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How professionally are LORs dealt with?


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Specifically in cases in which people in the admissions committee know the person writing the letter?


(I'm going to pause here to establish that while I'm currently waiting for responses and this is a situation I'm in, I'm not asking whether I'm getting in or what you think my chances are, it's just a question that came up out of curiosity)



Obviously it depends a lot on the person reading, the person writing, and the nature of their relationship, so I guess what I'm asking is whether the admissions process is conducive to any particular way to deal with the situation. Are adcoms supposed to read the letters somewhat disinterestedly while thinking "Oh, my friend Joe likes this guy, I'll keep that in mind" or is it perfectly normal for them to proceed to casually meet/email/text/call their friend for further detail?



And how is this reconciled with the fact that a committee is obviously composed of more than that one faculty member who's familiar with the recommender?



Is there a need for them to try to discuss the issue objectively and professionally ("I am a friend of Dr. Joe and I trust his judgment on this.") or do people tend to be open about their nepotism and freely discuss the fact that they talked to Joe over dinner and he said that this kid is pretty great but too arrogant or unambitious or whatever Joe had to say?



Yes, it's true, I have no real idea of how admissions committees work.

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Ideally, it *should* be objective, but the reality of the situation is that connections do matter a lot. That doesn't mean that you're in a bad position if you don't have any existing connections, but having them is definitely an advantage. Academics are a gossipy bunch in my experience and love talking about prospective students with one another (especially in my field, which is pretty small).


One of the professors I am applying to work with recently collaborated on a project with my former research advisor from undergrad. I know for a fact that the two of them have talked about me via email and on the phone, because my former advisor has told me about those conversations (After my interview, she emailed me and said, "I had a very nice talk with [POI] about you on Monday.  He really liked you, thought you had great ideas, and was very positive about you").


Another professor that I am applying to work with is a conference friend of a different professor of mine from undergrad, and they've also been talking. My undergrad research advisor told me about that as well: "[POI] seems very interested and has contacted [undergrad professor] to talk/email about you.  She was very positive."


I didn't specifically apply to these labs because of these connections... it just worked out that way. Entomology is a small field, and so everyone kind of knows everyone else (it would seem). I did manage to apply to a few other programs, though, where I have no strong connections to work with.


My understanding is that it's almost expected that if your POI or someone on the adcom is friends with one of your letter writers, they will call/email each other to talk about you. People put a lot of trust in their friends' suggestions (I know that I do).


Do those connections mean that I'll automatically get in? Of course not. In fact, I'm still waiting on official decisions from both of those schools. It probably provides me with a slight advantage over other applicants with similar stats (GRE, GPA, etc.), but the adcom will still likely judge me more on my own accomplishments and my "fit" within the department.


The people on the adcom who aren't friends with your letter writers only have the contents of the actual letter to go on. If the letter's positive, they'll be impressed. If it's negative, then obviously they won't be.

Edited by zabius
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I think that "nepotism" matters. Maybe the word "nepotism" comes with negative connotations but I don't think this is a bad thing. I don't think graduate admissions, job hiring, etc. should be purely objective and based on data/stats. Like any other professional work environment, networking and connections matter. Academics who shy away from the concept of "selling yourself", being political, or actively cultivating connections are making a mistake, in my opinion. I think a good advisor will help his/her students cultivate these connections. For example, when their student is close to graduation and considering certain profs/schools for post-doc applications, a good advisor could invite these profs to give department seminars so that their student can have a chance to meet the people who may hire them in the future!


Whenever possible, I would encourage students to get LORs from people who know profs at the school you are applying to. I don't think LORs are supposed to be read objectively, because unlike peer-reviewed referee reports, they are not anonymous. If the admissions committee wanted to hear an objective opinion of you, they would hide the name and affiliation of the recommender from themselves. But I am pretty sure that is not the norm! (Also, they would be able to figure it out pretty quickly anyways).


