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Yet another third recommender question (sciences)


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Hi all,

First-time poster, long-time lurker here.

I am applying to PhD programs in the natural sciences (current undergrad), and am having a third-recommender quandary. I will be asking for letters of recommendation from my two research supervisors:

  1. Dr. Needs A. Break, Assistant Professor, major research university. Worked with him for 3 summers, the most recent as a summer intern. Caveat: his field (medicine / cell biology) is nowhere close to the field in which I am applying (environmental science).
  2. Dr. Seemingly Laid-Back, Assistant Professor, home institution (comprehensive university--i.e. a teaching institution). Currently my boss. Will have worked for him (as a part-time research assistant) for ~7 months by the time applications are due (December). His expertise is much closer to my intended area of study.

I have a few choices for the third letter:*

  1. Dr. Program Director, Director of the 'Honors' Program**, home institution. I know him very well (>3 years) and work with him in a very close advisory capacity (I am responsible for advising him on student/educational policy-related issues, sometimes on a daily basis). I do not think he would be able to comment much on my research potential in the sciences, although he is very familiar with my academic record & abilities (my first course, a seminar-type introduction to the university, was taught by him, and he is my primary academic advisor).
  2. Dr. Bored W. Job, Professor, home institution. I took 3 courses with him (one was a small mixed undergraduate/graduate course in which I did very well), and have spoken with him during office hours a few times. His expertise is in the same general area as my intended area of study, so he would be able to comment on my area-specific (classroom) abilities much more so than Dr. Director. However, he comes off as a bit disorganized and does not usually respond to emails, so I'm slightly hesitant to ask him for a recommendation.
  3. Dr. Runs On Adrenaline, Associate Professor, home institution. Took two organic chemistry classes with him. Served on a university committee with him. Nice guy. Probably would write a good letter of recommendation, but I'm not sure if he knows me well enough to say much more than what I've said here.

From the various comments left in this subforum, I gathered that faculty on science PhD admissions committees value references from academics working in the sciences much more than letters from non-faculty. However, whereas Dr. Director would write an effusive & comprehensive recommendation, those of Drs. Job and Adrenaline would probably be mediocre at best (i.e. "This student got the 1st/2nd highest A in classes X, Y, Z. Yada yada yada."). I'm just worried that professors on the admissions committee of the major research universities to which I am applying will discount a recommendation from a person outside their field (or outside of the natural sciences in general).

So, who would you ask for the third letter? And would it be worthwhile to send in a fourth recommendation to schools that are willing to accept a supplementary letter?

Any/all comments are welcome and greatly appreciated. (I'm fairly desperate--I've consulted my current PI already, but he didn't have a solution.) Thanks!


* I am of the understanding that the third letter is only really just glanced at. However, I do not want to risk having my application placed in the circular file for lack of an appropriate third referee. Also note that none of my referees are nationally-recognized in their fields; but it's the actual experience that counts, right?

** Not a standard honors program, but for the sake of anonymity, I can only say that it is a fairly unique program (only 4 of its type exist in the U.S.). This program was responsible for admitting me to the university for full-time undergraduate study--i.e. I was not admitted through the undergraduate admissions office as would be standard.

Edited by waddle
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I'd go with 2 AND 3. From my experience, it's not unusual to have a professor flake out on you at the last minute. You're better off asking four professors upfront and ending up with an extra letter than not asking and having to scramble. My sense is that many programs will silently accept an extra letter. At my school (not sure how common this might be), although the website only stipulates 3 letters, many applicants will send in 4. (Some send up to 6--the logistical limit--but that would be gliding the lily). When my fourth lor writer flaked, I was actually given the chance to swap in a last-minute fourth letter, although 3 were requested. You might want to check with the applicants in the sciences, though--I'm in the humanities.

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I think 2 or 3 should be your choice. It sounds like 2 might be able to write a better letter than 3 since he knows you outside of the classroom and he's in your area.

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Thanks, all! I guess this just reinforces the general advice of not requesting letters from persons not within one's field. (Ah, well. I had hoped to be able to use a really strong letter from Dr. Director, but I guess that'll do me more harm than good?)

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