Here are some things to consider when looking for letter writers.
You need three of them. Always double check with each program, but PhD programs generally require three letters of recommendation. Once in a blue moon a program will ask for more or less than three, but three is the standard.
They break down like this: you have a main letter writer, a thesis or research advisor/mentor, who knows you exceedingly well and can explain how your work is going to change the world. You also have a letter from someone with whom you’ve taken multiple classes and with whom you’ve had multiple conversations outside of class. This is someone who has a sense of your specific research interests and who has read your work in the form of multiple term papers. The third letter writer is someone who knows your name without having to be reminded of it and has had you in a class and is willing to be your letter writer. Ideally, all of your letter writers can speak intelligently about your research, your readiness for graduate education, and are enthusiastic about you applying.
At least two should be from PhD academics. You’re applying for a research program. You’re applying to learn how to do advanced academic research. Thus, your letters should come from people who are (seen as) qualified to speak to the strength of your scholarship and research skills. You might have a third letter from a supervisor/employer if they’re qualified to talk about your research (i.e., have a PhD and work in a field pertinent to your research).
If you’re in an MA program, your letters should probably all come from people at your current institution. Getting a letter from your undergraduate mentor/advisor is good for a third letter writer if and only if you have been in contact with them and have regularly discussed/shared your current research with them.
There are other issues that arise for people who have been out of the academy for some time. I will try to tackle those in a separate post once I’ve had the opportunity to research the unique issues that arise in these cases.
ALWAYS WAIVE YOUR RIGHT TO SEE YOUR LETTERS. This is important. Bold and all-caps important. Legally, you have the right to see the letters written for you once you’re accepted to a program. The catch is that nobody will take your letters important if they aren’t confidential. This is why when you are completing your application and you’re asked to waive your right to see your letters, you waive them.
Give them plenty of time. Get in touch with potential letter writers very early in the school year that you plan on applying. This gives you time to meet in person and impress them with your preparation (discussed in this post). It also gives you time to figure out what additional information they might want from you–like GRE scores, writing samples, cash bribes, theses, transcripts and the like–and how much time they would like to have to be able to write for you and how much advance notice they want regarding deadlines and the like.
But don’t harass them about deadlines. The people reading your applications are professors and administrators (and grad students) who, for one thing, don’t even start reading apps for a few to several weeks after the deadline, and, for another thing, understand the rigors of the academic lifestyle. As a professional courtesy shared between academics, deadlines for letters are much more plastic than the deadlines for your own materials. The deadline for you is HARD AND FAST, the the deadline for your letter writers is soft and malleable. So don’t harangue your letter writers to get everything in right at the deadline.
If they still don’t have your letter when it’s time to review your application, they will, most likely, contact your letter writer directly.
Other Things to Consider
Be nice to your letter writers. Have a nice long chat with each of your letter writers. Ask them what they think about your plans, where they think you should consider applying, what advice they have for you. Be sure to treat them like they’re important and they matter to you, because they are and they do. And keep your writers abreast of your process: if there’s a lull between deadline dates, send a friendly email to let them know to expect emails from the schools with upcoming deadlines.
And, on a separate but related note, if you’re interested in applying to the school you’re currently at, don’t badger your letter writers about your chances of being accepted at the school. You are never guaranteed a place in a PhD program just because you got your BA or MA from that school. Some places are less likely to accept you back, but in all places the same standards for ‘fit’ apply to returning students as for new students.
Interfolio? Interfolio is a service that stores documents online. Your letter writers send their letters to be stored for you on Interfolio and you can then have them sent to whomever needs them. The service starts off at $19 for one year up to $57 for five years. The cost used to be significantly higher, which is why I never signed up. Some places might prefer Interfolio, but most programs who have entered the current century will simply contact your letter writers directly and have the letters emailed or uploaded to their own server. In other circumstances, you might find yourself in need of Interfolio, just not now.
