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Senior Professor from within the department with less familiarity vs. affiliated assistant professor with substantial familiarity


gughok

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I'm applying to philosophy grad schools, where it's important to have recommendations from people who do philosophy.

For those programs that only permit a maximum three recommendations, I'm torn on who I should ask as my third: there is an experienced full professor who is in the philosophy department, but has only known me closely for this semester (I've had him for a class before, but didn't interact very closely then). I can expect a good recommendation from him, but he just doesn't know me enough to speak to much more than my performance in his one class. He also specializes in a very different subfield than mine. Alternatively, I could ask my (officially) philosophy-affiliated advisor who is an assistant professor, and who has known me for around a year and is a great deal more familiar with my academic work. Her expertise also has greater overlap with my intended area of specialization.

Between the two, who could provide the better recommendation as far as graduate school committees are concerned? If this isn't enough information to tell, what other factors should I be weighing?

And, secondarily, is my current plan of providing recommendations from both when the programs permit more than three letters a good one?

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I think you should choose the stronger letter. It sounds like in this case, it would be the letter from the affiliated assistant professor. I understand the importance of having a LOR from people who do philosophy, but if this person does research and has expertise within your area of specialization, then I think it's fair to say she has expertise in philosophy, don't you? Affiliations can be tricky things, especially in smaller departments or schools. What matters is not so much the official affiliation but rather what the letter can say about your potential to succeed as a graduate student in philosophy in general, and in your area of interest in particular. Sounds like the assistant professor has all the necessary background to have an informed opinion. 

Re: sending more letters than asked for, as long as they don't explicitly say not to go over what's allowed, and the application system actually allows it (some don't), I personally think it's fine to submit an extra LOR. However, only do it if submitting it will make your application stronger than it would be without the letter. There is no point in having the adcom read extra material that doesn't help your case. 

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4 hours ago, fuzzylogician said:

I think you should choose the stronger letter. It sounds like in this case, it would be the letter from the affiliated assistant professor... Sounds like the assistant professor has all the necessary background to have an informed opinion. 

Re: sending more letters than asked for, as long as they don't explicitly say not to go over what's allowed, and the application system actually allows it (some don't), I personally think it's fine to submit an extra LOR. However, only do it if submitting it will make your application stronger than it would be without the letter. There is no point in having the adcom read extra material that doesn't help your case. 

Thank you - it makes sense now that her letter would be stronger on multiple fronts than a letter from the in-department professor.

Could I just confirm what I suspect is meant by LORs genuinely strengthening an application: is the principle generally that a letter should add qualitative information instead of mere corroboration to be useful? More sharply, if I already have three letters saying "he's a good student" (among other, much more significant things), would a fourth letter that can't say much more than "he's a good student and I'm pretty impressed with the one semester I've had him" and doesn't add any new information be therefore superfluous? Does the repetition of this information help at all, or is it rather the case, as it seems to me, that this would just bore admissions committees?

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2 hours ago, gughok said:

Could I just confirm what I suspect is meant by LORs genuinely strengthening an application: is the principle generally that a letter should add qualitative information instead of mere corroboration to be useful? More sharply, if I already have three letters saying "he's a good student" (among other, much more significant things), would a fourth letter that can't say much more than "he's a good student and I'm pretty impressed with the one semester I've had him" and doesn't add any new information be therefore superfluous? Does the repetition of this information help at all, or is it rather the case, as it seems to me, that this would just bore admissions committees?

Generally speaking, repetition isn't bad. If you have three LORs saying "he is a stellar student, the best I have seen in my 30 years in the department," that is not going to hurt you. More generally, though, you want your LORs to cover different aspects of your personality and scholarship. So for every major accomplishment you've had in school, it'd be good to have someone talk about it. If you have LORs from professors who've only known you one semester, the letter might be good but it won't be stellar. The letter you describe in your post is okay, but it certainly isn't glowing. So, do you need it? I would use the following rule of thumb: assume that there might be someone on an adcom who looks at your file with four letters, and decides to read just three, because that is what they asked for. They choose those three at random. If they choose your extra one at the expense of one of your "official" three, will that be just as good, or could that cause harm? If it would cause harm, don't submit the extra letter -- it's not helping. 

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7 hours ago, fuzzylogician said:

I would use the following rule of thumb: assume that there might be someone on an adcom who looks at your file with four letters, and decides to read just three, because that is what they asked for. They choose those three at random. If they choose your extra one at the expense of one of your "official" three, will that be just as good, or could that cause harm? If it would cause harm, don't submit the extra letter -- it's not helping. 

This is fantastic, thanks!

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