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I'm preparing to apply to PhD programs for next year, and I'm worried because all of my LORs are likely to be from academic professors. My research background is weak anyway because I had a rough start to my undergrad career (didn't start research until this past spring of my junior year, but am working there this summer and all of next year), and I'm being trained by/working with a couple of grad students rather than the PI. I've only talked to him a total of maybe three times, and I doubt he even knows my name. Every program I've looked at so far wants 1-3 PIs for LORs, and some even specify that grad students cannot write LORs. What should I do?

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The fact that you’re in a lab and you’ve only talked to the PI a couple of times is wild to me. Can you reach out and see if you can meet with him? Talk about your project, time in the lab, etc. 

Have there been other undergrads in this lab? What did they do? If you don’t know your grad students might.


as for your other letters, you should be okay if you can get one from your current PI. Obviously check every programs requirements, but I only had one real undergrad PI. I had two other professors write my other two letters.


Finally, depending on the rest of your application, you may want to pursue a masters first for A ) more research experience and B ) a strong letter.

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There's nothing wrong with getting academic professors as some of your LORs, and it is true that schools in general do not accept recommendations from grad students/technicians/postdocs. It sounds like you still have time (~6 months before applications are due?) to familiarize your PI with who you are and what you have been doing in their lab, and you may choose to ask them to write a LOR early which may lead them to rely on the advice of your actual day-to-day mentors (the grad students). It is often the case that PIs have someone else write the recommendation letter for better or worse...

The issue of whether or not you need to take time off comes down entirely to how sure you are that you want to get a PhD in general. A Master's is almost always a waste of time and money as graduate classes don't necessarily further your ability to work in the lab, and it's incredibly expensive unless paid for by someone else.

I think you should apply to a PhD this cycle provided 1) you are sure you want to do it and 2) you can get decent LORs in the time between now and your application dates. If not, consider working for 1-2 years in a university as a research assistant/technician with the goal of getting better LORs and experience.

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