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clio009

Letters of Rec - Thesis Committee?

7 posts in this topic

Hey all - just finished with my master's and I am now applying to PhD programs in History.

My question is whether I should get Letters of Rec exclusively from my thesis committee, or if I should branch outside of that. I have others that I could certainly ask, although they are all within the history department at my master's institution. 

Thanks for your input! 

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Why would you branch outside of your thesis committee? They're likely the ones who know your research ability and potential the best, right?

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Whoever can write you the STRONGEST and most positive letter possible and knows your abilities well enough to argue that you will succeed in a PhD program.

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I agree with TMP: you should choose the individuals who will write the strongest letters. This may or may not people the people on your committee. I chose my letter writers strategically. I had four people on my committee. I asked two of them to write letters to accompany all six of my application, one being my main adviser and the other being someone I had taken a several of classes with. I had known these two individuals for quite some time, since I completed my MA at my undergrad institution. Both had written letters for me in the past for various awards. As for my third letter writer, I asked one of the remaining two committee members to write a letter for four of my applications. I asked a professor who did not serve on my committee to write the last two letters. I chose to split the responsibility for the third letter for a number of reasons. For one, the person I selected to write for two of my applications knew many of the faculty members at the two universities to which these applications were directed. In addition to being a professor of mine, she was also the DGS and my boss when I graduated from the MA program and joined my department in an administrative role. I wanted to have her speak more broadly about my engagement with the graduate program (I served in many roles as a grad student). I did not ask her to write the letter for my other four applications, however, because the four universities to which those letters were directed (I thought) required that I ask a committee member who could best speak to my engagement in my proposed minor field (Africa), which seemed more important for those schools.

Its your call. Your thesis committee will probably be your best bet for awesome letters. But if you have a good reason to think someone else will suit your application needs more, go for it. 

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I was told to use my three thesis committee members. In the end, however, I used my main thesis advisor and two others that I thought could speak to different aspects of my ability and character. I don't know if this was a mistake or not (from the point of view of adcoms), but I feel pretty good about it. I really chose those that I felt could offer a deep and well-rounded perspective about me. 

Of course, this old adage may be counter-intuitive when it comes to graduate admissions. Maybe adcoms really do want to hear primarily about your major work (i.e. thesis). But I considered it as if I were on an admissions committee. I would rather know about a person in-depth and over a greater amount of time than specifically about the work that one did over the course of 9-12 months. Plus, I felt that if they all came from the thesis committee there would be a 90% overlap of material covered. Now, this may have just been my situation. I worked closely with my main advisor and much less so with the other two. On the other hand, I had worked more closely with two other professors over the course of my master's degree. I felt they had things to write about that would be positive, but also different from my main advisor.

Whether or not my reasoning was flawed, I feel good about my decision.

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I used two from my thesis committee, and then the DGS in my department. Though the DGS wasn't in my field, I thought she could speak directly to some of the factors admission committees might be looking for in a more meta way (considering she heads up the adcomm for the MA program). Things like TA work, professionalization, etc. Plus, my thesis committee members were relatively young, so the DGS could do a much broader assessment of how my capabilities compared to far more students. Plus, she got her Phd at one of my top choice schools, so I figured a rec from her wouldn't hurt! So there's some room for strategy here. I do, however, think that having your thesis *advisor* write is not optional. If they don't, I'd imagine any reasonable adcomm would wonder why. 

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If you think they are familiar with your strengths, stick with them. I asked each of my recommenders to speak to different traits and accomplishments, while at the same time making a similar case for my readiness to tackle a PhD program. One of my recommenders was familiar with my language skills, while one was more familiar with my abilities working with gender and women's history, and so on. Don't be shy in asking for recommenders to write about specific things. I think they probably like that more than giving them carte blanche. Direction is always better than directionless. They will tell you if they don't feel comfortable writing about a certain thing you've requested. While that may be awkward, it's better to know if something is being completely left out of your recommendations that should be spotlighted! The LOR were the most stressful part for me, since it was largely out of my control. Do everything you can to control the situation. Some recommenders will even ask if you wish to look over the letter yourself, although that is more the exception than the rule. Remember, they want you to succeed, and having their former students accepted to PhD programs is great for their careers.

Edited by Septerra

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