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crystalcolours

PhD Candidate as 3rd Letter Writer?

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I'm applying to PhD programs in Industrial Organizational psychology, and a few in Human Factors psychology. I have two professors in the Human Factors department of my university who have agreed to write me strong letters of recommendation. As for my third letter, I would like to ask my graduate mentor, as I've been working with her the last few years, and she's directly overseeing my honors thesis project. The only thing her and I are worried about is that she's still a PhD candidate. She's in her fifth year, and will likely have her PhD just as the deadlines for applications are closing. 

Will this likely put a dent in my application? I've gotten a lot of strong, opposing opinions on this. 

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In my program, we have three committee members (MA) and generally speaking this is who will write your LOR for PhD applications. Sometimes some of our students may swap out the second or third committee members' letter for a different LOR. Usually this is the advisor for the classes we TA (our advisor who oversees our first year writing program, does our teaching evalutations), or perhaps a faculty member from another department or program on campus that the student works closely with. However, I have not heard of someone using a letter from a PhD candidate instead. 

 

My question would be, how strong are the other letters and what are you hoping the PhD candidate letter will add? While programs want to hear from the people who know your work best, I think there is something to be said of the weight letters can have when coming from faculty currently in the field. A letter from the right professors can really help solidify your application. If it were me, I would stick to professors in your department (preferably tenured, but if not certainly full time faculty with PhDs in hand). However, this is if you have a third person to write you a letter if you do not choose the PhD candidate. It would be better to pick someone who knows your work well but maybe doesn't have as many credentials over someone who doesn't know your work at all. 

 

So these seem like the reasonable options:

1. Pick 3 LOR from faculty in your department, and add the PhD candidate's letter if the school allows for more than 3 (most ideal)

2. Pick 3 LOR from faculty who know your work well 

3. Pick the 2 + the PhD candidate (if no more faculty are options)

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Maybe your field is different, but I would say that if you can find a faculty member for your 3rd LOR, you should use them instead of the PhD candidate. This PhD candidate is directly overseeing your project, but it sounds like there must be someone else at the faculty level overseeing it too right? Maybe this student's advisor? If so, and if they aren't already one of the two letters you have in mind, you should ask for a letter from this person instead. Talk to both the grad student and whomever else may be in charge about it.

Typically, the best path forward is to have the prof/faculty ultimately in charge to write and/or sign the letter with lots of input from the grad student. Sometimes it's the student writing the letter for the faculty member to edit and sign. Or, it could be the student providing a ton of notes for the faculty member to write the letter. When I was a PhD candidate, I also supervised an undergrad student's project and instead of writing letters for the students, I just provided a one-page summary of the student's accomplishments and strengths for the faculty member to write. (The student met with me several times a week and only with the faculty member every week or so on average).

If the "ultimate faculty member" is already one of the two letters you have, just make sure your grad student mentor is able to provide that letter writer with details about your work. Then, I'd seek someone else to write your 3rd letter.

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Dang. This puts me in a tough spot, but I appreciate the advice. The first LOR I'm getting is from the PhD candidate's advisor, so that's a no go. 

I have 3 other options: 

1.) There was someone who used to be a graduate student I could ask. I worked under her as a scheduling manager for a longitudinal study she was coordinating. She's since graduated with her PhD, and works in the industry. However, I've been advised to be wary of asking this person. She's known for having something of a character flaw, and gets easily jealous of others success, and may try to sabotage me. 

2.) There's a professor who's class I took and I did well in, which doesn't sound very exciting, but I did know her outside of class, and while conversing she would speak highly of me. There's not a lot she could say other than I did well in her class and she likes my approach/work ethic, but I guess it might be slightly better than a completely "she did well in my class" letter. Not by much, but maybe. 

3.) There was another person who was the coordinator of my research program with the university, but she was also a graduate student, so I guess that's out the window. 

Edited by crystalcolours

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Is there a file of your work (or evaluations of that work) you can give to #2, along with your CV?  

If she can speak credibly about your accomplishments as well as say you're likely to keep doing well what you've been doing, that might help. 

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15 minutes ago, crystalcolours said:

2.) There's a professor who's class I took and I did well in, which doesn't sound very exciting, but I did know her outside of class, and while conversing she would speak highly of me. There's not a lot she could say other than I did well in her class and she likes my approach/work ethic, but I guess it might be slightly better than a completely "she did well in my class" letter. Not by much, but maybe.

I think this person is the best choice out of your list for your 3rd LOR, if you can ensure your grad student mentor and your LOR#1 writer will definitely work well to produce a letter to reflect the grad student mentor's knowledge of your work. It's pretty common, I think, for one letter out of the three to be a "did well in class" type letter since few people would have three distinct research projects from research advisors during undergrad. You can also talk to LOR#1 and the grad student mentor to see what they think of having your grad student mentor be the 3rd letter writer, since they would know advice from your field, and you can also seek their suggestions for another LOR writer. Note that LOR writers don't have to be professors at your school, if they are faculty members elsewhere and you've collaborated or worked with them, that could be a good choice instead of the one quoted above (although this person is a perfectly fine LOR #3 writer, I think).

One thing you could also consider that was already suggested by @renea would be to include the student's letter as a 4th LOR in addition to the other 3 (make sure the LOR#1 still uses the grad student mentor's input though). If you do this, you should only do so if your first three letters are not changed and the school is actually okay with reading a 4th letter. Sometimes, an extra letter can "dilute" the other three though, so that would be my main concern with that. The reason why the grad student letter might be "diluting" is that these letters are often better received when it's from someone with lots of experience mentoring students and have some more experience in the field than a PhD student or a postdoc. This is why I always redirected all requests for letters to my faculty advisor!

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