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The importance of being earnest, or rather of LOR's




In my ongoing effort to not read these 50 papers, today I’m going to talk about letters of recommendation. First allow me to state from here on out I will be using the popular LOR instead of typing out the full words. First this saves me time in writing and second, even though I am a PhD student, I have no idea how to spell recommendation and am sick of seeing that little red line under it. Quick aside, Microsoft word will always get a notice and thank you in my papers. Without it I would be embarrassed to hand my manuscripts over to my editor wife to edit.


Alright back to LOR’s. First let’s start with why professors are preferred to industry recs, when for MBA programs the exact opposite is true. Let’s take the example of George. George is a 28 year old team leader at company X, and he is applying to PhD programs in the fall. George did well in school, but mostly kept his head down and was wholly forgettable (as a lot of us were). On the other hand at X George has been a super star. He’s well-liked by both management and peers and has moved steadily up the corporate ladder at a pace faster than most. George doubts that any professors even remember his name, while it would be really easy for him to get the president of X as well as two other upper managers to write LOR’s for him. So George decides to ignore our advice and gets three industry LOR’s. Now when professor Y at school Z gets his application, he has 2 minutes (or less) to make a judgement about whether to consider the application. Professor Y sees the LOR’s signatures all include MBA, but not PhD and moves on to the next application.


Is this fair? Probably not. I’m guessing that George’s LOR’s were filled with strong words about how George is a strong applicant and worker who always completes tasks on time, is a great manager and generally well-received around the office. The issue is that these skills are unimportant for a PhD. Let’s pretend that George did head our advice and worked with his managers to write LOR’s that were specific to his research ability. While the managers would try their best to speak to his research ability, they don’t have any academic research themselves, so they can’t really speak to his ability to do it. At best they can speak to his ability to research in industry, which is great, but not always relevant to PhD.


On the other hand if George had emailed a few professors from his old university even if they didn’t remember him right away he may still have had a chance to remind them who he was. After a few exchanges I’m guessing that they would be more than willing to write strong LOR’s for him. Since these professors have been through the application process, or even possibly have been adcom’s, they’ll know what schools are looking for. More importantly they will be able to speak to George’s ability to do academic research. This is all that really matters in applications. These people will have a stronger pull with adcom’s because it is logical that someone who does research will be able to better speak to George’s ability to research than someone who doesn’t.


Does this mean that George has to only use academic recs? Of course not. I firmly believe that an applicant can get away with one industry rec, especially if that is a strong rec (i.e. at a well-known company). Soft skills, while often downplayed on here and in academia, are extremely important and will be the difference when comparing you and another candidate on the market or in admission decisions. In my opinion, and others may disagree, if you can’t get 3 academic recs, one industry won’t hurt.


Now let’s talk quickly about academic recs. People who you’ve RA’d for will be your best bet. No one can speak to your ability to research than people who you’ve researched with. Even if your RAship was data input, you were able to get a really basic understanding of how academic research is completed and the prof can speak to that in their LOR. Another thing to keep in mind is that you should try to get academic recs in fields that are similar to the ones you are applying to. The reason for this is twofold. First it shows that you have some knowledge of how research in this field is done. If the rec says that you have a strong potential and speaks to specific projects you’ve done together, this will push you over the edge. Second, it is likely that if you are applying to program in field B and your rec researches in field B, if they publish in top journals, it’s likely that they will be known by all the other people studying in field B. I can’t stress enough how important this is. If the adcom knows the LOR writer this will be a huge help to you.


That being said if you can’t get someone specifically in your field then get someone in a field similar to what you want to study. Make sure that you start working with them early enough (i.e. now if you are applying this fall) to build a strong LOR. Provide them with specific details you would like them to include in your letter including specific projects you’ve helped with to remind them how awesome you were. Send them a few reminder emails as the deadlines approach and be willing to provide input if they ask for it. Finally always remember to go into this with a grateful heart and attitude. They don’t have to do this for you. Be thankful and helpful to them.


If you disagree with any of this please feel free to comment below. To all of the new applicants this year, good luck. I can truly say that I don’t envy you, but once you are in, it’s great.



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