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Thread: Letter writer choice: reputation or familiarity with my research

  1. #1
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    Letter writer choice: reputation or familiarity with my research

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    I am interested in people's opinions as to the criteria I should be using to choose my letter writers. If it matters, I am an Australian student finishing Honours (some weird concoction involving postgrad level coursework and a substantial thesis). I am applying to top 10 + business schools.

    I have four people who are my primary options as referees:

    1. Main supervisor for my honours thesis. I have also been his RA for 18 months or so. Very well known. Harvard PhD + top 5 assistant professor early in his career. Now full professor with lots of top 5 pubs. Will definitely be writing.

    2. Secondary supervisor for my thesis. I have been intermittent RA for last 2 years, although the projects were not as substantial as for 1. Harvard PhD + MIT postdoc. Now equivalent to assistant professor at my uni. Will write a very nice letter, although isn't that well known (perhaps is at Harvard + MIT owing to education there).

    3. Very well known professor from exchange uni I spent a year at (US top 30 for economics). I took an undergrad class and came first with 100% by a large margin. I audited a very difficult graduate class and kept up quite well despite, at that point, having not taken real analysis. This was almost 2 years ago though. I have, however, kept in contact and asked (and confirmed and re-confirmed) that he will happily write a letter saying I did very well in hard courses and have research potential in his opinion. But I haven't done any research with or for him. Also slightly unreliable (ocassionally takes a while or forgets to respond to emails). But I hope for something this important he would do it on time.

    4. Very well known professor from my uni, who I am currently taking PhD level game theory/mechanism design class with. My marks are very good, and he has encouraged me to go to grad school and happy to write, but I have not done any research with or for him.

    5/6 etc: a few professors I have done very well in courses with, and have done one or two brief RA projects for, all less well known than 1 - 4.

    So, I guess I am asking in general (also specific advice here would be great) whether having three letters from famous people even with only one directly speakign to research abilities and experience is better than substituting one for a much less famous but probably stronger letter that can speak to research ability/potential. I have also intermittently been an RA for faculty other than 1 and 2 in the last year, so if the advice is that speaking to research experience and potential is paramount, than I guess even 1 + 2 + 5 could be a possibility.

    Anyway, any advice is very much appreciated.

  2. #2
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    Re: Letter writer choice: reputation or familiarity with my research

    Generally, if a letter-writer surpasses a floor of having recognizable credentials (Ph.D. at good institution, or professor at good institution), it's better to go for the more familiar professor rather than more famous professor.

    With that said, in your case it may be worthwhile to pick #3 (along with #1-#2) because he's at the U.S., and may have a more extensive network there. And as for your worry, deadlines for letters are not that important; at virtually every grad program there are a few weeks between application deadlines and the start of the review process, so you can send him/her a reminder if the letter is not submitted on time.

    You've been an RA for #1 and #2 so I'm not sure if an additional letter about a brief RA project from #5-#6 will add much value. And #3 seems to dominate #4 as an option.

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