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Any advice or comments highly appreciated -- in dire need of help!!  Who should I ask for letters of recommendation?

I've been out of school for the past two years and have been working full time.  As a college student, I never considered grad school -- I thought I was going to be, and wanted to be, in the industry... until I changed my mind recently.  So honestly I didn't really bother developing relationships with professors while I was in school.  I was a good student, but considering how large classes can often be, I probably didn't leave any significant impressions (while I did go to office hours, I was never one to raise my hand and ask probing questions during class).

I graduated with high honors and a senior thesis, so I can safely say I've secured my thesis advisor's letter.  Now the problem is with the other two letters...

The field I'd like to enter is operations research.

1) Current managers -- If I ask, I am positive I will get very strong letters.  Both think very highly of me and helped me get a promotion rather quickly.  But neither has a PhD.  The managing director has a bachelor's, and the director a master's.  Will this be a problem?  I've seen someone say, how can you ask someone without a PhD (who has never gone through that process) to comment on your ability to work towards that degree?

2) Professor I took one course with -- I got an A in the class my junior year.  The professor has seen me outside of class on a few occasions (guest lectures etc.).  I've asked about getting a master's degree once.  The professor advised that I should go for a PhD if anything, but at the time, I think I said I was more interested in being in the industry (why oh why did I do that...........).  I was going to ask her to be my thesis advisor until I learned that she was going to be on maternity leave my senior year.  At the moment, she is no longer affiliated with the university.

3) Professor I took two courses with -- One of the two professors I have taken more than one course with.  One A-, one A.  Regularly attended office hours, but nothing outside of that, as in, he might recognize my face but not my name.  I did enjoy both courses very much.  The second course I took with this professor actually motivated me to think about going back to grad school.  I took this course senior spring, right before graduation, and looking back, I really wish I had taken this course sooner.  It might have changed my career trajectory earlier.  The professor is really someone I wish to emulate.

4) The other professor I took two courses with -- One B, one A.  I would go to this professor as my last resort (that is, if he would be willing to write a letter for me).  Both were large classes and I highly doubt he remembers me.  I had a lot of fun with the project in the second course.  As part of the course I had to submit an extensive report of the work I did for the project along with peer reviews, and I am hoping that he has retained those copies to base the letter off of.  The first course was rather... disastrous.  I am not sure if I will get a good recommendation letter from this professor, even if he agrees to write for me.  I am just sad that no one else could attest to my work on this one project.

There are a couple other professors I have gotten an A from here and there, but no one that I've really had an interaction with.  They most likely do not remember me.

Any thoughts?  I would highly appreciate any feedback or comments you may have.  Thanks!

Edited by myhaeon
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I assume, though you didn't say, that this would be for a research-based PhD program. My answer will likely be different under different circumstances. For a PhD, you should have at least two academic references. Generally it's better if all three are from academics, but if we're comparing a weak "did well in class" letter to a glowing one from industry, it seems to me that the strong letter is a better choice. (Another option to look into whether the schools you're applying to might allow you to submit additional letters beyond the required minimum, in which case you could submit 3 academic + 1 from industry, and cover all your bases.)

Thoughts on your academic options:

- Professor #2 seems like the best option here, from what I can tell. She's seen you both in class and outside it, and has recommended that you do a PhD before, so she clearly thinks you're capable. The fact that she's no longer affiliated with your university is not an issue, IF that just means that she took another job in the meanwhile. If she left academia, that's a different story altogether. 

- Professor #3 might have seen you more in class, but it doesn't sound like there is much for him to go off of beyond that. I wonder if there are ways to help him get to know you and your research ideas better. Maybe through a conversation or through having him read your SOP and/or any papers you have that you're proud of. As it stands, this will probably be my second choice after #2. 

- Professor #4 again sounds like someone who wouldn't really know you well. You say you hope he kept a copy of your report; that may depend on the submission system. Do you have a copy of this report? Again, this would be a decent option just in case you can provide him with additional information that he could use to write you a letter that goes beyond just "myhaeon was in my class and got an A." 

Do these professors know each other? One option you might consider is asking Prof #2 to chat with you about grad school applications over the phone/Skype. Unless she's no longer in academia, you should ask her for a letter. When you talk, you can also consult with her about whether a letter from Prof #3/4 is a good idea compared to a letter from your boss. Another factor in deciding between these professors that you didn't mention is how well-known they are. If you're going to get a not-that-awesome letter, it'd be better if it came from someone famous than from someone unknown. 


ETA: although you didn't ask, being out of school for two years and doing something else is not going to hurt your chances and isn't something you should regret. You have valuable experience that will come in handy as a student. People who go straight from school to college to grad school sometimes miss on vital experiences of the "real world," so to speak. Academia is a whole different kind of world in many ways, and it's worth actually knowing what's out there and that you do want to be in academia, not because that's just the natural progression of things, but because you tried it and you know what work for you and what doesn't. 

