad students. Then decide where to go based on your interest in the work they are planning to do, the overall feel of the lab, and the funding offers.

This is from the perspective of applying to PhD programs at large research universities.
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 10:01 AM on June 16, 2005


Actually, azazello is right about some things. Those forms do take 2-30 minutes to fill out EACH. At 20+ forms, you'd be asking your references to dedicate on average over 5 hours to filling out extremely TEDIOUS forms on your behalf, even before you get to the letter. If I were your reference I would be very unenthusiastic about this and that would probably be reflected in my letter.

In my field, if you insist that schools are interchangeable then I assume that the student is interchangeable. That doesn't bode well for getting into someplace remarkable. Every grad student should think that they have something outstanding to offer, somewhere. You should have an idea what that is before you apply. The scattershot approach is obvious on the receiving end too, and the only schools that will accept you are ones that aren't insulted to be interchangeable. You have to decide if that's acceptable.

Which isn't to say that floundering around in the face of grad school applications isn't typical or understandable. Perhaps the biggest flounders are foreign students who are facing an "or else go back home" that tends to make them desperate. If you are hedging your bets out of desperation, you are better advised to use your extra energy to figure out how to find your edge and exploit it, use the extra application money to travel to schools, and use your extra time to talk to people at schools to find the perfect fit. If you do that, then as a reviewer I would be happy to give the letters extra time, and make it more likely to be effective. Positive recursive cycle.

Like I said, 6-8 max, where you've talked to the schools, know the faculty strengths, have well-articulated reasons for choosing those places, and are reasonably well-matched academically. That's your wisest bet.

Again, good luck.
posted by dness2 at 10:02 AM on June 16, 2005


I'll just chime in to note that some of this stuff varies by field, at the very least. I do poli-sci, particularly US legislative politics. In my field:

There aren't 20 grad schools worth attending in an area of a field: No. If someone knew that they wanted to work on legislative politics in the US, any of the following might be excellent places to apply: UCSD, Harvard, Stanford/StanfordGSB, Duke, UNC, Rochester, Rice, Iowa, Arizona, Riverside, Irvine, Michigan State, Penn State, UPenn, NYU, Wisconsin, Illinois, Illinois-Springfield, GW, WashU, Florida, Purdue, Notre Dame, Maryland, Oklahoma, Yale, Ohio State, Houston, American, MIT, Nebraska, and more that I'm forgetting. You wouldn't apply to all of them, no; that would be silly. You probably shouldn't apply to even 20. But it might make sense to apply to 10 or 12 of them -- some that you're highly confident you can get into, and some that are reaches that you might get into (or at least seriously looked at) if the right person reads your application and clicks. Lord knows I've never heard anyone, from anywhere, say that someone was a good applicant but they didn't admit them because the student had applied to too many schools and they felt insulted.

The only really firm advice I'd give to someone applying for grad school, or a job, is simple: don't apply to departments you wouldn't ever go to, and don't apply to places you wouldn't be willing to live in for 5 years.

Dropping by ahead of time: maybe they do that at realcountrymusic's program, but if so they can only get away with that because as a top program they can assemble several equally-good incoming classes; if they really do something as silly as chuck people who haven't wandered in of their own initiative and on their own dime, they will be excluding many excellent students who will simply go elsewhere. At the top-level program I got my PhD from, I assure you that people did not ordinarily stop by before they had applied, or while their applications were in process. Visiting was done after acceptance, on the department's dime.

Nothing is more important than the relationship with your advisor/PI; find out about your PI ahead of time: AFAIK, this is strictly a hard-sciences thing. Outside of hard sciences, you won't normally have a PI that you'll be working for in a lab. And outside of hard sciences, it's normal or at least not-unusual to find that your interests shift a bit, and that while you came in saying you wanted to work on the historical evolution of internal institutions in Congress, you end up writing a dissertation applying theories of cognitive psychology to mass-level decisions to become party activists. Anyhow, the point is that you might well graduate with a different advisor than the one you presumed walking in. Outside of hard sciences, it's also going to be the case that your graduate education is less driven by one person (your advisor/PI) and more by the department as a whole, so your advisor simply isn't as important (though still very important).

I wouldn't write 20 letters, either. I would write a letter, save a copy, and send as many copies as required. Here in the wilds of northern Texas, there aren't many people asking for that, so I'd normally just run off fresh copies and sign 'em; if I had 50 people asking for 10--20 recommendations each, I'd just photocopy the letter.

