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Choosing a third LOR


NewEmpiric

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I'm applying to psychology/cognitive neuroscience programs this fall.

I was hoping that people might be able to offer some advice on choosing a final Letter of Recommendation writer.

I already have 2 lined up, one from a Psych professor that I work for (the PI of my current lab) and a computer science professor that I've been working/publishing with. Both should be excellent LORs.

I need to choose my third and have 2 main options:

1) Another psychology professor.

She has written a recommendation for me in the past, and offered to write any others that I might need now that I'm applying to PhD programs. That is, she thinks I'm a great student and wants to write one.

Pros: She's enthusiastic about me. She knows that I'm a good student (I took an undergrad class with her). She's a professor.

Cons: She only knows me as a student. No research with her and she knows very little about my skill set.

2) A former manager/mentor.

I worked in marketing analytics for a number of years, and this person trained me to use most of the data analytics tools that I currently know like SAS and SQL. She also taught me techniques like regression, etc. Though she's not an academic, she does have a PhD in psych from a top 30 psychology program.

Pros: She knows me very, very well, so the LOR could speak to my personal character. She knows my abilities with stats/analytics. It will be a very enthusiastic LOR.

Cons: She's not a professor.

Thoughts on who I should ask?

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It might be good to get the professor to write the letter. Even though you have not done any research with that prof, they can write about your classroom work. You dont want a student who can do research but never shows up to class and is late. It is good to get a prof who has had you in class.

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I would argue that the non-professor would be a better fit because it enhances the uniqueness of your application. everyone has 3 psych profs that had them for class and did research but yours would stand out a bit. besides she has a PhD so its not like the non academic would make her way less reputable.

that's just my opinion, i'm not on any admissions committee :P

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I vote for the non-professor. The prof's letter will definitely be a throwaway, since she has no basis for meaningful content. Your former manager's letter might be considered a throwaway too (since it's not from a professor), but it might not and in that case will be full of excellent content. I don't see the point of sending the extra letter, since it sounds like it's unlikely to say anything really meaningful that none of your other letters will address.

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I vote for the non-professor. The prof's letter will definitely be a throwaway, since she has no basis for meaningful content. Your former manager's letter might be considered a throwaway too (since it's not from a professor), but it might not and in that case will be full of excellent content. I don't see the point of sending the extra letter, since it sounds like it's unlikely to say anything really meaningful that none of your other letters will address.

Wow, that's harsh. Are you saying that any letters written by people other than those with whom you've done research are worthless? I have two of these!

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Hmm. I think their perspective might be coming from the following logic. Most of the time a professor who's writing you a letter based on coursework alone uses a fluffed-up form letter which adcoms easily recognize: "I teach class x. It is difficult because Y. Student got an excellent grade in this difficult course, during which they also contributed intelligent remarks [if true]. Therefore I conclude they would likely do well in grad school." They're not worthless in that they DO count, but they're not as good as something more personalized and unique.

Wow, that's harsh. Are you saying that any letters written by people other than those with whom you've done research are worthless? I have two of these!

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Wow, that's harsh. Are you saying that any letters written by people other than those with whom you've done research are worthless? I have two of these!

Now that I go back and look at it, you're right that I was unnecessarily harsh. Throwaway wasn't the right word - what I meant was that those generically nice letters that say "this student is super smart and wrote a great essay for my class!" are unexceptional. Most students applying to grad school can get those, and in fact most DO use them for at least one of their letters. It's possible to get a substantive letter from a teacher, but it's almost always from a small seminar class or independent study or something like that. I don't really know anything about how admissions committees work, but based on the fact that almost all students have the generic-nice letters, I'm guessing that they just earn you a checkmark - "got a letter that said good things". It's like the "got a reasonably good GRE score" checkmark - you need to have it, but it doesn't really add to your application. This is totally, fully conjecture though.

As a sidenote, I applied with two totally generic-nice letters (a prof I'd done only a couple months of research with and my supervisor at work), and one properly substantive letter from my Masters advisor, and that was apparently enough to get me into a handful of great programs.

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