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Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School: Who Are the Best Sources?

November 1, 2012

It is now November, and if you are facing graduate-school applications deadlines anytime between mid-December and early February, it’s time to get serious about arranging for your letters of recommendation. As with the other components of a grad-school application, there are many pitfalls that must be avoided, and my goal with today’s post is to help you avoid some of them. The focus here will be on one key question: Who should be asked to provide a letter of recommendation?

College or university professors who know the student well are nearly always the most appropriate sources for letters of recommendation to support a graduate-school application. If an application requires three letters of recommendation, then it is usually best if all three letters are from professors. There are exceptions in some fields, however, and all applicants should make sure they know what is normal in their field of study. For example, someone applying to a master’s program in counseling psychology or social work should have a letter from someone who has supervised his or her volunteer work in some type of support or helping capacity. Also, some programs have special expectations when it comes to the sources for letters of recommendation, so it’s important to carefully read all instructions. For example, some clinical psychology programs ask for at least one letter from a source like that which I just described, but many do not; if they don’t specify, then all of the letters should come from professors.

The source of a letter (i.e., the “referee”) can influence it’s effectiveness in at least two ways: First, referees are expected to indicate in their letters the capacity in which they have known the student, and they should be able to demonstrate that they know the student well enough, and in an appropriate capacity, that would enable them to evaluate him or her on several relevant dimensions. A professor who taught a student in a junior-level course would be expected to have little insight into his or her true potential, whereas a professor for a senior-level course, who gave the student a very good grade for substantial written work, or for oral presentations, might be a better judge. If the student is in an Honors program with a thesis requirement, the thesis supervisor or the director of the Honors program should be in the best position to provide a comprehensive evaluation

A mistake many people make is to assume they need letters from someone who can testify that they are very smart and capable of very good academic performance. Transcripts and standardized test scores already serve that purpose, and letters of recommendation need to evaluate the applicant on dimensions that are actually more relevant to success in graduate school than a person’s scholarly abilities.

Another factor that can influence the effectiveness of a letter of recommendation is the credibility of the referee, which is related to several different factors. As already mentioned, your referees will probably be asked to indicate how long they have known you. If they have only known you for a few months, some people will assume that they probably don’t know you very well. The referee’s credibility is also related to how much academic experience he or she has; that is, how long this person has been around, and therefore, how much experience he or she has at assessing the potential of students for success in grad school. All else being equal, professors with several years of experience are generally viewed as being more highly referees. Compared to a junior faculty member who has been a professor for only a year or two, senior faculty members will have more experience writing letters of recommendation, and therefore, they may do a better job of it (although there is no guarantee of this).

Be careful not to assume too much about someone’s relevant experience from the amount of gray hair they possess. Age alone is not a reliable a predictor of how much relevant experience a potential referee has at evaluating potential graduate students and writing letters of recommendation.

It’s possible to make reasonable inferences, however, from considering a professor’s academic rank, because this is influenced, at least in part, by how long someone has been employed at a particular institution. Some colleges and universities hire part-time faculty to teach undergraduate courses on a temporary contractual basis; they may, or may not, be given the rank of adjunct professor. Regardless of how experienced (or old) a teacher for one of your introductory-level courses appears, it’s important to keep in mind that your letters for grad school should be written by people who have experience at supervising their own graduate students, and who are, therefore, more likely to know what should be in it. Full-time professors who teach and conduct research are the most likely to have the right types of experience.

Newly-hired, full-time faculty members usually have the rank of assistant professor. After a few years, most are promoted to associate professor; this promotion may be accompanied by granting of tenure. Promotion to (full) professor usually comes after several more years of strong research, teaching, and service. One can assume that an associate professor or full professor has a significant amount of experience at writing letters of recommendation for grad-school applicants.

The academic rank of a referee, while important, is still secondary to what that person has to say about you. Accordingly, the professor who knows you best will usually be your most important referee, even if that person is a junior faculty member or even a part-time instructor. One exception to this is if you are applying to a research-oriented graduate program — university and college teachers who are not active researchers are not be the best referees for evaluating your research potential.

There are obviously many important things to consider when deciding whom to ask for a letter of recommendation, beyond just a potential referee’s credibility. You have to ask people who know the right things about you! Here are some of the dimensions on which you should expect to be evaluated:

ability to work with others
ability to work alone
communication skills (both oral and written)
creativity
dedication and persistence
independence
industriousness
initiative
intellectual ability
integrity
judgment
leadership
maturity
organizational skills
originality
teaching potential
social skills

Now that you know what kinds of things are discussed in a letter of recommendation for graduate school, do you feel confident that you can get the letters of recommendation you need? Anyone out there have a question about selecting potential referees?

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Craig permalink
    January 18, 2013 6:24 PM

    As an undergraduate, I was not sure if graduate school was the next step for me. However, now that I have been in the working world for 9 months or so after graduation, I have realized that I definitely would like to pursue graduate school as my next life step. I am concerned about the letters of recommendation that I will need to obtain to apply for each of the schools I would like to attend. Unfortunately, I did not have the foresight to forge enough relationships with my professors to warrant enough high quality letters of recommendation. I have one professor who will undoubtedly give me a wonderful letter, that I am sure of. I do have multiple professional references from my years spent working in related fields, so I figure they would be the next people in line to ask for recommendation letters. I did not see anything on the website about what to do in this type of situation, so I was hoping for some additional advice on this topic.

    • January 25, 2013 1:43 PM

      If you are thinking of applying in the next cycle, then your best strategy would be to go with the letters you already have in line. Does the professor you think could give you a wonderful letter know the right things about you — that is, your ability to do research, written and oral communication skills, and the other things that matter? Have they known you in a context that would give their opinion some credibility? If you answer Yes to these questions, then use that letter, and back it up with the professional references that are most likely to give a credible assessment of your interpersonal skills, reliability, work-ethic, and relevant things like that. If the answer is No to the questions about the professor who knows you, then in order to have a decent shot at a good graduate program, you may first need to make a serious commitment of time and energy to make up for those things you missed out on while you were an undergrad. I have known many students who have been in the same boat as you, and who succeeded after taking a year to get the kinds of experience they needed. The extra time helped some of them find grad programs that were even better suited to their career plans than the ones they were originally considering. Unfortunately, there aren’t any shortcuts I would recommend… not even this one.

      – Dave

  2. January 3, 2013 10:10 AM

    Assistant professors could write very good letters however, but I would say that if the other two letter writers are full or associate professors, having one assistant professor with a very good letter may help instead of harm. Just my two cents.

    • January 25, 2013 1:51 PM

      I agree. A letter from an assistant professor might be an asset if one has two other letters from full or associate professors. Senior and junior faculty members can see things differently, or notice different things about a student. If an applicant has a letter from a younger, less-experienced prof., and it corresponds strongly with statements make in two strong letters from more senior profs., that could be viewed by some as evidence of the applicant’s consistency, and breadth of appeal.

Trackbacks

  1. Applying to Graduate School, Part Four:Letters of Recommendation « The Musings of a Wannabe Intellectual
  2. Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School: Who Are the Best Sources? | The PhD Path | Scoop.it
  3. Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School: Who Are the Best Sources? « Going To Grad School
  4. Another Blog… « Going To Grad School

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