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Admission denied based on LORs

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So, about a month ago I got my rejection letter from UC Davis' Computer Science PhD program which was honestly expected (going straight from a BS to PhD is ambitious/ballsy, and I had some mental health issues in the quarter that I was applying that caused severe detriment to my GPA  and subsequently delayed my graduation by a year), but the reasoning for it was not. Specifically, the letter said I was denied admission on the basis of my letters of recommendation (though I suspect that was merely the main reason and that there were other factors at play as well). So of course my mind immediately thought that one or more of the people I asked wrote me a bad recommendation. But then I got to thinking again and I realize it was likely because of 1) the credentials of my recommendation writers (two of them only have MS degrees and haven't done much in the way of research) and 2) the fact that really only one of them had specific knowledge of my research abilities (two of them are instructors that I know well from taking quite a few classes from them, the other was my advisor/mentor at the REU I completed last summer).


So, now I'm looking at others to ask and so far I've narrowed it down to 3 for future applications, i.e. applications for Fall 2017.


Writer 1: Mentor from the REU I did last summer. We're on good terms and I will be working with him on another project, soon. Keen to use him as he knows the most about my research abilities (not to brag, but the project I worked on under his direction made it to the NSF REU Symposium).

Writer 2: Professor I know fairly well who has a significant amount of research experience. I recently completed an upper level course taught by him that was highly theoretical and required 3 small research projects and a lecture on a course relevant topic of my choosing. Thinking of using him because he'll be able to speak to my academic ability as well as to my research ability (to a limited extent though). His research is also mainly focused in the area I hope to specialize in, algorithms.

Writer 3: Professor I know from an entirely different department (geology to be specific). I know him on a mainly social/professional basis and a somewhat academic basis (I've taken a class from him). I'm thinking of using him as he'll be able to speak towards character and academic performance (to a very limited extent), but I'm not sure how much good, if any that will do.


My main goals are to have writers that know me well and that have good credentials (i.e. PhD's, lots of research experience). My options at my university are limited however as the CS program is more focused on software engineering than pure CS and I barely know any of the faculty with good credentials as they rarely teach upper level elective courses (at least ones that I would be interested in taking). As an aside, I'm filling up next academic year with mathematics courses most relevant to theoretical computer science and my research interests (cryptography/applied cryptography and algorithms, number theoretic algorithms in particular), so I may have more options in the coming months. I also could potentially ask my supervisor at work (I work in IT).


So what do you guys and gals think of those 3 writers? Are they good choices or should I look elsewhere? Thanks in advance.

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While the professor's experience matters somewhat,* what matters a whole lot more is what they can actually say about you. You want people who can attest to your research abilities, who have a positive opinion of you as a student and person, who can compare you to other students of theirs who have successfully gone through PhD programs and say that you are at least as good as those other individuals, if not better. As such, I think Prof 3 has very limited utility, he can't speak to your ability to succeed in a CS program at all, and you say that he can't say much about your academic abilities in any other field, either. Your nice personality is not going to get you into grad school, and it doesn't sound like this professor can write about much beyond just that. Your REU mentor sounds like a good option. Your Prof 2 is a decent option, but not the best. It'd be good if you could develop somewhat more of a relationship with him over the fall so he knows you better than just as a student in one of his classes. I think you need to look for one other (better) option. Maybe it could be your supervisor at work, if your work is relevant to your studies (and especially if your boss has an advanced degree or can otherwise say something about your suitability for a PhD). Otherwise, you might want to start identifying another professor who could write you a letter, although the fact that they will have only known you for less than a semester when they will have to write the letter makes this option again less than ideal. 

* Although yes, having writers who don't even have a PhD is a bad idea in general. 

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I agree with the other posters. LOR #1 is a great choice. LOR #2 is an okay choice. Your current #3 is a bad choice, not because they are not in CS (in my opinion) but because they don't know you academically. LORs are not personal references, they are professional references.

Did you do any research at all in a different field? Going into my astronomy masters program, I had a LOR from someone in medical physics because that was one of my undergrad research projects. You don't have to worry about sticking to only CS folks, but if you go outside of the field, choose someone that you worked with and knows your work well.

Your work supervisor might be a good choice here, if your work is an academic field (again, doesn't have to be CS, although that would be ideal), and if your work supervisor at least has a degree beyond the BA/BSc and/or a lot of experience. 

Otherwise, I think you should get to know professors in your department this fall when you are back in school taking courses. A letter from someone you simply took a CS course from is not ideal, but it would be better than your current choice #3 and better than your work supervisor if they don't meet the above properties. I also agree that it's worth it for you to interact with your LOR choice #2 more this fall and get to know them better. Maybe even set up some appointments to talk to them about your grad school plans/goals etc. Overall, even though it sounds like you want to mostly take math courses this fall, I would say you should hang out around the CS department as much as possible and be a part of the community. Maybe you can even find a small job as a research assistant. Join the student clubs and interact with the grad students, faculty, undergrad students, etc.

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