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Questions about Recommendation


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Hey guys...I have got a few questions about recommendation.

1. is choosing a TA to write one of the letters necessarily not as good as asking a professor to write it? (i am thinking about getting two professors and one TA to write as for now)

2. I am applying to polisci, but I dont think I will be able to get all the three letters from professors/TAs in the polisci department (for various reasons). is it okay to get a professor who is not in polisci but in whose class I exceled (I think that professor would write me a good letter if discipline is not considered)? Becasue I heard some rumor (could be true but I am not entirely sure) that getting a professor within the discipline to write the letter is by all means better than someone who isnt in this subject, even if you did really well in that professor (non-polisci)'s class... Can someone enlighten me a bit please?

Thanks lots

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I am a TA in a philosophy program (so there may be differences) and I would out of conscience never write a letter of recommendation for a student. I've actually turned two away and I would always suggest a non-discipline prof over a TA, especially if he/she has tenure. In my field, a letter from a TA would mean that out of all the classes you took at your undergrad you couldn't impress more than two professors. The truth is probably something closer to: we get to know our TA's better than our prof's in the sense that they are more available/approachable. I still wouldn't do it, especially if I thought the student could do well in grad school. Just my 2 cents.

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If the choice is between a professor in another field and a political science TA, I'd lean toward the professor, particularly if the professor is in a related field. Your general inclination here is right--you want writers who know you well. So, I'd choose the professor from the other field and possibly even the TA over a political science professor who only knows you well enough to write a short form-letter sort of rec. In my own case, the letters all were from faculty and they all knew me well, but two of three were in a different field than political science. It didn't seem to hurt at all.

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It's true that letters from professors are better than letters from TAs, and professors in your desired field are better than those outside of it.

The real question though, is what are your options? If you need three letters and you simply don't know three polisci professors that could write for you, then it makes sense to look outside of that field or to get one from a TA.

And of course a letter from a professor that doesn't actually know you is worth almost nothing, even if they are in the right field, so you want to make sure the people you're asking for letters will actually be able to write you a good one. The best way to figure that out is to ask them! If you have a professor that you took a class from a year or two ago and you're thinking about maybe asking her for a letter of rec but you're not sure if she even remembers you, you should go to her office hours and meet with her in person to talk about it. Make sure to ask her not just if she will write you a letter, but if she feels she can write a STRONG letter for you. If you ask them directly, most profs will find a way to politely decline if they don't feel like they know you well enough.

So I would suggest you sit down (with your adviser maybe) and come up with a list of all the people that could potentially write letters of rec for you. Then you can decide who would be the "best" ones, and meet with them to determine whether or not they will be able to write letters for you. If they can't, then you can keep working down your list until you find enough people that can.

Good luck!

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thanks SO MUCH for all the suggestions!

sorry I should have stated it more clearly. I have got one prof in polisci and one prof in public policy who are quite likely to write me decent letters, as I did my thesis under the polisci prof and he gave me honors, and the public policy prof replied to my email request for recommendation with words like "i think you did quite well in the class project and have the scholarly potential" etc. as for the last one to write me letter, I have choice of a TA in polisci (his field of teaching is about the same as my intended field and to whom I am an RA now), a prof in sociology (in his class I got A in a grad level independent research, but he is a young assistant prof now), and a prof in history (head of the history department, famous guy, and I did a seminar with him but I dont think I did better in his class than in the sociology prof's class)

so after summing up your suggestions and thinking it over again, now I am more inclined to get the sociology prof to write the last letter over the other two.

still, if you have any further comments, more than welcomed.

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It seems like you've thought this through and came up with a good solution. Also - Poli Sci, Pub Policy, and Sociology have have the potential to overlap, so I wouldn't worry too much about the field of the recommender in this case. Good luck!

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The truth is probably something closer to: we get to know our TA's better than our prof's in the sense that they are more available/approachable.

Word. At, for example, a Big Ten uni, you probably won't get spitting distance from tenured faculty in more than three or four classes as an undergrad.

If letters of rec are as important as conventional wisdom suggests, what really sets the top tier students apart is the having the foresight to make relationships with faculty at a time when most of their cohort is spending that energy trying to get a fake ID.

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