AfterMAPH: Picking Up the Pieces Part 1

Well for those still lurking around the site–and a gratifyingly large number of you are–this is the first of a handful of posts intended to address a few of the lingering issues connected with a year  spent in the MAPH program.  As I’ve already suggested this is not a “regular” MAPHmatically Yours post–those have gone the way of the Dodo–and is instead the first of what I hope will be occasional update posts connected in ever more tangential ways to the MAPH experience.

However, before we get to the content of this post there is one programing note worth giving further attention.  The only thing worse than a lack of information is a great bounty of misinformation and as time–and program changes accumulate–MAPHmatically Yours will necessarily edge toward that unenviable position.  However, one of the benefits of Bill Hutchison’s new position as one of the MAPH Program’s mentors is that the threatened obsolescence is pushed at least a year further into the future.  So congratulations to Bill, to the incoming class of MAPH students, and all those that might benefit from at least another year of reliable–if possibly revised–information on the site.

The Proper Courtship and Care of Academic Recommendations

One of the all consuming questions of MAPH’s second quarter circled around the value of what the site has labeled “Rock Star” professors and the reason that those questions had real endurance is intimately connected with today’s topic: the practice of graduates soliciting letters of recommendations in order to enhance their application for future graduate study.  Ideally, strong letters of recommendation allow graduate program’s selection committees and future employer’s search committees to consider the testimony of a fellow impartial academics regarding the capabilities of graduate student applicants with whom they have varying levels of familiarity.  The old saw says that these letters become more valuable or persuasive according to 1) the quality of the testimony as measured by the quality of the relationship between impartial recommender and the graduate–longer and closer relationships are considered more telling of a student’s abilities, 2) the quality of the recommendation as measured by the actual content of the praise lavished on the graduate–the more praise heaped on the student the better, assuming that it seems sincere, and 3) the quality of the recommendation as measured by the respectability of the recommending faculty member–better known and respected professors yield stronger recommendations when factors (1) and (2) are held equal.  Thus, the “Rock Star” prof whose exploits are known far and wide, whose great and mighty deeds are sung from hill and valley, are understandably courted as thesis advisers in the hope that their recommendations will carry extra weight and distinguish candidates from among the multitude applying for any given position.  However, as long-time readers will no doubt note, at least a majority of these high-powered academic heavy weights are considerably less communicative and less prone to form lasting relationships than many a MAPHer might once have hoped.  So, assuming that one has taken classes or written a successful thesis with one of these venerable hory heads, what is the process for finagling a letter of recommendation from the lady or gent that never did learn your name or return your emails?

I Sing the Letter Electric

While my undergraduate letters–and I suspect those of the majority of undergrads from small to medium sized schools–were requested in person, printed on rag paper, and included pre-addressed stamped envelopes, in a place like the University of Chicago letters have gone high tech.  Tentatively broaching the topic of a letter with one of the more approachable of my Rock Star profs I was immediately directed to secure an account at an online dossier service called Interfolio and make my request through their web-based system.  Perhaps it was the result of the whiplash induced by the sudden recommendation reversal I had sustained earlier, but after a quick search brought me to the membership page and I discovered I would be charged $19.00 for one year, $39.90 for three years, or $57.00 for five years of service, I happily signed up for a one-year stint–without realizing that each and every document (letter of recommendation, transcript, statement of purpose, or introductory letter) had its own significant price tag.

Now, I really can’t blame the profs at a place like UChicago.  With several thousand students pouring through the doors in any given year and many–if not most–of those students wanting three or four of their professors to supply five to ten letters of recommendation for each academic application cycle–plus the back log of previous graduates spinning the wheel again and again for multiple years–one can easily imagine particularly popular–or particularly Rock Star-ish–professors having hundreds of letters to write, print, and ship–or at least having to organize the writing, printing, and shipping there of.  Under such a weight, one can easily understand the appeal of writing one letter for each student and then allowing an automated service like Interfolio to do the rest. While students might pay ridiculous sums to the service, the faculty is freed of the burden of collating and managing the incoming requests and outgoing submissions and allowed to focus on the contribution that they are best able to make: the actual content of the letter.  While the cost per letter sent of $6 is many times the cost of one first class stamp–or the large flat-rate envelope cost of $6 for a whole application set–any economy for the student comes at the expense of the possibility that their letters would have been dashed off without due reflection by professors just trying to survive the onslaught of requests, the possibility that their requests would have been overlooked, recommendations mishandled, or letters miss-sent/sent too late.

Thus, while Interfolio might not be your new best friend, electronic dossier services are–for pragmatic reasons–here to stay and likely to be the only option available for students of larger institutions.  What they lack in economical pricing they make up for in convenience to both letter writers and graduate applicants.  So, armed with my shiny new Interfolio account the rest should be easy, right?

Tomorrow: Crafting Convenient Recommendation Requests likely to Secure Timely Responses or CRRLTSTRs

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