Beware of big names. Say you’re at a school with the late, great Carl Sagan. Maybe you had a class or two with him and you really want him to write a letter on your behalf because he’s world-famous and who won’t want you with a letter from the Carl Sagan. Now, suppose he even agrees to write you a letter. You’re on top of the world, right?
Not necessarily. It’s not uncommon for exceptionally busy or noteworthy professors to have you write your own letter, which they subsequently revise (hopefully) and sign. Horrifying, right? Not that they wouldn’t break their backs writing you a letter–people are busy, after all. But imagine having to say superlative things about yourself, your research, what you’re like to have in class, and so forth. And what’s at stake besides WHETHER OR NOT YOU GET INTO GRAD SCHOOL? Some people work like that, though. You have to decide if that’s worth it to you to have a letter from them.
Alternatively, Prof. Sagan (rest in peace) might agree to write you a letter just to clear you from his office. He then writes a brief letter about how he is certain that you only sought a letter from him because of his fame and sends it to each program you’ve applied to. Yeah, it happens. If someone with a big name really wants to write you a letter that’s glorious, but don’t seek out famous letter writers on the off chance they’ll say yes. If they can’t speak intelligently about your research, they’re not worth having a letter from.
Tenure and Non-Tenure Track. The person who knew my research best when I was preparing to apply for graduate school out of undergrad was a lecturer (that is, an adjunct [in the UK the title ‘lecturer’ is usually analogous to ‘Assistant Professor’ in the US, fyi]). I asked her about possibly writing me a letter and she told me, in no uncertain terms, no. Not because she wasn’t enthusiastic about me applying to PhD programs, but because she knew (and told me) that letters from non-tenure track faculty are almost valueless compared to the value attached to letters from tenure-track faculty.
(Sidebar Here’s what is meant by Tenure Track: in the US, a newly-hired professor is an assistant professor. Once they have been at the university for a pre-designated period of time, they are put up for a tenure review. If they are recommended for tenure they become an associate professor. Eventually, if they continue to progress at the rate determined by the school, they become a full professor, or, simply, a professor. Progress towards tenure is determined by their publication record, teaching evaluations, and a number of other factors–that just so happen to be biased against people of color [particularly women of color] and against scholars doing interdisciplinary or non-traditional work. And that’s the tenure track, the further up you go the more difficult it is for you to be fired.)
Now, your writer doesn’t have to have tenure yet, but they should be on the tenure track. Most recently, my main letter was from a first year assistant professor, and from what I heard (I never saw the letter as it was confidential but information flows around), it was an amazing letter. As long as your writer is on the tenure track and is not an adjunct, it matters much more what they say than how senior a professor they are.
A note about letters from MA programs. When I was in MAPSS at UChicago, part of how they sold their program was the promise of the MAPSS letter. Here’s how they describe the ‘MAPSS departmental letter’: the letter ‘will review all of your courses, naming the faculty who taught you and characterizing your overall intellectual trajectory. …Our MAPSS letter will articulate how your specific doctoral project is situated in your total intellectual biography. (This is our special art, and what most applicants for doctoral admissions do not have in their dossiers.)’
Big stuff, right? Well, my MAPSS letter was written by a very nice and enthusiast recent-PhD with whom I had one face-to-face conversation. This was after being bounced from the Director, who was the person the form they gave me said would be writing my letter as someone who fell into the ‘other’ disciplines, with a perfunctory email that simply re-sent me their worksheet and directed me to the person in charge of History applicants. My understanding of the content of the letter (once again, this is all through a telephone gossip game) is that it mostly cannibalized my MA advisor’s evaluation of my thesis. It didn’t hurt my application, but it was just sort of… there…. So, while I did indeed receive plenty of advice and some help (and especially the phrase ‘University of Chicago’ on my CV), this ‘special art’ of the MAPSS letter was a little oversold.
Then again, I did receive two funded offers for admission to PhD programs at research-one universities. So, maybe don’t question the MAPSS magic.