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Thread: Co-written letter of rec?

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    Co-written letter of rec?

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    I've been a long time lurker and finally it is my turn to apply to PhD programs. My question is related to my title: is it okay for two economists to co-write a letter of recommendation?

    I am a research assistant and the economist I work with most is a young economist with only a working paper. I've worked with him on a few policy projects and one major research project that is ongoing. He gave me the unsolicited advice that he doesn't think his word will carry much weight in the application process. Still, he said that he'd be willing to offer me any advice and help with the process. He received his PhD a few years ago from a Top 10 school.

    The boss of our team received his PhD 15 years ago from a Top 5 school but does not have many publications either. I have worked with him only on policy projects and I have gotten good feedback. Recently, when talking to him about what the younger economist said, he offered to co-write a letter of recommendation. Though it was his idea, he told me I should look into whether or not it is okay to have as part of my application.

    I imagine they'll be able to write about different aspects of my skillset and that the letter will convey my abilities well (the team has at least 1 RA go to grad school a year). Does anyone have any thoughts? Is there anything I can tell them that would make their job easier if I do take them up on it?

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    Re: Co-written letter of rec?

    Most places allow four letters. You could have them both write separate letters if you think all four offer something useful.

    To be honest, neither of those options seems like a great choice. You really need people who can vouch for your ability to do publishable academic research and neither of the people you describe seems qualified to make that claim. It should be fine at lower ranked schools, but you won't get admitted to Top 20 schools unless your other letters are from folks with stronger reputations.

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    Re: Co-written letter of rec?

    Quote Originally Posted by tm_member View Post
    To be honest, neither of those options seems like a great choice. You really need people who can vouch for your ability to do publishable academic research and neither of the people you describe seems qualified to make that claim.
    But didn't OP mention that the team sends at least 1 RA a year to grad school? My reading of this info was that the faculty in question must have sufficient experience placing RA's into grad schools. Maybe OP should look into past placements of those RA's to determine whether the letter writer is indeed qualified to write the letter.

    Regarding the co-written letter, I've had quite a few RA friends who worked at labs co-led by multiple PI's who wrote one representative letter from the lab (and placed into programs ranging from top 5 to top 20). My understanding is that one PI usually writes the letter and receives input from other faculty on the team. So at least around me, co-written letters of rec weren't unusual in this context. Hopefully grad students on this forum who were past RA's can confirm this.

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    Re: Co-written letter of rec?

    I'm speaking as a recent applicant, not as faculty, so weight that as you may.

    Generally I second mathenomics. OP, if you are literally suggesting the two economists sign their names both to the letter, I don't know if this is even mechanically possible they way most application systems are structured. I guess the "main" writer could always be the one to actually submit the letter, and both names could appear at the bottom of said letter. Anyway, this strikes me as very odd to read from an adcom perspective.

    If you think the letter from the more senior person will carry more weight, I think along the lines of mathenomics you might consider asking the senior person to write your letter *with significant input* from the more junior person you work more closely with. Difference here being the junior person will not have her/his name appear with the letter in any way. I think this is a pretty common general approach.

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    Re: Co-written letter of rec?

    One additional note here. Besides the publication history of the writer, placement history of the writer is important in a very transparent sense. It is common (to my understanding, which I'm relatively confident in based on the many signals I've observed by now) for letter writers with past placements to explicitly draw comparisons between the current applicant and past applicants the writer has supported. For example, it would be unsurprising to find a letter with a statement like, "I have previously advised [other past RA] as a research assistant, who is now attending [your program or a similarly ranked department], and [current applicant] is of a similar or stronger research calibre than [other past RA]." Ultimately, adcom's want to know how you stack up to what they expect of their class, and if your writer can draw direct comparisons this can be very beneficial in assuaging any uncertainty.

    Based on this, I think there is a pretty strong case to be made for the more senior person to write the letter, with advice and input from the more junior person, though I imagine it is most natural to only have the more senior person's name appear on the letter. In a way, the junior person is really the source of the signal you're sending to grad schools, but the senior person is there to present the signal in the clearest way possible.

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    Re: Co-written letter of rec?

    I generally agree with matheonomics as well. I think letters from young juniors or non-active seniors can be quite valuable; and I don't think there's necessarily a hard ceiling of where those letters could get you. For instance, when I applied, I got into some top 5 programs with letters from two juniors and a non-active senior, all of whom were from non top-5 programs. None of them had a significant publication record over the previous 3-4 years; but they nonetheless had a good network at top departments (through ongoing or past collaboration, recruiting/job-market contact, conferences, or other experiences). Academia in R1 institutions is a small and dense network and conditional on your letter-writer being in that network, the content matters a lot more than the pedigree.

    On OP's specific issue, I believe most programs will accept co-signed letters on equal footing, but it's definitely unconventional and I don't think we have enough previous cases to compare with on this forum. The big question is whether one or both of them are sending a negative signal to you by demurring over the possibility of writing a single-authored RA letter -- or if a co-authored letter is in fact what they believe to be the best cause of action. My own concern is that if two of your PIs wish to jointly support your application, they'd have discussed the possibility of writing a co-authored letter between themselves, not casually discuss the issue with you separately. But of course, this may simply reflect personality or inexperience rather than their attitude towards you. It may be informative to get in contact with some of the past RAs that you referred to and try to gauge whether your prospective letter-writers are comparably supportive of your application.

    If you are sure that both of them are highly supportive of your application, then I think either a co-signed letter or jjrousseau's suggestion (senior author that substantially references the junior's personal evaluation of you) will be fine, and I don't think the difference is meaningful.
    Last edited by chateauheart; 09-17-2018 at 02:10 AM.

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