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ThePeon

Who should I ask for my third letter?

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I have a bit a dilemma about who to ask for my third letter of recommendation.

My undergrad is a PGR school, and so it has a number of well-known Professors in the discipline. My first two letters are from a rising star and a very well-known in their subfield senior professor, but I'm unsure as to who to ask for my third letter because I'm split between two candidates.

The first candidate, A, knows me extremely well. I have taken two classes from him and received an 'A' in both, frequented his office hours, spoke up often in class, and have seemed to impress him a great deal. I would say out of all my philosophy teachers, he is the one with the highest opinion of me. He is also the only teacher I've had who taught continental philosophy, which while not my primary interest is one of my secondary interests. The downside to A as a letter-writer is that he is virtually unknown in the discipline. He only received his PhD a few years ago, has no publications, and is a lecturer, not a Professor.

The second candidate, B, is more senior and established in the discipline. While I wouldn't say he's a star, he has been around awhile, is a tenured professor, has a lot of publications, and is certainly a name people in his areas of specialty would recognize. However, B does not know me nearly as well as A. I only took one class taught by B (but I did get an 'A' in the class), and because it was on a topic in philosophy I'm not as interested in I didn't participate in class very much nor attend office hours. As such I doubt he remembers me much. Furthermore, B's AoS have almost zero overlap with my areas of interest.

My instinct was to get a letter from A: he knows me very well and will probably write me the best letter in terms of content, and I know for a fact that he will be comfortable writing me a strong letter. Additionally, I'm already getting two letters from better known people. However, one person did strongly encourage me to ask B for a letter rather than A. So I'm uncertain. What do you guys think?

Edited by ThePeon

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I'm going to stray from my lane to recommend that you ask Person A.

Unless Professor B is so well established that a LoR from him, no matter how luke warm, is a golden ticket, Lecturer A will present you and your potential in the most accurate light.

Before making your firm decision, is it possible to circle back to the one person who recommended Professor B? There may be additional information that will help you make a choice.

Also, depending upon this individual's importance to you, you may do well to let the person know that as much as you appreciate the guidance, you're going to ask Person A. This courtesy could potentially save this individual effort and/or embarrassment if she is talking you up to Professor B.

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Like Sigaba (and yourself), I'd go for A, since a strong letter from a person familiar with your work beats any kind of letter from someone who can't speak to your individual strengths and progress. While it's true that a letter from an Associate or Full is better than a letter from an Assistant is better than a letter from an adjunct/VAP (is better than a letter from a postdoc), you've already got two of those. Besides, candidates tend to overestimate the importance of having a known recommender (in addition to the problem that they aren't in a good position to know who's 'known' in the first place, or whether their letters are known to be hyperbolic, etc.). You've already got two who are well-known, and it seems to me that the most important thing is having someone who can say unreservedly good things about you, your work, and so on. I wouldn't sweat it.

FWIW, my own letters included one from the VAP who supervised my honours thesis, and I did just fine on the MA and PhD markets.

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Go with A. You already have two strong letters from recognized people in the field, and that should be more than enough. The third will largely serve to reinforce and enhance what those two have said if the committee is familiar with the first two. And either way, three stellar letters are nearly always better than two and a lukewarm one. Good luck!

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Hard advice:

Go to B, and ask directly "Hey, so I am planning to apply to PhD programs in Philosophy. Would you be willing to write a letter of recommendation?" And then follow-up the answer with another question, "I need to be honest, this is in my interest to ask, would you write me a good letter? The competition is fierce."

If there is some hesitation from B, then I think you should go with A as your third writer. (maybe have B only write letters where 4 or more are accepted?)

Edited by Duns Eith

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