Can/should I ask a TA to write a grad school recommendation for me?
October 27, 2008 10:57 PM   Subscribe

Can/should I ask a TA to write a grad school recommendation for me?

Asking for a friend. She says:

"I'm applying to graduate school in the humanities, and I'd like to get a recommendation from a professor that I had very little contact with, as his class was a large-ish lecture (100 people+). I asked a few questions here and there after classes, but never went to the professor's office hours; as a result, I'm sure that the professor does not know me personally. Also: the professor is also well-known within my discipline.

For a discussion section for the class, however, I was really engaging and outspoken, and I also got an A- as my final grade and a A+ on my final paper. As a result, I'm considering asking my TA to write a recommendation. The TA, however, was a first-year PHD student, and thus I'm worrying that she might lack some sort of academic/institutional 'clout' if she writes my recommendation.

At the same time, I'm not sure how the professor would write a recommendation for me based on my performance in class if the class consisted of a 90-minute lecture (nobody really talked in this class).

And to complicate things; my ideal choice would be to stay at the school I'm in; it's in the perfect location for my discipline, very well-regarded, etc. So, when the director of admissions (at my current school) will be looking over my application, he'll no doubt probably know the TA by name, and wonder why I didn't get a recommendation directly from the professor.

What should I do? Any suggestions?"

Thanks AskMe!
posted by suedehead to Education (17 answers total)
Best answer: I don't think a TA would have any credibility as a reference. One idea would be to tell the TA that you are going to ask the prof for a recommendation and you would appreciate it if he/she would write a note (probably an email) to the prof with the TA's perspective on your performance to help the prof write a more meaningful recommendation. then ask the professor and tell him that the TA has offered to send the prof some background on your performance in discussion sections to help the prof with his letter of recommendation

Second possiblity based on past MeFi posts is that the prof might just ask you to write your own letter of reference for his review and signature.
posted by metahawk at 11:19 PM on October 27, 2008

Best answer: Don't get the letter from the TA. First of all, you're absolutely right that a first-year student has no clout whatsoever in your field. Second, such a young academic will have no experience writing letters of recommendation and will therefore probably not do as good a job at it.

If you really think that the professor you hardly know is the best choice, then you should probably point out when you ask him/her for the letter that TA can vouch for your character. You also should offer to show the professor some of your work. This will let the professor get a better feeling for who you are and what can be said about you. Professors are used to students asking for letters. It will be up to him/her to decide whether or not to write it for you, based on what little they know of you, but don't think you're in a terribly unusual situation.
posted by Ms. Saint at 11:23 PM on October 27, 2008

Why not ask this professor directly, or seek out the advice of the director of graduate studies at your department? You're right that letters usually mean more when they come from better-known recommenders, but your references also need to be specific and show some actual acquaintance of you and your abilities. A well-respected PhD student in the same program should have considerable credibility for that particular application.

One suggestion is that you could approach the professor in overall charge of the class during his or her office hours, taking your completed and graded assignments with you, and sound out their willingness and apparent ability to write a useful letter. Sometimes a TA can supply some useful information to the professor on your behalf, so the professor can write "according to my graduate teaching assistant suedehead wrote a fascinating final paper fully deserving of the exceptional A+ grade it received."
posted by Rain Man at 11:27 PM on October 27, 2008

Useless answer: go to office hours in the future.

Useful answer: Ask the TA if you should ask the prof for a recommendation. If a student of mine did this, esp. if the student had done quite well, I'd ask the prof what to do. Alternatively just ask the prof directly yourself. It might be possible to get a joint letter, or to have the prof cosign the rec.

In any case, I doubt the admissions director will wonder why you didn't get a rec from the prof; the director will *know* you didn't get one because it was a large lecture class. Whether they care or not is another matter.
posted by nat at 11:27 PM on October 27, 2008

Or what Ms. Saint said. And please don't write your professors' letters for them.
posted by Rain Man at 11:30 PM on October 27, 2008

Yeah, either try to get the TA to vouch for you with the prof, which would probably be worth it if the professor is a big wheel in the field; or find a prof who knows you better to write for you, even if it was a couple of years ago and/or you have to go outside your discipline. (I'm assuming this is like a second or third letter, not your only prof in the area of study.) Unless it was an extraordinary circumstance, having a TA write a letter would be weird.
posted by SoftRain at 11:55 PM on October 27, 2008

Response by poster: She says: "Thanks everybody. For clarification, this letter would be my weakest/third letter, in which I'd be getting the letter partially due to the professor's status in the field.

An alternate recommendation would be one in which the professor (in the same discipline) is a PhD but an instructor, with somewhat controversial research, whose mandatory intro/survey class I was in. Moreover, her focus of study within the discipline is completely different from my own. The flipside is that she knows me well, as the class was a seminar. Piggyback question -- do you think this would be a better option?"
posted by suedehead at 12:10 AM on October 28, 2008

I (3rd year phd student at top school in a social science) agree with everyone else here: do not get a letter from a TA, for the reasons expressed by others (like, all of them), but it is OK to ask the professor and mention that the TA can vouch for you. (The professor is always free to say "No, I have no idea who you are," and then what have you lost?)

