letters of recommendation

Arthur Sowers arthures at magpage.com
Sun Apr 29 13:38:22 EST 2001

email and post....

On 28 Apr 2001 mdv107 at hotmail.com wrote:

> Dear readers,
> I am planning on applying for a PhD position at about 8-10 schools around the

It is not clear whether you are applying for a post PhD job or you are
applying to become a graduate student at one of those schools. Please
explain further. I shall assume the latter because if you have received,
or will soon receive, that degree then you would have already gotten some
advice on this issue from your professors.

> end of this year. I don't foresee much problems getting decent letters of
> recommendation. However, I'd feel bad having to ask my recommenders to
> write 8-10 letters each adressed to a different school. I'd much rather ask
> for 8-10 copies of a general letter not adressed to any school in particular.

Ask for both. Have a personal discussion with your recommenders and tell
them about this problem and then ask them to suggest how to handle this
problem. There are some people out there who will give you a general idea
of how to do this that will be very different from what other people will
tell you. Let each person you plan to use as a recommender tell you what
you should do, then apply that instruction to _just that person_. Do
whatever they suggest. Equally important is _how_ they make suggestions to
you. You might get hints about the _quality_ of recommendation that they
would give you and for how long or how many requests they will be
willing to do this and this might affect how you use those

> My question is: do schools perceive a letter of recommendation not
> explicitly adressed to them as bad or do they not care ?

I think it also depends on who _reads_ the letters and what they expect.
The conventional wisdom is that they want to get the letter addressed to
them and receive it by mail independently from you.

However, if you ask your letter writers if they would be comfortable
adding a sentence or two inviting the reader to call them (giving phone
number and time and day of week to call), most readers will be reassured
that _you_ didn't write the letter. Another factor which is somewhat
controversial is whether your writer should only write positive comments
or a mixture of strengths and weaknesses followed by something like "but I
would strongly wish this person to work with me in the future" etc., or

One question you should bring up with your letter writers is how
comfortable they would be letting you read what you would write about you.
You are putting them "on the spot" by asking them this, but you have to
know that their work will either help or hurt you. You should get an idea
how they feel about you early in this conversation and get signals during
the conversation that they are enthusiastic and encouraging about your
plans. If they are cool, then you may not be getting as warm of a letter
as will help you. Remember, a neutral letter is almost as bad as a letter
that says you are a poor student.

Again, the best thing you can do is contact (if you have not done this
already) your recommenders and explain your future plans/dreams and get
their reaction. You should eliminate anyone who not enthusiastic or
otherwise excited about your plans/dreams.

You should have a look at my website which deals with PhD career paths and
gives other information that should be of interest to you.

  Arthur E. Sowers, PhD
  | Science career information website:   |
  | http://www.magpage.com/~arthures      |

=== no change to below, included for reference and context ====

> Best regards,
> mdv103 at hotmail.com
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