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General questions about Letters of Recommendation


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Hi everyone. I'm new to this forum, but I've been reading topics here for a couple of weeks now. I'm considering applying to a graduate program in the US, and overall, this forum has been a great help, as the application process over there can be quite confusing for someone doing it for the first time. And some threads here have helped me a lot with several issues, but I still find myself a bit lost when it comes to understanding how Letters of Recommendation affect one's application. Mainly because I have found conflicting information on the web.

I understand that the main purpose of a LoR is to have someone who has worked closely with you give insight as to why you would succeed in a graduate program. Most sources I found online seem to agree that it's better to have a relatively-unknown professor who knows you well write a good LoR in your behalf, than to have a very successful researcher who barely knows you write a lukewarm letter. But after reading several topics here, I am under the impression that this is not really set in stone like that. For example, the Application FAQ (which is really well put-together, and I'm really thankful to the author for it) states that "in general, if three letters are required, it's best if at least two are from academics."  I was really wondering how important it is to have most letters coming from members of Academia, mainly because, in my case, I think that would really be detrimental.

Let me just give some background here. I'm Brazilian, and I graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Control & Automation Engineering in 2016. Here in Brazil, all students are required to conduct a research project and defend a thesis during their last year in the program, so I do have some academic research experience because of that. And while I haven't asked her yet, I think my thesis advisor would be willing to write a LoR on my behalf. That would probably be a very good LoR, since she did compliment my work a lot in the end. She gave me a perfect score (100 out of 100) for my thesis, and she usually doesn't do that.

The problem lies in the fact that I didn't really have other professors involved in my research back then. There was another member in my thesis committee, but he didn't really follow the project. He was just involved in the end, to help examine the thesis. He was impressed (he also gave me a perfect score), but I don't know if a letter from him would be detrimental or not, as he can't really write about my behavior while conducting the research.

I had several other professors during my undergraduate studies, and I would probably be able to find a few that might remember me (mainly lab instructors), but I really do not think they would be able to write well about my abilities to conduct research on an academic setting.

So, what I intend to do, if I do move forward with the applications, is to ask my current bosses to write LoR's on my behalf as well. I understand that it is not ideal, but I am working with research and development right now. I work at an R&D lab belonging to a large multinational company, and I'm spending 100% of my work hours conducting research. I'm not really an employee, though. I have a scholarship, administered by the Brazilian government as part of one of their programs. That program is aimed at fostering research projects in industry (which is virtually unheard of in Brazil, as most research is done in Academia over here), and it can't last longer than 2 years. So I wouldn't really have a problem that many people have when asking employers for LoR's, as my bosses would not really be thinking I want to quit the job. They know I can't stay after 2 years, and I am sure that they would be willing to help me after my contract is over.

My direct supervisor has 10 years of research experience in the company, and her boss has 30 years of experience. Neither of them have PhD's, though, as they both went straight from university to the industry, and have been doing research over there ever since. I could be wrong, but I don't think that should be a big problem, since their research experience should matter more than what degrees they have. Here's the catch, though: they aren't really from the same field as me. In fact, the only reason why that company is sponsoring my scholarship is because they wanted someone who understood of electronics to help with some projects, and they don't really have researchers from that field. The projects I'm working on are related to my field, though.

That is where I found the most conflicting information online. Some sources stated that it was indispensable to have recommenders from the same field as you, but others stated that what really is important is that your recommenders know you well and can speak as to your capabilities of succeeding  when conducting high-level research.

So, to summarize, these are the three people I'm considering asking for Letters of Recommendation:

  1. My thesis supervisor, who is a Professor at the university where I got my Bachelor's. She does have a PhD, and is from the same field as me.
  2. My direct supervisor at the company I'm at right now, who doesn't have a PhD and isn't from the same field, but has 10 years of research experience in a multinational company.
  3. My supervisor's manager at the company I'm at right now, who doesn't have a PhD and isn't from the same field, but has over 30 years of research experience (including several patents filed in his name) in that same company.

The questions I am really having right now are the following:

  • Would it really be detrimental to my application to have 2 LoR's come from researchers in industry, rather than academia, despite their research experience? They can probably write about my capacity to conduct research better than most professors I had during my undergraduate studies.
  • Would it harm me to have 2 LoR's from researchers without PhDs? They both have Master's degrees and lots of experience with R&D.
  • If my recommenders aren't from the same field as me, does that affect my chances of being admitted, even if they can attest to my abilities as a researcher?

If anyone could help me with those three questions, I'd be really thankful. I'm researching these topics early on. I don't plan on applying before 2019 (though I may choose to apply for the Fall 2019 season, depending on how things go). But I really wanted to understand the likelihood of me being accepted with recommendations like the ones described above, before taking any steps towards actually applying.

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I don't think it would harm you to have 1/3 of your letters be from your current lab but I think 2 from your undergraduate institution would be more valuable. However it also depends on where you see your career going: if you would like to graduate and become a professor, two from undergrad may be more valuable. If you are planning to return to industry and do research there the two from your current lab may make sense. In addition for several of my applications none of my LOR writers were from my intended field but they were best able to speak to my character. In terms of LoR from researchers without PhD's one of my LoR writers is a professor but has a masters; I do not think that harmed my application. In addition having two letters about research and one lor speaking more to your character but touching on your ability to research would aid in a lab seeing who you are outside of application materials. 

One thing I included when a person said they would write me a letter of recommendation is my CV/resume, personal statement, and a basic facts sheet on how they know me etc so I wouldn't have to question if they knew of my skills and could write of them well. In addition with many students even one year removed you may remember a conversation had with them about your excellence with working with xyz tool and that's something you could include on your sheet which they're free to include.

The "facts sheet" template I was given is below

  • Our relationship (how long and in what capacity have you known me?)
  • My ability to perform research  
    • (My background and preparedness to do scholarly work in my chosen area of research)
    • (My imagination and probable creativity as it realtes to performing creative research)
    • (The strength of my proposed research)
    • (Strength of my previous research)
    • (Strength of my academic record)
  • My Character
    • (Leadership abilities and potential)
    • (My ability to work independently)
    • (My motivation to succeed)
  • My Communication Skills
    • My ability to communicate complex ideas clearly both in written and spoken English
    • My personality, social conscious, and relationship skills 
  • My Potential to Have Broader Impacts 
    • My ability and interest to advance science and technology in a broader sense 
    • My ability to foster the integration of research and education
    • My promotion of the advancement of diversity is science 
  • My Efforts to Generally Benefit Society
    • My contributions to the community (social and scholarly)

If you have any other questions or if this doesn't make sense feel free to message me.

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