Grad school, and grad school admissions processes, and life as a grad student all vary tremendously from field to field. Most of the advice you'll get here will be bad, because most everyone here doesn't work in your field and doesn't know how your field operates. The best thing you can do is find someone relatively young in your department -- someone who was a grad student him- or herself in the past 5--8 years -- and ask them about your concerns. Or, if you ask here, be sure to mention the field you're planning to go into.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:33 AM on June 16, 2005


Not in a thousand years would I write 20 letters and fill out the 20 associated forms for a student. You should narrow it down to 6 at the most. What country music and others said makes a lot of sense. If you dont get into one of six then you might want to reconsider graduate school. Photocopies are not acceptable. Provide the addressed enevlopes and a file with the names and addresses to cut and paste. Writing the letters is part of the job, but 20 is beyond the call of duty. You need to focus, IMO.
posted by Rumple at 12:11 PM on June 16, 2005


Y'all are honestly saying that if someone's application packet included letters from good people that were photocopies (from the department or the professor, not the student), you'd chuck the application or reject the applicant irrespective of their test scores, transcript, and what the letter actually says? If you guys do stuff like that, well, thanks, because that leaves good applicants out there to be picked up.

I mean, Jeee-zus, I've been on far more hiring committees than I care to think about and read the application packets for everyone we've brought in for other jobs where I wasn't on the committee, and almost *every* application's letters are photocopies made by the department placement person, not original letters with original signatures, and that's for getting a @#%! tenure-track job. Why on earth would you expect grad-school applications to run on a "higher" standard than tenure-track job applications?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:58 PM on June 16, 2005


I hear you, ROU, but if even a substantial minority of committees feel the way the "photocopies are unacceptable" commenters here do, it would be madness to send photocopies. I mean, the fees are outrageous too, but that doesn't mean you can just send a twenty instead.

I've got to agree with most people here that applying to twenty schools seems completely over the top.
posted by languagehat at 1:17 PM on June 16, 2005


I'm also at an ivy, but unlike realcountrymusic's experience my school subsidizes visits by all grad students admitted.

You misunderstood me. We also subsidize visits by students we've admitted with funding as they are deciding (usually among several competing offers). But it's very common for serious applicants to visit us on their own dime in the fall, and we are set up to interview them, let them sit in on a couple of seminars, and meet with current students. We have no hard and fast rule, and there are of course students we admit who have not visited. But a visit is a sign of serious interest, and provides an unparalleled way to make a connection with one or more of your potential advisers. In my field it's very common to visit as you are starting the application process. I'd say close to half of our serious applicants do it. Obviously, there are students for whom it is not possible, or who are such rock stars already that they don't need to and can count on their paper record carrying all the weight. We never rule people out.

The whole process is about gaining advantage. There's no such thing as unfair advantage if you do something anyone *might* do. If you are related to a faculty member, or a fellow Mormon with the head of the program, or something, then it can be "unfair." But visiting to make your personal pitch and get a feel for the place? When we admit and fund 4 or 5 out of 150 applicants every year, it's a darn good idea. And if "visit" is too informal, call it "on campus interviewing." I also have long phone conversations with nearly every serious applicant to our program. Like writing letters, it's just part of my job.
posted by realcountrymusic at 1:28 PM on June 16, 2005


Yeah, but you as an applicant don't have any choice in the matter. It's the recommenders or departments who will be deciding whether or not to send an original, freshly-written letter personalized to the receiving department, a standard letter run off and signed, or a photocopy.

That ostensible colleagues wouldn't want to hear what I (or someone better!) have to say about someone just because it's on a photocopy boggles my mind as much as if people were saying that Times New Roman* was an unacceptable font to use, or that normal xerox-grade paper was unacceptable, or that folded pages instead of 9x12 envelopes were unacceptable.

20 is a bit much, but I can't think that 6 or 8 is a hard limit for every discipline.

And to get the original question, it's out of your hands in any case.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:35 PM on June 16, 2005



Y'all are honestly saying that if someone's application packet included letters from good people that were photocopies (from the department or the professor, not the student), you'd chuck the application or reject the applicant irrespective of their test scores, transcript, and what the letter actually says?


It's simply the custom in the humanities and social sciences fields I work in that a letter of rec. for an applicant to a PhD program is an original document, signed by the author. Of course we don't reject the application if one is a photocopy, but that would look might strange among the hundreds of originals. There are two exceptions: schools that use "dossier" services (there are now some private services as well) send standard letters directly from the dossier office; and more and more grad schools allow letters to be submitted online, in which case they are of course electronic documents and not printed and signed by the writer. One sees some of these things, and more often.