Edited by fuzzylogician
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I agree that if Professor #2 is still in academia (just not at your original university), then she is clearly the best choice to ask for the 2nd letter. 

I think that if you can secure Professor #2's letter then I think the best choice for letter #3 is your industry job's manager. I am assuming your industry job is at least vaguely connected to the field you did your undergrad in and what you're apply to for grad school. (I make this assumption because in my field, when we say "industry", we mean a non-academic job related to our research, not just any non-academic job!) I agree with fuzzy that It's not ideal that they are not academia, but in my opinion, the "all letters must be academic" advice really only applies to applicants straight out of undergrad. Since you have graduated and spent a couple of years working in a related field, it makes sense to get a letter from your job that attests to your expertise.

So, if both the above suggestions work out, you should have all three letters. At this point, I think it's up to you if you want to add a fourth letter (with either Prof #3 or Prof #4) as fuzzy suggests. It would be nice to have a 3rd academic LOR just in case. But sometimes, having weaker LORs along with strong ones can "dilute" them. This is hard to gauge.

On the other hand, if your industry job is not connected to your undergrad degree nor your future graduate program then I am less sure about a letter from your manager being letter #3 (maybe it can be letter #4 though). In this case, if you can still get a letter from Prof #2, then I think letter #3 should come from Prof #3 or Prof #4. You can certainly send them copies of your old submitted work to remind them of the quality of work you did in their class. In addition, if they provided feedback on your final essays and projects, you might even send them a corrected version that implements their suggestions.

Edited by TakeruK
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  • 4 weeks later...


Thanks for your suggestions!! Over the past couple of weeks I've talked to all of my potential letter writers, and I am hoping to get some more of your advice.  I'm keeping the numbers in line with what I've posted previously.

0. Thesis advisor - I expect a stellar letter.  He was a postdoc, however, and is currently at a different university.  He taught some of the core classes for my major while he was at my undergrad institution and advised many theses during his time there.  He has a PhD.

1. Industry manager - I expect a stellar letter. He has a master's degree. Knows me well, and knows how I have grown over time.  The job I have currently is not research oriented, but a very applied version of the field I am looking to enter.

2. One class (A) - Assistant Professor.  She left my undergrad institution but is still in academia.  She said she's happy to write me a letter and that she's happy I am going to graduate school.  She also mentioned, however, that I will have to feed her a lot of information - she knows I took the course and did well, but we haven't really kept in touch since.  She also told me to consider speaking with full professors at my undergrad institution, because it might be strategically good to get a letter from someone well known and well established.  I think she'll write me a good letter and I have the confidence that she'll try to be helpful, but I don't know if she will have specific examples.

3. I was unable to get in touch with Professor #3.

4. Two classes (A and B ) - full professor and very well known and respected in the field.  He is still with my undergraduate institution.  He said he would be happy to write me a letter.  When I asked if he would need any information from me, he said no, I'll write based on your experiences here, and that he will reference my past papers/projects/peer evaluations etc.  He also said that he gets lots of such requests every year.

 All four meetings/calls went well, I think, but other than my senior thesis advisor and my industry manager, I am not exactly sure what to expect from professors #2 and #4.  Should I include all four in my application?  Or should I take out professor #2 given the limited insight she is able to provide regarding myself?

Thanks in advance to reading this and providing insight!

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What is your thesis advisor's position now? Is he still a postdoc elsewhere, or is he now a tenure-track professor?

-- If Person 0 (thesis advisor) is now a tenure-tracked professor, then I think you should get the following three letters as your main LORs, in order of how important they would be:

0. Thesis Advisor

2. Assistant Professor with one class

1. Industry Manager

You might also want to consider submitting Prof #4 (full prof) as a 4th LOR so that you have a senior professor there and it sounds like he will be able to write a decent letter.

-- If Person 0  (thesis advisor) is still a postdoc or in academia but in a term position rather than a permanent position, then I would definitely submit all 4 letters. In places where I could not submit 4 letters, I would replace Prof #2 with Prof #4.

-- If Person 0 is not in academia anymore, I would submit all 4 letters if possible. If not possible, this would be tough because you would really want two letters to be from academia, which means Prof 2 and Prof 4 and now you have to decide between Thesis Advisor or industry manager. I would probably pick thesis advisor in this case as industry manager does not have a PhD.

Finally, it sounds like you are concerned Prof #2 asked you to feed her a lot of information. I don't think this is a problem at all and it is actually quite normal for a LOR. The information you provide her will allow her to generate examples in her letter!


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Thanks for all of the advice.  My thesis advisor is still in academia as a lecturer.  Although I haven't asked, I do not think he is on the tenure track yet.  I will submit all four letters.  Appreciate the input :)

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loveor, is your thesis advisor in the UK/Australia? Because, if so, then lecturers are often the equivalent of an "assistant professor" in the US system. If that's the case, then it is entirely appropriate to get a recommendation letter from someone with that status, especially if they have a PhD.

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