AfterMAPH – Picking up the Pieces Part 3

Yesterday’s post attempted to lay a groundwork for today’s post by addressing some of the misconceptions that graduates might have about letters of recommendation and the process of securing them.  The fundamental tenants argued in that post included the ideas that a) Professors have no obligation to write you a strong letter, so make writing a letter as convenient a task as possible, b) You are not nearly as memorable as you think you are, so include samples of your work in your request for a LoR and mention those connections that you did make with the professor or administrator–even if they seem off-topic, and c) The goal is merely to collect strong recommendations, so only solicit letters from people willing to write strong recommendations–even if their names are “up in lights.” So, how best one go about requesting a letter while remaining cognizant of these claims–either within the world of electronic document storage or without?

A One-two Punch: Stage One – Informal Requests

I prefer to approach the process of requesting LoR as an exercise asking the question “what has my professor agreed to grant me?” rather than assuming that he or she owes me something.  The initial letter, therefore, has a tentative feel and really tries to provide reasons for all its requests.  In contrast, once the faculty or administrator has consented to write a strong letter, the electronic request made through Interfolio can be much more brief and direct–while still providing the information necessary for the writer to produce a good letter. The informal request has five parts: 1) Re-introduction/relation, 2) Purpose for requesting a letter, 3) program of study/professional position description, 4) Reference materials, and 5) instructions for response.

1) Re-introduction/relation

My name is MAPHman and I just graduated University of Chicago’s MAPH program this past Saturday. I took your Fall class “The Aesthetics of Hume and Kant, the Winter course “Philosophy and Literature,” and the Spring’s “Ordinary Language Philosophy and received an A in each course.  Allow me to thank you once again for the time that you spent both inside and outside class with me. It really meant a lot just to have somebody that I’ve looked up to for so many years be willing to talk aesthetics and discuss my future in the discipline.

The purpose of this section is just to remind the potential letter writer who you are and how they know you.  On the formal side this is the place to remind them that they were your instructor for particular courses, lead the workshop that you attended, or advised you on your thesis.  On the more informal side, this would be the place to remind them of your shared interests, allude to a conversation or event–in which you had some part– that would be memorable for the letter writer, or a general statement about your relationship with them.  The goal of this brief introductory paragraph is to jog the letter writer’s memory as to who you are and how they knew/know you so that what follows in the request can  be connected to a particular person–you.

2) Purpose for requesting a letter

While I already have a position secured teaching philosophy of art and philosophy of language at my alma mater, Myskatonic University, I do plan to apply to Ph.D. programs in the next five years which is why I am asking for your recommendation regarding my capacities for future graduate study at the Ph.D. level.

When outlining the purpose for which you are requesting a letter it is important to manage the scope of your explanation.  In my undergrad days I–and I think think most–were told that the best LoR are highly tailored to a specific program at a particular school with an individual adviser–something like: I am applying to Yale’s philosophy program with the hope of pursuing my doctorate under philosopher and art historian Karsten Harries.  The problem with this approach under the new electronic model, is that letters of recommendation are requested and submitted one time and need to be applicable to all the schools to which a graduate plans to apply.  Now, that’s not to say that a student couldn’t request new recommendations down the road, but at the very least, the expectation within this new system is that one letter from one writer will suffice for one accademic application season.  However, while it might seem that the best way to avoid a too narrow scope of explanation is to write an extremely general one like “I plan to continue my academic studies at some point in the future.”  However, this explanation will likely yield both a bland, nonspecific letter and cause your potential letter writer to wonder why they are even being bothered at this point in time to write a recommendation that might not see the light of day for many, many years.

If you know of some reason why your request for a letter might seem strange or out of character, this would also be the time to explain your reasoning.  For example, if it is a well-known fact that you intended to pursue a professional position, but are now requesting academic recommendation or if–as in my case–the professor in question knows that I already have a job, then this is your chance to explain yourself.

3) Program of study/professional position description

My hope is to continue working on questions related to the “meaning” of art as communicated by the inclusion or exclusion of formal elements interpreted through some hermeneutic system akin to Grice’s Cooperative Principle which considers artistic intent as the guiding principle of critic’s interpretive work. As such my graduate work would likely follow lines similar to Noël Carroll’s work in intentionalism but with greater concern to build a theoretical model of how visual works communicate as analogous with methods and purposes of ordinary human conversation.

In case its not already obvious, the paragraph explaining your academic or professional goals should–at least for the academic side–bear a strong resemblance to your graduate study application’s “Statement of Purpose”–albeit in a condensed presentation.  The goals here are to demonstrate a continuity between the work that the letter writer has seen you complete and the work that you propose to do in the next stage of your academic career.  If this letter of recommendation is designed to further a professional goal, then this is equally the time to demonstrate continuity between the work that the recommender can attest to and the work that will be required in a proposed professional position.

This particular example was sent to a professor that shares many of my philosophical convictions and would be unlikely to have concerns about the plausibility of the work that I propose to do.  However, in the case the the letter writer would have questions about or object to certain portions of your proposed course of study, these questions and objections should be anticipated and then either rebutted or at least acknowledged.  This paragraph might easily become the longest in your initial, informal request, but if it does its job then the gloss version in the final request need not be as detailed.

4) Reference materials

I have enclosed the three papers I wrote for your classes as well as my Masters thesis on the possibility of ethical constraints on appropriative art. I thank you for being so generous with your time both past and–as it relates to this recommendation–future.

This section penultimate section should list and–if necessary–justify the attached samples of your work that you have enclosed.  Obviously, well received seminar papers from a course that you took with the professor should be included and a copy of the Masters thesis you wrote if applicable.  However, don’t overlook other documents that you might have prepared for other classes that relate both to your proposed course of study and the letter writer’s areas of interest.  The writer may not read everything you send, but at least it will be available to them if they should need it.  Many LoR requesters forget to include these sample documents which forces faculty to either strain to remember who wrote which paper when, request papers later, or even tempt them to just deny the request as a whole rather than wrestle the necessary resources from the graduate.  Because these papers are long, and sometimes dry, and the summer vacation is already upon us, I think it is a good idea to thank faculty again for their willingness to give of their time as a way of apologizing for what you are asking them to do on their time off.  I don’t know if it works, but I know that it can’t hurt.

5) Instructions for response

If you are willing to write a letter strongly recommending me for future graduate studies in the areas I have outlined on the basis of my previous work, please let me know and I will contact Interfolio in order that an official request may be made.  I look forward to hearing from you!



If the prof says “Yes,” then you’ve done something right: you’ve provided them with all the resources they need to, provided a justification for why they should, and made it conveinient enough that they will write you a strong letter of recommendation.  In tomorrow’s post we will consider how to follow up informal request with its official counterpart and discuss what elements may be eliminated from that final request.

 Tomorrow: A One-two Punch: Stage Two – The Formal Request


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