LORs are supposed to be personal recommendation from a former/current supervisor. This is why it helps if your LOR writer is famous/well-known -- if you have impressed a leading scientist in the field, then it would mean a lot more to the admissions committee, I think. However, it's not always true to assume a letter from a famous scientist is better -- sometimes these big shots are very busy and have lots of students so they might write something pretty vague about you. I think it's far better to have a glowing personally crafted recommendation from a respectable professor that has supervsied your research.


The ideal LOR would be from someone that the admissions committee have heard of. They would talk about your accomplishments and what made you stand out from their other students. They would hopefully rank you favourably (maybe top 5%? 10%?) out of all the students they've supervised. If one of their former students has gone to the same school as you're applying to, hopefully they can compare your favourably to that student too. If they have supervised people who are currently promising post-docs / young profs in the field, etc. they might compare you to those as well. They would also write about your personality -- are you easy to communicate with? easy to get along with? etc. But overall, I think the theme of the LOR is to compare you to some standard that the admissions committee would hopefully be familiar with.


The way I see it, the objective/stats side of your application is from your test scores and GPA. But there are many students who look great on paper but lack the abilities to effectively perform research / succeed in academia. This is why developing good relationships with professors and getting LORs are important. The best way to show that you are a good researcher is not good grades or test scores, (or even publications, since it's not clear what your contribution would have been) but to have someone give examples of your ability.and accomplishments.


That said, I don't think this is unprofessional. Unprofessional evaluation of LORs would be something like "Well, Dr. Joe made me look bad at my last conference talk so I'm going to reject his student! mwahhahaha!" or even worse discriminatory practices. But things like "All of Dr. Joe's former students have done really well and Dr. Joe really likes this kid -- sounds promising", or "Dr. Joe said the same great things about the last student of his we admitted and that guy turned out to be really useless -- better keep this in mind" are all professional and the whole point of LORs, in my opinion. 


And I also agree that I think profs call each other up (if they know them well) and ask about their students. I applied to several schools where my supervisors had connections (e.g. formerly held a job there) and when I visited, it was almost like meeting relatives you've heard your parents speak of but never met before. In addition, in interviews where the interviewers knew my former supervisors, they always had positive things to say and it helped break the ice sometimes too.


In the beginning, I said I didn't think "nepotism" is a bad thing in academia but of course, that is only true if people remain professional. But I think it's a self-regulating process. If a supervisor is too generous with his/her praises, then they might not be worth as much anymore in the future. In addition, like the above poster said, having good connections doesn't automatically mean you will get an "in". Academics are professionals and you still have to be a good researcher to earn the strong LOR and their willingness to help you gain these connections.

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I'm not sure why trusting some LORs more than others is a sign that the process is unprofessional or involves nepotism, as you put it. Of course professors are likelier to trust a letter from someone they know - either because they are personal acquaintances or because this professor is well established in her field and has a strong record that can be trusted. Wouldn't you prefer to rely on the opinion of someone who you know and trust, or someone who has a proven track record of giving good advice (i.e., writing letters for students who have succeeded in your program in the past) compared to advice from someone who you've never met before? The fact that you put more weight on advice whose source you trust compared to other advice is not something to hide or be ashamed of. I imagine people on adcoms share whether or not they know a LOR writer and how much they trust his/her opinions. Furthermore, it's possible that a professor will call up or email a friend about a student - this again is not unprofessional. It's a useful way of getting more information, and I don't see why it's not legitimate. That's exactly why you want to develop connections with well-established professors and work hard to impress them so you will have good LORs when you apply. Anyway, if an adcom member decided to get more information from an acquaintance LOR writer, there is no reason why they wouldn't share with others on the committee.

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I probably should have put quotation marks around the words "professional" and "nepotism" to make it clear that I'm not making any kind of judgments about the process. The question was just whether the admissions process is conducive to nepotism (no connotation meant) or whether there's an emphasis on "professionalism" that would force adcoms to downplay their relationships with the people writing letters.

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I was told by one interviewer that I would not get an offer from their program in part because they liked letters from people they knew (that was just one of several reasons that made  me "too different" for that program). It happens.

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