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Applying for P.H.D. - Is it alright to have a non-academic letter of recommendation?


brendan86
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I am applying for several grad programs to different schools for my P.H.D. in geophysics and planetary science. Some background, I spent quite a bit of time in the Army and was on some special small combat advisor teams. I have a letter of recommendation from a Lt. Colonel along with 2 professors. Would a letter from a high ranking officer help set me apart in the application process? He has his own range of merits; he is a retired Lt. Colonel, a published author and the writer of the Gideon Hawk series, and has his own range of degrees. I could get a third academic letter, but this one is a strong letter to my professional merits as he thought very highly of me.

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2 minutes ago, brendan86 said:

I am applying for several grad programs to different schools for my P.H.D. in geophysics and planetary science. Some background, I spent quite a bit of time in the Army and was on some special small combat advisor teams. I have a letter of recommendation from a Lt. Colonel along with 2 professors. Would a letter from a high ranking officer help set me apart in the application process? He has his own range of merits; he is a retired Lt. Colonel, a published author and the writer of the Gideon Hawk series, and has his own range of degrees. I could get a third academic letter, but this one is a strong letter to my professional merits as he thought very highly of me.

Will the LOR written by a LTC convey to academics your ability to do the work required in a graduate program and to fit in with the culture of the STEM disciplines as well as the Ivory Tower?

IRT your armed service in defense of the Constitution and the entire BoR, have you made the extra effort to rephrase your time in the army so that your narrative of your experiences resonates among those who are unfamiliar with or hostile to the American professions of arms?

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I have certainly reworded my experience. My work I did with the Colonel was at its heart combat related, but our mission had us living with the local Iraqi forces, training and advising them for 15 months. His letter of recommendation phrases it in a manner that focused on my technical abilities, along with my experience at working in a diverse environment across language and cultural barriers. I took on a range of jobs that were far above my pay grade and that is the point he drives home, no mention of combat.  What he conveys is a passion for learning and a commitment to hard work. It may depend on which institution I send it to.

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My PhD was from a geophysical and planetary science department. As we are a very multidisciplinary field, we get people coming in from all sorts of backgrounds. There are still many different disciplines within geophysics/planetary science so it could depend on what part of the field you're applying to.

It's hard to measure if this letter will be a positive or negative effect. It will certainly help you stand out, because most applicants will not have had your experience. I would think that at most places, your letter will have neutral impact. What you describe in the letter will not really do much to help you get in since these characteristics are not really what is being judged in a PhD application. (Depends on the program / people reading it though). I think even if someone was against the US armed forces, they would not really judge you poorly for this letter either, because, as I said, the criteria for deciding doesn't really ride on these factors.

The real question, for me, is whether or not you have a strong 3rd academic letter. If you don't have a good 3rd letter from a prof, then I'd say go for the LCol's letter. If you have a prof who can write about your research experience then you should be using that letter instead. If your 3rd prof letter would be something very generic from someone who doesn't know you that well (e.g. they just taught a class that you took) then I think the LCol's letter would be better or at least neutral.

Our field doesn't get a ton of applicants so it's not like you need a huge flag to set yourself apart. I wouldn't send in a letter just for this "shock" factor.

Finally, if you want to send a PM with some more details about where you're applying, I can see if I know anything that might be helpful!

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20 hours ago, brendan86 said:

I have certainly reworded my experience. My work I did with the Colonel was at its heart combat related, but our mission had us living with the local Iraqi forces, training and advising them for 15 months. His letter of recommendation phrases it in a manner that focused on my technical abilities, along with my experience at working in a diverse environment across language and cultural barriers. I took on a range of jobs that were far above my pay grade and that is the point he drives home, no mention of combat.  What he conveys is a passion for learning and a commitment to hard work. It may depend on which institution I send it to.

To me, this all depends on what field you're applying in. If you're applying in a field where you'll need to work across language and/or cultural barriers, then such a letter could be valuable.

18 hours ago, TakeruK said:

It's hard to measure if this letter will be a positive or negative effect. It will certainly help you stand out, because most applicants will not have had your experience. I would think that at most places, your letter will have neutral impact. What you describe in the letter will not really do much to help you get in since these characteristics are not really what is being judged in a PhD application. (Depends on the program / people reading it though). I think even if someone was against the US armed forces, they would not really judge you poorly for this letter either, because, as I said, the criteria for deciding doesn't really ride on these factors.

This might be field-specific. In STEM, it probably doesn't matter. In the social sciences, especially for someone wanting to do field work or qualitative research, it could be helpful to demonstrate such characteristics in one's application. Also, if it's showing skill the OP will need in order to complete their degree and the academic letters can't tlk about it, then why not get the army officer to talk about instead?

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4 hours ago, rising_star said:

 Also, if it's showing skill the OP will need in order to complete their degree and the academic letters can't tlk about it, then why not get the army officer to talk about instead?

Definitely agree. There was a recent series of papers showing that metrics like GRE scores aren't great for identifying grad school potential and they suggested using some evaluation of characteristics/skills instead (e.g. perseverance etc.) I am supportive of this but the group of us that tried to get more grad schools to adopt these metrics have met much resistance thus far (some are practical: e.g. how do we actually measure this in a way that doesn't get students to "game" the system while others are just stubborn to change). So, whether or not these skills matter depends on the programs and I know specifically about a number of programs that would not value these attributes (have yet to find programs that do, but I'm sure they are out there!)

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