Dossier letters lack the slight degree of customization most of try at least to supply for our better students. If I am writing a letter for a student applying to a program I know something about, I will often write a few extra sentences describing how they might fit in in that program, with whom they might work, etc. A dossier letter won't have that extra edge. Consequently, it won't be disregarded, but it might well be slightly less influential. Funded admission is so competitive that you want everything you submit to give you an edge.

I think the reasoning is that if you are a serious enough young scholar, there will be three professors willing to spend a few hours writing letters for you. We pass it forward in this business. My professors did it for me. I do it for my students. It's a tradition. I rather like it.
posted by realcountrymusic at 1:35 PM on June 16, 2005


ROU_Xenophobe,

I think that letters by themselves carry more weight in graduate admissions than in tenure track applications. In graduate admissions that may well be the most input the committee will get from recommenders, while in tenure track applications it's the bare minimum, usually accompanied by phone conversations, emails and/or side-bar chats at conferences. In my field, the unofficial recommendations are what's important in getting a job -- the pieces of paper are just for the files. But in getting into the program in the first place, a personalized letter is really, really important because you usually can't contact recommenders individually and you won't interview the candidate directly (usually). The two types of letters are not the same.
posted by dness2 at 2:25 PM on June 16, 2005


ROU -- my understanding of the photocopied letter was the standard boilerplate "to whom it may concern" kind of reference. That shows no real interest by the professor in the student, nor knowledge of how the student might fit in our department with our particular specialties. Neither of those are good things. Of course we would consider such letters, but they do not serve the applicant's interests well, Email letters are fine, if verifiable. Its the content not the form, though in the case of the photocopy, content follows form somewhat.
posted by Rumple at 2:41 PM on June 16, 2005


The second-tier (and sometimes, first-tier) grad schools in popular technical fields are absolutely interchangeable. You will have an opportunity to get a good graduate education in most of the top 30 schools in your field, unless it's arcane, particularly if you're not 100% sure of what subfield you will concentrate on (and no, not being sure of the subfield and not knowing the top people for ever school in your subfield does not ruin your chances).

realcountrymusic, your elitism is exactly what I found wrong with your initial advice (keep in mind this is supposedly advice, not discussion). You're right about our divergent perspectives, and the head counts of the departments certainly make a difference. Not everyone goes to grad school to be further selected for academia. People whose undergraduate track record is not stellar absolutely deserve consideration - and their desire to maximize their chances by applying to many good programs is valid. Nowhere in the formal (and practical, for many departments) admission requirements are the criteria you put forth (like visiting in the fall). Condescending attitudes which amount to "if you're asking these kinds of questions, you shouldn't be applying" are of no help to those in cribcage's position (or mine, as of a few months ago). I know that the situation is very different in Ivy League liberal arts, and often amounts to "either you're in the club or not". In this respect I find the large, populist departments in large schools more comfortable for those looking to get a Ph.D.
posted by azazello at 8:11 PM on June 16, 2005


azazello, you've twisted my words.

I have no idea what "technical" fields you are talking about, but doubt you are talking about PhD programs. And it's amusing to see you refer to "at least second-tier" schools being "interchangeable." That's like saying gender difference is irrelevant to human social relations, at least among men.

All professions are elitist. It has little to do with class or populism. It has to do with selecting for talent and effort. And size has nothing to do with it either. Nor really does the private vs. public university axis. Some of the most elite programs in my particular field are at large public universities.

I never said "if you are asking these questions you shouldn't be applying." I call BS on that tactic of paraphrasing my words to make me sound like a snot.

I am talking about the reality. In most A&S fields, earning a PhD is almost solely a qualification for an academic career. The academic job market is BRUTAL. People enter PhD programs starry-eyed all the time. The reality hits them after they waste 7 or 8 years of the best part of their life at a "second-tier" program and find that their degree is close to worthless on the professional job market. The most populist, realistic advice is: if you can't gain funded admission to a "first-tier" graduate program in the arts and sciences, you are facing real obstacles to a successful career in the academic profession. Since you've never been specific about what "technical" field you are talking about, I can't really respond to whatever you think is an exception to this. But the PhD is rarely a requirement in technical professions, that I am aware.

You may find your situation "more comfortable," but I assumed the OP wanted to know the facts. And I gave the advice I give all applicants to our grad program, and all my many undergrad students applying to grad school. I do have some basis for making these recommendations, and from what I can tell, my experience easily trumps yours. Challenge me when you have the PhD and tenure.
posted by realcountrymusic at 5:58 AM on June 17, 2005


And to add in my own defense: my research deals with working-class communities in the US. I have mentored and admitted *and funded* many working-class students, some of whom are now professors. Don't pull the "populist" card on me. Working-class students, in my experience, are hipper to the realities I describe than their more economically privileged counterparts. I left a large public university for an "elite" Ivy League one in part because at the latter I can actually *fund* students from working-class backgrounds so they have a real shot at the brass ring.

