Have Any Philosophy Departments Stopped Considering Letters of Recommendation?


A philosophy professor writes that his department is entertaining the possibility of not requiring letters of recommendation from those applying to its graduate program, and asks whether other departments have stopped requiring them, too, either of MA or PhD program applicants, or of job candidates. 

He adds: “unless a number of schools also drop the requirement, it won’t make much of a difference if we do it.”

[Bianca Chang, “Letter L”]

The question of whether it’s advisable to require letters of recommendation has come up a few times here at Daily Nous. See, for example, this post about arguments against letters of recommendation for academic jobs from Michael Huemer (Colorado), and the ensuing discussion. See also the post about letters of recommendation by Anca Gheaus (CEU) at Justice Everywhere.

Further discussion on the matter is welcome, but especially useful would be hearing about which programs or departments, if any, no longer require letters of recommendation, and what they’ve learned from the change.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

19 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Applicant
2 years ago

SUNY Brockport didn’t consider letters of recommendation in their TT search.

curious
Reply to  Applicant
2 years ago

How on earth do you know this?

Michael Kremer
Michael Kremer
Reply to  curious
1 year ago

Their job ad does not ask for any letters.

https://philjobs.org/job/show/18669

Lisa Herzog
2 years ago

At Groningen, we dropped letters of references for the admission process to the PPE master – this simply saves time with no epistemic loss. For the hiring processes I’ve been involved with, we’ve only (if ever) required them from long-listed candidates at later stages.

Prof L
2 years ago

Yes. We’ve also dropped writing samples and transcripts. It’s all just noise, very susceptible to bias, and imposes an undue burden on students who have trouble writing or who have to work hard to get good grades.

MNN
MNN
Reply to  Prof L
2 years ago

I genuinely don’t understand this comment or why this has been upvoted so much. Do you think the arguments against letters of recommendation being valuable apply mutatis mutandis to both grades and writing samples?

Kaila Margaret Draper
Reply to  MNN
2 years ago

Prof L is being facetious.

Jonathan
Reply to  Kaila Margaret Draper
2 years ago

How does the facetiousness help?

Prof L
Reply to  Jonathan
2 years ago

It doesn’t.

Jonathan
Reply to  Prof L
1 year ago

Well, that clears things up nicely.

Caligula's Goat
Reply to  Prof L
2 years ago

Oddly enough, I think I mostly agree with Prof L so if they’re being facetious, I suppose I took it seriously enough to think about my own position.

If the reason why so many departments are dropping the GRE is because it isn’t a good predictor of success in graduate school or because students from marginalized communities tend to do worse on the GRE than those from more priviliged communities then I take it that similar arguments would back removing letters of recommendation (i.e., they tend to either be useless hyper-positive noise, they tend to be ways of marking status via fancy letter writers, they disadvantaged non-traditional students, etc.). However, the same arguments also apply to writing samples (e.g., the same arguments that are used to support “linguistic inclusion” in philosophy can help explain why writing samples put english language learners at a systematic disadvantge with respect to the polish of their writing samples, transcripts would systematically disadvantage students who came from marginalized communities/terrible schooling systems or who had to work their way through school, etc etc).

My own take on this isn’t that we should eliminate all of these options and resort to a lottery but, instead, that we should require that students submit three, and only three, items as a part of their application package and give each student a choice about which items to submit (transcripts, GRE, writing sample, letters of recommendation, cover letter, non-traditional performative philosophy, etc). This way, everyone is assessed on material that they themselves believes presents them in the best possible light and thus would help (to the degree possible) to even the admissions playing field.

For example, I was an ELL student when I was young and also grew up in a very poor majority-minority neighborhood with some of the worst public schools in my state. Social and economic pressures being what they were, I didn’t have great grades in high school and so went to an unremarkable state university. If it wasn’t for my writing sample and GRE scores, I don’t know that my application would have received a second look just about anymore. Others, I might imagine, would prefer to have used letters of recommendation, a compelling cover letter, and their transcripts. Whatever the case may be, the checklist option is, to me, preferable and, I think, consistent with Prof L’s line of thought.

Kaila Margaret Draper
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
2 years ago

I like this idea.

E d
E d
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
2 years ago

“If the reason why so many departments are dropping the GRE is because it isn’t a good predictor of success in graduate school or because students from marginalized communities tend to do worse on the GRE than those from more priviliged communities…”

This is not the reason. Read the piece from Huemer linked above. Letters are a colossal waste of everyone’s time. The cost isn’t worth the benefit. This has nothing to do with the GRE.

Michael Kremer
Michael Kremer
Reply to  Caligula's Goat
1 year ago

You have never been on an admissions committee, so the flaws here may not be obvious to you. But as someone who has, this seems like a plan doomed to fail. Suppose student A submits a transcript, GRE scores and a writing sample, and student B submits a youtube video (link), three letters of reference, and a cover letter. How is the admissions committee going to compare these two applicants? Now multiply this by 100 or more (that is 200 or more applicants), and imagine trying to select 10 out of the pool. This would quickly become unworkable.

Michael Kremer
Michael Kremer
Reply to  Michael Kremer
1 year ago

I am sorry — I should not have said “you have never been on an admissions committee” as I have no grounds for knowing that. I should have put it as “if you have … then the flaws …”

Mööduja
2 years ago

University of Tartu (Estonia) does not require recommendations for MA and PhD in Philosophy

Russell Webster
1 year ago

I read that universities and colleges tend to take their cues from Harvard and Princeton, et al. So when Harvard began requiring standardized test scores, it sort of became the standard (no pun). Perhaps if Harvard were to stop requiring recommendation letters the rest would follow suit.

And why did three letters become the norm? Why not two or four?

Last edited 1 year ago by Russell Webster
Thomas
1 year ago

In my experience, GREs are generally a better predictor than transcripts, and transcripts are a better predictor than letters. On the other hand, there are many exceptions in which transcripts are better than GREs, and in some few cases the letters are more helpful than anything else.

Tancredo
Tancredo
Reply to  Thomas
1 year ago

My opinion is based on my personal experience, but I believe I’m not the only one with this sentiment.

Here’s a little context: I come from a Portuguese-speaking country and, of course, I studied until my BA degree (in Philosophy) in Portuguese. Despite having taken English classes in high school, my improvement was due to my curiosity and taste for the language. My teachers’ English prophecy was on par with a toddler’s, and to be honest, I would only attribute 20% of the credit for my language proficiency to my formal education.

So expecting someone like me to do well on an exam that features English dictionary questions is a little unfair. I understand the need for a TOEFL, but the GRE? Why? What do you think it says about me as a philosopher? I mean, honestly, what am I applying to, a degree in philosophy or English literature? I can write, speak and listen (in English) at a proficient and academic level, but I will never be able to present the Shakespearean level of English that the GRE requires. Not with the background I have at least.

So, imo, GRE is useless, its score doesn’t reflect the candidates’ capabilities, and worst of all, it seems to be a filter against diversity/minorities, which directly affects people like me. That’s why, before I apply, I check the department’s GRE policy. The GRE for us comes across as a stop sign, something like: know your place, don’t waste the money you barely have applying to this institution, leave it to the Anglos, you don’t stand a chance. And believe me when I say this, there are some great candidates and potentially amazing philosophers feeling this way.