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Changing Graduate Plans and Letters of Recommendation

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I graduated from college with a BS in biology but I have decided that I want to pursue mathematics instead and go to grad school for applied.  I took courses at a local community college to build my mathematical background.  Now I am taking math classes at a nearby college as a non-matriculated student.  I should be set for classes after this semester, but the big issue for grad school I am having now is letters of recommendation.


I did research back when I was an undergrad in biology with a professor and took classes with the professor that I did well enough in.  The research was not published and I doubt it would wow the admissions of a math grad program.  When I was applying to grad school in biology, the professor was one of LOR writers.


I was able to ask and get one of my math teachers from community college to be a LOR writer and I am sure he would be alright with writing more LORs.  I am doing pretty well in the two math classes I am currently taking, real analysis and abstract algebra.  There are different professors for both class, so by the end of the semester I will have taken only one course with both of them.  I go to their office hours when needed and have been doing very well on the course work.


I just want some advice on the whole LOR issue since LORs are very important.  For applying to grad school in applied math, should I have the biology professor I researched with as a LOR writer?  Is a community college math professor a good person to write a LOR for grad school, keeping in my mind I took linear algebra and structures of discrete mathematics courses with him and got A- in both?  Would the math professors at my currently college be good LOR writers even only taking one courses with each of them? 

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When it comes to LORs, the two most important things are how well-known the letter writer is and how well the letter writer knows you. Regarding the first point, letters from people who are very well known in their field will carry a lot of weight. Since your math professors are at a community college, I would guess that they aren't especially well known in the world of applied math research, so this doesn't really come into play here.


Regarding the second point... the strongest letters come from people that know you well, who can not only speak to your strengths but also back them up with numerous examples and personal anecdotes. It sounds like you worked very closely with your biology professor, so I would definitely ask him/her for a letter. Even though you're now heading in a very different direction, s/he can still speak to a lot of your strengths as a researcher... e.g., that you're very focused, a hard worker, you think critically, etc. Those are things that the adcoms at your prospective programs will be looking for in their applicants.


In contrast, professors who only know you from the classroom might not be able to say as much about you, unless you've taken the time to develop a relationship with them (say by talking to them outside of class or something). You should still get at least one LOR from a math professor who can speak about your knowledge of the field, but I wouldn't choose "just adequate" letters from math professors over more personalized/detailed letters from professors in other fields. Your programs will receive your transcripts and know that you did well in those math courses just by looking at your grades. Would your math professors be able to say anything beyond "World-Refusal was an A student who always turned in his/her assignments on time," etc.? If so, definitely ask them for a letter. If not, perhaps you may want to ask someone else?


Since most programs ask for 3 letters, I'd advise 1 letter from your biology mentor, 1 letter from the math professor who already agreed to write you one, and 1 letter from someone who knows you well (regardless of field). 


For reference, I majored in a biological science as an undergrad, pursued a master's in biology, and am now applying to a PhD program in biology. Most of my letter writers are (not surprisingly) biology professors. But, as an undergrad I also took 5 Latin classes with the same professor, whom I often talked to before/after class. He knows me very well, both through my writing and via the conversations that we had, and was able to write a very personalized letter for me. I waived my right to see it, but I am told by people who have read it that he speaks very highly of me, and I'd be willing to bet that his letter is among my strongest.

Edited by zabius
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Thank you, this helps me see the larger picture of what graduate schools want.  I think it is the fact that biology research and math research are so different that made me question whether to continue using my biology mentor as a LOR writer, but that is more of a research issue than a reference issue.  And with the community college professor, he knows me well and has helped me with my math grad school plans, so he would be a good LOR writer.  


As a side note, the two classes I am currently taking are at a typical four-year college, not a community college.  My real analysis professor knows me through my work, office hours, and sees me at work in the math study area, so it seems he would be a good person to ask at the end of the semester.

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Hi World-Refusal,


One trick in your situation might be to "prompt" your LoR writers and try and get them each to showcase something different about you.  For example, have your Biology professor speak to your work ethic, critical thinking/problem solving skills, and whatever else you see as an overlap between bio and math (even and especially if it's an abstract thing like analytical thinking or process).  Have whichever of your two current math teachers know you best maybe speak to your ability in the field.  If you've taken an applied math course at the University, that person might be even better that's where you're thinking of researching.


The community college teacher is the weakest link because he's going to be an unknown to the Ad Com.  I'd recommend thinking very hard about what there is about you he can speak to that the others can't.  Since he knows you well, he's probably a good LoR, but you want to make sure his letter is filling in the gaps between the math teacher who doesn't know you well, and the bio teacher who's not in your field.


With a little luck, the three letters will support each other and paint a strong picture of you as an applicant.  Good luck!

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I like the idea of having my letter writers talk about different things.  The only snag is thinking of a good way to prompt them without coming off as pushy or directing them to write something that would be different than what they intended to write. 


As for the community college professor, I was under the impression that while your letter writers being well known in the field can help ("I am Dr. Pepper, famous in Spanish, and Grev has potential to also be great") them being not very well known is not that big of a hinderance.  Basically, the letter writer's ability to talk about the applicant is much more important than the letter writer's standing in the field.

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I have thought about biomathematics before, but to be honest my heart is no longer in biology after my undergrad experience.  I still like reading and learning about biology but I do not think I would be happpy if I pursued biology in school or as a career.  

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