And I explicitly said that it wasn't *impossible" to succeed in academia with a PhD from a lower-ranked graduate education or without funding. I just said it was harder.
posted by realcountrymusic at 6:08 AM on June 17, 2005


I agree with a lot of what countrymusic just said. The poster is coy about what technical field it is. Countrymusic's advice was sound. And from what I've seen, elite schools do a better job of educating both the elite and the "working class". State schools are really for the middle classes. In any case, the poster was looking for advice and a number of qualified faculty members gave it to them, and they should take from it what they will.
posted by Rumple at 10:26 AM on June 17, 2005


Computer science and allied cross-disciplines are the fields I'm talking about. There are over 20 good graduate programs in the US alone in these fields. Each one is a good department, and each one absolutely has a name in the job market (once again, I was not talking about grad school for the sake of tenure only).

I apologize for being too hostile in my last comment. realcountrymusic's advice at the top of the thread is very helpful. The part that really ticked me off was this:

Visiting is crucial, and at top programs in my field (I teach at one) we almost never admit a student we haven't met to the PhD program ... To compound that, universities fund too many PhD students ... It seems unlikely that someone applying to 20 programs has fully completed that process. Not meant as an insult, but if you have what it takes to make a serious career in academia (if that is your grad school track) you will get in *with funding*

I really don't see how these particular comments are helpful to an average grad school applicant.
posted by azazello at 12:38 PM on June 17, 2005


I really don't see how these particular comments are helpful to an average grad school applicant.

Apology accepted. You were darn hostile, for no good reason I can discern. But still, my comment that you'd be advised to visit schools to which you applied "ticked you off?" On what possible basis?

And who said any of the comments on here had to be helpful to "the average grad school applicant?" The "average" applicant either does not get in to grad school, or does not get in to a top program, with funding. In many fields, as I keep saying, if you're an "average" applicant you might consider another career if you plan to make a living at it. I simply told the truth. In the fall of every year, a parade of hopeful prospects travels the nation visiting programs to which they are applying to interview, certainly in many of the humanities fields. I interview a good 20-30 every October/November. At least. Our admits generally come from that pool, because those are the hardcore serious applicants who put time and effort and money into their application process, narrow their list down to the actual best programs for their particular interests, and come and sell the deal.

It may not be helpful to you, a CS student at a "second tier" and "interchangeable" program. But I suspect that's helpful advice to anyone applying to study for a PhD in English or Classics or Anthropology at Harvard or Chicago.

Basically, you are "ticked off" about something you know nothing about, clearly.

And since you specify computer science at last, let me assure you PhD programs in that area are *hardly* interchangeable. Good luck with that career. Sounds like you may need it. Or do the names Stanford and MIT mean nothing to you? Wanna bet that applicants to the CS PhD programs at those schools show up for visits in the fall?

Snarky. Very snarky. Apologize and then go on about how someone's informed advice "ticked you off."
posted by realcountrymusic at 5:59 AM on June 18, 2005


And one final (I promise) point.

Isn't it simply excellent life advice to go visit someplace where you are considering making the effort to spend 5 or more years of your life?

Why should I write 20 letters of rec. for you because you can't be bothered to do your legwork?

End of rant. End of topic for me.

But I can't resist. Click HERE to use the Computer Research Association's excellent multivariable database to rank the top PhD programs in computer science. A little googling, and one learns they are definitely not "interchangeable," since research programs are highly specialized. CS grad student funding mostly appears to come, as in the natural sciences more generally, from faculty research grants. You basically need to pick a fairly specialized research area at the start of the process, and convince a faculty member (the grant PI) to spend $30-50K of his/her grant per year on you. I hope someone asking for that much money out of my grant would be willing to pay a visit. Do a little web searching, and azazello's major points come crashing down.
posted by realcountrymusic at 6:17 AM on June 18, 2005


(this is offtopic)
Visiting grad schools in the fall is not mentioned in any application procedures or even informal guides for the departments I know. If the situation is the same in your department, using it as an admission criterion borders on favoritism and may be indicative of the attitudes I discussed earlier.

Those are some nice ad hominems you mixed in there, realcountrymusic :) I'm glad you or anyone like you will never be my PI, and keep the rest of my personal opinions to myself.

posted by azazello at 11:21 AM on June 18, 2005


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