Waiving Your Right to Access Recommendation Letters, & Other Advice for PhD Program Applications

Some of our MA students aspire to join a subsequent program upon completing their MA degree, such as a PhD or MFA program. If you’re one of those students interested in pursuing a PhD, this blog post is for you. This will be a long one so get a cup of coffee.

Securing admission to a PhD program has always been, and is still, a very difficult thing to do. The field is highly competitive. Most programs open just a few seats each year and have hundreds of applicants (the CUNY Graduate Center, for example, opens 15 to 20 English PhD seats each year and receives four hundred applications on average; UC Berkeley opens about 10 to 15 English PhD seats each year and receives upwards of five hundred applications annually). This information isn’t meant to discourage, is rather meant to contextualize the process so that your expectations will be informed by real data. Some of our MA graduates have achieved entry into PhD programs; others have tried and have not. There are steps you can take during your MA studies to make yourself a more viable candidate for PhD programs.

This includes developing a rapport with Mercy professors who teach and publish in your area of interest and from whom you will eventually want to request a recommendation. Building a rapport can be accomplished by taking courses with those professors and making sure you’re a positive and helpful presence in the classroom, aren’t just doing the bare minimum but are striving in discussions and in your papers to go beyond the minimum required. Building rapport can also be done by treating your professors with respect in exchanges of all sorts, whether in the classroom, in email, on the phone, or otherwise.

Another step is to go beyond the classroom and engage in the other types of professional development: such as presenting papers at conferences, conventions and symposiums. This might sound daunting but it can be done rather easily by reading something you’ve written for one of your MA classes at our annual Graduate Student Symposium; the next one of which will be held later this spring on zoom. Details about that will be shared on this blog in good time. Presenting in this way is classified as “scholarship” and having any sort of scholarship listed on your curriculum vitae is practically essential for applying to PhD programs these days.

The next-level of scholarship, the most valuable form of scholarship, is publication by peer-reviewed journals or presses. But it’s extremely rare for applicants applying for PhD programs to actually have publications of this sort. Most often it’s during PhD studies that a student begins to achieve scholarly publication of this sort. Again, presenting scholarship at conferences, conventions, and symposiums is the most reasonable focus for your scholarship as an MA student.

Performing other relevant work can boost your application chances too, such as volunteering for an editorial position for the college’s annual Red Hyacinth literary journal (advertised each year on the blog). Such volunteer editorial work doesn’t have to be done at Mercy College, so be on the lookout for similar opportunities in your area, or online.

Within your classes, be sure to read everything assigned; and read as much as is possible beyond the required readings. That can mean reading the recommended readings a professor might list, or even just doing your own research each week to secure sources, primary or secondary, relevant to the required reading. You all need to secure an assortment of secondary sources when completing your papers, but doing that sort of scholarly work throughout the semester, rather than just when the papers are coming due, will both develop your research chops and increase your overall knowledge of and experience with texts and scholarship in the field.


Typically PhD programs will accept applications during the spring, summer and early fall of the year prior to the intended year of entry, and will have a deadline late in the fall of that prior year (so for example, if applying for fall 2024 entry, the deadline for applications will normally be fall or early winter 2023). What this means is that MA students who aspire to apply to a PhD program for fall 2024, and who are on track to complete their MA degree prior to fall 2024, should be starting to survey the scene and get their application materials together now.

Surveying the scene can include selecting what programs to apply to, reviewing the applications from those places, gathering required application materials, establishing your recommenders, and actually submitting the application. Let’s talk about these steps.

When selecting institutions to apply to, the first consideration is whether or not you’re willing to relocate. If you’re not, then don’t waste time looking into any institution beyond whatever is your commute distance. It’s rare for someone to not have to relocate to attend a PhD program, so just keep that in mind. Even today it’s difficult to find a PhD program that’s fully online because one of the primary responsibilities of a PhD program is providing its students with old-fashioned in-room teaching experience. This is why you might find a few almost-fully-online options out there, but they’ll still usually require a semester or two of residency (because that’s when they’ll put you in the classroom to teach).