But I'd go with your alternate recommendation in a heartbeat. The most important things are a) knowing you well, and b) having the credibility to say good things about you, and it sounds like this "controversial" person has both of those qualities.
posted by paultopia at 12:50 AM on October 28, 2008

Having a recommendation from a TA is worse than useless. It says that you couldn't even get three recommendations from an actual faculty member.

Yes, of course you should ask the professor who knows you well instead. It doesn't matter that her focus is different than yours.
posted by grouse at 1:01 AM on October 28, 2008

I second grouse on the 'worse than useless' part. 'partially due to the professor's status in the field' -- what does that mean if it's the TA writing it? I'm a 5th year PhD student, and I think I'd refuse to write a letter of rec for you, just because I'd feel it would be detrimental to you application.

The point of the letter of recommendations are
a) To show that you made at least 3 profs notice you through your work/intelligent comments/personal interactions.
b) To explain that you were a good student that distinguished yourself.
c) To speak about your ability to succeed in grad school (not the class part, but the reseach).

A letter from the TA is useless on all the accounts. Just the same, a letter that says 'suedehead's friend worked really hard in the course and got an A' is also useless -- it doesn't convey any new information.

Find some prof who you got along with, whose class you actively participated in and ask him or her. Don't worry if you didn't get the best grade in the class -- a letter of rec saying 'Even though suedehead's friend didn't get an A because of a low-scorint midterm, (s)he demonstrated great insight, asked interesting questions and took initiative to investigate a point brought up in class' -- is orders of magnitude better than the 'Worked hard; got good grades' that a prof unfamiliar with you can write. Which is still better than a rec by a 1st year PhD student.

Now if you want to use the TA to help you get a letter of rec from the prof -- great! Co-signed can work; I suspect that if the TA doesn't sign the letter, it'll be even better.
posted by bsdfish at 2:08 AM on October 28, 2008

Good advice here - generally you want your letters of recommendation to be from an Associate Professor (i.e. tenured professor) or greater in seniority. Barring that, a bright and upcoming Assistant professor. Barring that, perhaps a non-tenure track instructor with a terminal degree if you must. At least these recommenders will have actually completed the highest course of study in your field. Reviewers of your admissions information don't want to see a T.A.'s recommendation *anywhere*.

Keep in mind that the worst letter of recommendation, from anyone, is "So-and-so is a great student. They did well in my class and will go on to big things in grad school." If someone can't/won't discuss your specific qualities as they relate to your proposed program of study, they have given you the anti-recommendation.

A third letter outside of but related to your proposed area is not a bad idea if it is a descriptive, sincere-sounding letter from a tenure-track faculty member.
posted by mrmojoflying at 4:19 AM on October 28, 2008

Talk to the prof.

If you came to me in these circumstances for a letter, I would either:

*Ask you who your TA was, ask your TA to draft a recommendation letter, and then edit and sign it or otherwise work that information into the letter. This would be the most likely.

*Ask you for your papers and suchlike from class, so I'd be able to write specific things about your paper that got an A. Ask for your material more broadly, so that I could write specific things about it -- "Suedehead's record is very good. I have been teaching here for FOO years and her record here places her in the top X%, which includes OTHERS WHO WENT ON IN OUR DISCIPLINE."

Any sane professor would take the 20 seconds to say "I don't think I can write you a letter that would be useful to you" before they take the hour to write a letter that's not useful to you. I would just ask for the letter, stating my concern, and trust the prof's judgment.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:52 AM on October 28, 2008

Echoing most people's comments here. Don't get a letter from the TA. As a TA though, I've been asked by Prof's for information on students for recommendation letters. If this is a class you excelled in then definitely talk to the prof.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 6:59 AM on October 28, 2008

I'm going to be the voice of contention here and say that it depends what programs you're applying to, in what field. In creative writing MFA programs, for example, it's much more important to get a letter from someone who's familiar with your writing, and you, personally, than getting a "name."

That being said, I'm a TA and have written letters for desperate students in situations similar to your friends'--my class was the only one they'd ever taken with less than a hundred students and I was the only people who actually knew them. I've written these letters, with the caveat that I don't know how useful it is. In my discipline (broadly, English), the idea of someone cosigning a letter is bizarre and unheard of. One student insisted on it--was generally annoying about it, actually--and my supervisor and I both thought it was weird and off-putting (Metamessage: Don't piss off your recommenders. If they seem uncomfy with a request, drop it).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:16 AM on October 28, 2008

posted by solipsophistocracy at 8:16 AM on October 28, 2008

the idea of someone cosigning a letter is bizarre and unheard of

That would indeed be weird.

What I meant is that I might as the TA who knows you to write the letter, and then I'd look at it and sign it. As in "Draft a letter for me." TA's signature appears nowhere. Realistically, I'd ask for several paragraphs about the student that I could paste into my own letter.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:48 PM on October 29, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks everybody! She sez: "Thank you -- I'm going to talk to the professor, and see what happens -- I'll try to slip in some information about my interaction with my TA."
posted by suedehead at 1:16 PM on October 31, 2008

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