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Some advice: get LORs from PIs/PhDs!!!


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I was rejected from my overall top choice school, UW-Madison. I'm graduating with my bachelor's from UW this weekend, so I already knew the area and some of the faculty. It was a great choice for me: location, cost, externship opportunities, and strength of the program. I thought I had a pretty solid application and was fairly confident I would at least be waitlisted. Imagine my surprise when I read my rejection email.

Given the craziness that is COVID-19, I've recently been considering taking a gap year, and applying again to schools this fall. I decided to email someone on the admissions committee at UW to see if they had any suggestions on how to improve my chances. She said that overall, my application was pretty competitive. My downfall was my letters of recommendation. I work in a large lab, and decided to use a PhD student mentor as a recommender. This is someone I've met with regularly over the last couple years, and has seen my work. I decided to go with the PhD student over my PI, because I have never had a one-on-one conversation with them. I figured it would be better to get a personal letter from someone who knows me, rather than a template one from someone who probably doesn't know my name. I doubt this was the only reason I didn't get into UW, but I bet it made a pretty big impact.

So, for those of you applying this fall or any other time in the future: learn from me! Even if you don't know your PI that well, ask them for a letter of rec over a grad student. Maybe it won't be the deciding factor between admitting you or not, but it certainly won't hurt.

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21 minutes ago, heyheyhey42 said:

My downfall was my letters of recommendation.

Did the email specifically say that it was the status of the writers or did the email suggest that the content of the letters wasn't particularly helpful?

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Just now, Sigaba said:

Did the email specifically say that it was the status of the writers or did the email suggest that the content of the letters wasn't particularly helpful?

They couldn't comment on the content of the letters because they don't have access to them during quarantine. I know two of my recommenders (both professors in my department) fairly well, and they both agreed to write positive letters for me. A few of my classmates who were admitted also had letters from them both. They said in an email that a PhD student generally "isn't a very good idea," and that it's always better to get a letter from a PI. They also suggested trying to get a letter from the head of the department, but no courses with the department head were available that lined up with my course sequence. 🤷‍♀️

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3 hours ago, heyheyhey42 said:

I was rejected from my overall top choice school, UW-Madison. I'm graduating with my bachelor's from UW this weekend, so I already knew the area and some of the faculty. It was a great choice for me: location, cost, externship opportunities, and strength of the program. I thought I had a pretty solid application and was fairly confident I would at least be waitlisted. Imagine my surprise when I read my rejection email.

Given the craziness that is COVID-19, I've recently been considering taking a gap year, and applying again to schools this fall. I decided to email someone on the admissions committee at UW to see if they had any suggestions on how to improve my chances. She said that overall, my application was pretty competitive. My downfall was my letters of recommendation. I work in a large lab, and decided to use a PhD student mentor as a recommender. This is someone I've met with regularly over the last couple years, and has seen my work. I decided to go with the PhD student over my PI, because I have never had a one-on-one conversation with them. I figured it would be better to get a personal letter from someone who knows me, rather than a template one from someone who probably doesn't know my name. I doubt this was the only reason I didn't get into UW, but I bet it made a pretty big impact.

So, for those of you applying this fall or any other time in the future: learn from me! Even if you don't know your PI that well, ask them for a letter of rec over a grad student. Maybe it won't be the deciding factor between admitting you or not, but it certainly won't hurt.

That’s interesting. I didn’t get any recommendation letters from professors. I wonder if that hindered me. They were all professional. 

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9 minutes ago, Cece93 said:

That’s interesting. I didn’t get any recommendation letters from professors. I wonder if that hindered me. They were all professional. 

Did you have work in a related field? Were your professional references SLP or other clinicians? I think since mine was in academia, but not yet a PhD, it put me at a disadvantage. 

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On 5/4/2020 at 12:59 PM, heyheyhey42 said:

I decided to go with the PhD student over my PI, because I have never had a one-on-one conversation with them. I figured it would be better to get a personal letter from someone who knows me, rather than a template one from someone who probably doesn't know my name.

Generally speaking, I believe PIs will often involve their PhD students in writing letters of recommendation! When I was preparing to apply for grad school earlier this year, the PhD student I work with most closely explained the process to me. 

Obviously it may be different, depending on the lab, but it never hurts to ask. Basically, I wouldn't worry too much about how well the PI knows you, provided they consult somebody else in the lab (e.g., a graduate student) who can speak to your abilities.

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2 hours ago, JerichoSpeech said:

Generally speaking, I believe PIs will often involve their PhD students in writing letters of recommendation! When I was preparing to apply for grad school earlier this year, the PhD student I work with most closely explained the process to me. 

Obviously it may be different, depending on the lab, but it never hurts to ask. Basically, I wouldn't worry too much about how well the PI knows you, provided they consult somebody else in the lab (e.g., a graduate student) who can speak to your abilities.

Yeah, I also believe this is true. I know in my case, my lab has probably 30 RAs, and many of them were applying for graduate school at the same time I did. They sent out a template for us to use, and the graduate student gets to write a small blurb, but it was mostly the same format for everyone. I thought a more personal letter would be better for me, and this didn't prove to be true.

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On 5/4/2020 at 7:23 PM, heyheyhey42 said:

Did you have work in a related field? Were your professional references SLP or other clinicians? I think since mine was in academia, but not yet a PhD, it put me at a disadvantage. 

Yeah they were for a special education teacher, SLP, and social worker. I also worked at a special needs preschool, special needs after school program and center based ABA. It sucks that ONE recommendation letter can hinder you. I wouldn’t have thought so. 

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I really can’t stress enough LOR’s! I think at the end of the day, my letter of recommendations are actually what got me into a notoriously competitive program! I had a relatively low overall gpa and a below average CSD gpa. My GRE scores were also probably around the average- below average range. However I had strong letter of recs from 3 professors, and 2 SLPs that I had volunteered/did observation hours with and I’m convinced this is what got me accepted into my top program.

I think at the end of the day, my advice to anyone applying for next years cycle is to volunteer and get as much exposure with SLP’s as POSSIBLE!! (I know this is harder with COVID :(). But I really think that programs take into consideration what SLP’s have to say about you, especially your ability to be a good clinician! It’s sometimes scary to reach out to them, (especially if you don’t know them), but most SLP’s are awesome and willing to let you volunteer and then write letters to help you out- after all they were once in your shoes too!

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Every single grad school app info session I went to, including ones tailored towards all STEM subjects and not just biology, emphasized first thing that rec letters have to be Faculty/PIs - no postdoc, no lecturer, no senior scientist (and oh my of course no students!). If you were working with a lab member, they can co-write and co-sign the letter with your PI; in reality, it sometimes means the lab member writes the entire letter, and the PI who doesn't know your name reads it over in 3 min and signs - but the official name of recommender absolutely has to be the PI, and the link for submitting the letter has to be sent to the PI's email.

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1 hour ago, DRMF said:

 (and oh my of course no students!)

I know that it is generally advised against now, but I asked the graduate coordinator at one of the schools I applied to if a PhD student would be okay, and they said that would be perfectly fine. The programs I applied to generally said two academic professors in the field of CSD, and someone else who could speak to your professional abilities. I figured that would be fine, but I guess not. Luckily I was still accepted to a few programs and will, COVID-19 permitting, be attending this fall.

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