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First semester of close contact - necessarily screwed?


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I'm in Philosophy, where recommendations from within the department are crucial to graduate school applications.

My position is a bit weak: I started out taking philosophy classes, but for the latter half of my second year and the entirety of my third year I was in no philosophy classes because I was busy switching majors a bunch and had a lot of scheduling conflicts. Now I'm back to my true academic love, as it were, with two graduate seminars this semester and plans on three in the spring.

My advisor for the major is an assistant professor in the department who has known me for quite a while - I took a class with him my second semester, a graduate seminar of his my third semester, did well in both, and was in infrequent contact with him until this semester when again I'm in his seminar and am meeting with him as frequently as I can (without being annoying, I think). He's definitely one of my letter-writers, and while his word may not carry the inherent authority of a senior professor (he's only been at the university about as long as I have), I'm confident in his knowledge of me (and he has confirmed this confidence).

I only know two other professors in the department, for the reason that while I've taken seven classes so far (if you include my current two seminars), they've all happened to be taught by my advisor or these other two professors.

One of the other two had me in his introduction to ancient philosophy in my first semester. I did well and he remembers me from then, but I did not much distinguish myself. Now I'm in his seminar and am keeping as much contact as I can (again, without being annoying). He's complimented my performance in his seminar in my personal meetings with him and offered, without my solicitation, to write me a letter when I mentioned my graduate school plans. This is a good sign, but I'm concerned that as far as deep interaction goes, he's only really known me this semester. He is a senior professor, not in my AOI but respected in his field.

The other professor had me as his student in an introductory survey of modern philosophy, and later in a graduate seminar. I'm not sure how well he remembers me from then, though I did well in both classes - again, I don't think I distinguished myself back then beyond being "just another good student". This semester I got in back in touch with him to discuss an honors thesis I realized, over the summer, I wanted to write. He is easily the best-informed in our department on the subject so I got readings from him to help get my mental gears rolling. Unfortunately his other obligations have limited how often we can meet - I only saw him for the third time this semester last week. On the other hand, that day we had a long discussion about the material I was reading and he got excited about one of my ideas (evidently it was a coherent explication of a vague difficulty he thought existed for a certain theory). When I asked for further readings to inform my suspicions better, he said my idea was already mature enough to make into a paper challenging the aforementioned view and that I should definitely do this. He further suggested that this would make "a fantastic writing sample". Yes, it was his suggestion that I start, finish, and polish my writing sample between now and mid-December. He also offered to write a letter for me, and encouraged me to apply to PhD programs, not the MA programs I was considering. He is senior and very respected in the field, so I did not think to question him on this advice.

Sorry to have dragged this out so far, but I thought the background was important to my question: will it necessarily count against me that two of my letters are from professors who've really only known me one semester (basically two months)? Or is it possible that, given the enthusiasm my professors have seemed to express, they may be able to assuage any concerns among admissions committees that they do not know me well enough as referees? Moreover, if I work hard enough, is it possible for me to turn this to my advantage by impressing my professors enough in this short period that it shows in the recommendations and possibly counts further in my favour?

TL;DR - I've only been in close contact with two of my three referees for this single semester, but they seem to like me. Can I beat the problem of how short-term my relationship with them has been in the eyes of the admissions committees?

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  • 2 weeks later...

I am certainly no expert in these matters, but my guess is that a professor would not offer to write you a letter if they did not think it would be a good one. You didn't pressure them into this if they were the ones to bring it up, and if they believe they have something worthwhile to say why doubt them about it? Especially if you need to use these three letters anyway. 

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