In my last post I focused on the absolute importance of the writing sample for a Ph.D. application in philosophy and other humanities, as well as the need to begin developing strategies and skills for writing your best possible one early on. Today I would like to focus on the other crucial element in your graduate school application: the faculty recommendations.
Normally you will need letters from three of your professors. If you are applying to a philosophy program they should generally all be philosophy professors. The same should usually apply to many other kinds of humanities graduate programs, though there may be some exceptions (e.g., in some situations a letter from a professor in a closely related field that you plan to continue relating your work to may attest to your abilities in that field).
As with your writing sample, you need to start thinking about whom you want to write your faculty recommendations early on. But how does one go about doing that?
First, you need recommendations from professors who know you and your work very well. Ideally, you should have taken multiple classes from each of your recommenders. Or, if there is one from whom you haven’t taken multiple classes, that professor should be someone you have worked very closely with on an independent project, most likely your senior thesis.
If you are a major in philosophy and intend to go on to graduate school you will most likely write a senior thesis in philosophy. Your advisor for this thesis may be your most important recommender since he or she will most likely get to know your philosophical abilities in both writing and discussion better than anyone else. How you go about selecting this advisor is very important.
Many students will have an idea for a topic that they are very excited about, become committed to the topic, and then seek out whichever professor in the department is an expert in the area the topic falls under. This is not the best way to go about finding an advisor. No matter how much you think you like a topic, the thesis writing experience can be miserable if you do not have the right match. Ideally, you need to work with a professor who has both a good reputation for caring about and working well with undergraduates and whom you work well with. The latter is usually only found out by first taking at least one class from the professor and getting to know them more by going to office hours with questions and from discussing with them their feedback on your papers for the course.
There are certainly limits to the above application strategy. If you absolutely can’t see yourself writing a thesis in logic, for instance, it doesn’t matter how good of a reputation your logic teacher has or how well you get along with her or him. On the other hand, if you do find a professor that you work really well with but who works in an area that is not of your primary interest, do not rule them out. If that professor works on something that you have moderate interest in and you can think of a thesis topic that is both of interest to you and within their capability to supervise, working with them is likely to be your best bet. You can always return to your favored topic later. In fact, it is much better to do that having developed the general skills that come with having a good thesis experience, than to waste time on your favorite topic with someone who does not help you very much.
Next, there is the question of faculty prestige within the profession.
Yes, it would be ideal to have glowing recommendations from the most prestigious professors in your department. And it is definitely a good idea to check out the classes from the most prestigious professors. But not every professor known for their research and scholarship has a good teaching or advising record. You should not suffer through bad classes from prestigious professors in the hopes of gaining their good graces. On the other hand, a well-known and excellent class from a very prominent professor who teaches on a subject that may be peripheral to your current interests may be well worth taking. A good recommendation from a well-regarded professor who works on things outside your main areas of interest can be very beneficial to your application. People expect your interests to grow, develop, and change somewhat over time and testimony to your abilities outside your current interests shows something about your general philosophical acumen.
The general lesson I am converging on is that, in developing relationships with faculty for future recommendations, you need to balance current interests, teaching and advising ability, match in working relationship, and academic reputation.
Doing this well will require multiple years so, once again, you need to begin thinking about it as soon as possible. Find ways to talk to your professors outside of class. Press them for further feedback. Ask them about their thoughts on graduate school and whether they have advice for how to approach it.
Finally, once you begin to zero in on professors to build working relationships with, be teachable! That is, get a feel for their particular style and for the lessons they think are most important to learn in philosophy. You may not end up agreeing with everything they have to say or teach, but if you can demonstrate that you can actually learn and grow from what they have to impart, this will go a long way in earning a good recommendation from them. Approaching your relationships with your professors in these ways should put you in a position to get the three best recommendations you can when the time comes to apply to graduate school.