Research various programs. Learn about their faculty, and particularly about the faculty teaching in the area of your interest. Review their curriculum and see if it speaks to you. Find out what financial support the program offers (some offer “full rides” to every incoming student, others might have competitive scholarship or grant opportunities for some students, others offer support only through work-study and teaching fellowships, while others offer little or no support. Of course the programs that offer the most widespread and comprehensive support are also the most sought and competitive to enter, and so might not be the most reasonable target for your application).

Consider a range of institutions; and to increase your chance of success, apply to multiple institutions. A good start is to look into state universities (University of [X] and [X] State University). Avoid the allure of applying only (or at all) to the supposedly elite/prestige institutions. Ivy league institutions, for example, might open just a few new PhD seats in a year, and might favor their own undergrads or MA students, or applicants from what they consider to be their elite “peer” institutions. Moonshot applications to such places, including to ultra-elite public institutions such as UC Berkely, have an extremely low chance of success for most applicants nationwide, and especially those not already in the pipeline of these institutions. Of course you should do what you want and feel is right, but each application costs money. Consider, always, the cost of such things. As a point of reference, in recent years Mercy College MA students have entered PhD programs at: University of Wisconsin, University of Georgia, Texas Tech, Marquette University, St. Johns University, Bowling Green State University, Nova Southeastern University, among others.

Regarding recommendation letters: establish your faculty recommenders many months before any recommendation will actually be due. One of the rudest things you can do in this regard is to approach a faculty member for a recommendation that’s due next week. Many faculty will simply say no in that situation, as they will already have a huge queue of work to which they are tending. If you’re planning to apply to programs for a 2024 start, now is the right time to be asking around and securing your recommenders. Keep in mind that in instances where you and another candidate look essentially identical on paper, your recommendation letters will likely spell the difference. You want to be sure that whomever is writing your letter has plenty of time to do so, doesn’t feel rushed, and doesn’t feel disrespected (which is how it can feel when someone asks for a letter due next week). And with that in mind, let’s talk about the point included in the title to this blog post:

When submitting your application you will be asked whether or not you waive your right to access the recommendation submitted on your behalf. Of course the choice is yours to do whatever you want, but you should strongly consider waiving your right to access. You’re not going to find any Admissions Dept. that will ever say this in writing, but institutions will generally be skeptical of recommendations submitted for someone who did not waive their right to access the recommendation. The only reason this is even an option is due to a lawsuit a few decades ago which thereafter required this to be an option. Prior to that, recommendations were by default kept confidential between the recommender and the institution. When the recommendation is kept confidential, meaning is done without the applicant monitoring the exchange, institutions know that whatever the recommender is saying is the unfiltered truth. If the right to access the recommendation is not waived, though, institutions might presume that the recommendation is skewed toward the positive due to the recommender’s knowledge that the applicant is monitoring the recommendation. It’s human nature: people tend not to say anything critical about someone if that person is standing right there, and so the possibility of the student monitoring the situation threatens to invalidate anything positive being offered by the recommender.

Your recommenders know if you refused to waive your right to access the recommendation because we get an alert informing us of this when we go to submit our recommendation.

So from the institution’s perspective, not waiving the right to access could suggest that the applicant does not trust the recommender to provide a positive recommendation, or is even hoping to influence the recommender into providing a more positive recommendation than they might have otherwise. For the exact same reasons, from the recommender’s perspective, it can be insulting when you choose not to waive your right to access the recommendation.

The irony is that you should only be asking for letters of recommendation from faculty whom you know for sure will say only wonderful things about you (and the way you secure such faculty, and know as much, is by building rapport with faculty as described above). And so there should be no question that your recommenders will be saying only wonderful things on your behalf. And so by not waiving your right to access, you risk invalidating, in the eyes of your target institution, a glowing recommendation that would have been no less glowing otherwise. And you risk alienating your recommender.

If you’re curious to see what your recommenders are saying about you, all you have to do is ask them privately to share with you a copy of their letter. Most faculty are happy to do so, especially because there are plenty of situations in the world where it will help you to have a copy of the letter in-hand anyway.

Deciding whether or not to apply to a PhD program is a big decision. If you decide that you want to apply, that’s just the beginning of an application process that takes time, patience, research, and money; and that doesn’t always result in landing a seat in a PhD program. Hopefully the information and advice above will prove useful to those in our MA program who are interested in applying to PhD programs. As a last bit of advice: speak with your 599 thesis tutorial mentor for more personal suggestions and advice regarding this process.