Graduate school reference choice
August 15, 2009 1:46 PM   Subscribe

Is your own psychologist a good or bad references for a graduate application (to get into a psychology program)?

My psychologist knows how interested I am in pursuing a career in counseling and thinks I have what it takes. He's already agreed to helping in the form of a reference letter if need be. He also hinted at the fact that the letter didn't necessarily have to say outright that he's my former doctor.

First, is using him at all a good idea?

Second, if I don't say he's my doctor in the letter, how would I go around ghostwriting it and shaping it to be a more personal/professional relationship?
posted by patientpatient to Education (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
If you were going into podiatry would you have any issue using a letter of recommendation from your podiatrist?
posted by ian1977 at 1:49 PM on August 15, 2009

Definitely a terrible idea.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:52 PM on August 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

If I were you, I'd be freaked out at the weird boundary-blurring your psych has already implied he's willing to tolerate. Grossly, freakishly inappropriate. No.
posted by mynameisluka at 2:01 PM on August 15, 2009 [5 favorites]

Bah, it's a fine idea, using the same criteria as any other reference: be sure you ask some version of "Can you write me a strong reference?", to be sure you're getting a good one.

Also, if he's already offered, he presumably has a good handle on whether it would be helpful or not. Has probably has more experience at this than you have, right. Ask if he's ever written references for anyone else before. And for that matter, ask him the question you ask here: Do you think it's a good idea? Will it help or hurt me? And so on.

And anecdatally, in my experience: damn near every therapist is in therapy themselves, so you won't find a group more supportive or accepting of it. There's a reason they undertook careers that deal with issues of the mind.
posted by rokusan at 2:01 PM on August 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

I really doubt it will be an effective reference letter, given how limited his/her knowledge of you when you leave out the "doctor-patient" part. Take a look at this sample reference letter (or you can google for yourself too).
posted by caelumluna at 2:07 PM on August 15, 2009

All of the grad programs I've applied to wanted references from people who are familiar with your work as a student, i.e. professors who have taught or worked closely with you. If the program you are interested in is not explicit about that, it would be perfectly appropriate to call the graduate secretary and ask her what kinds of relationships would be appropriate for referrers. If there is any ambiguity in her response, you could say that your therapist has offered a letter and ask if it would be appropriate. If you call, you don't have to leave your name, so if they have a negative reaction, there's no harm to your application.

My suspicion is that unless there is something very specifically relevant that your therapist can say about your qualifications, s/he is not a good reference.
posted by carmen at 2:17 PM on August 15, 2009

carmen is probably right. It's not at all obvious that your psychologist would have anything useful to say here.

If you were looking for a character reference, sure, go ahead. But this is an academic reference, and there's nothing in these facts to suggest that this person will have any relevant knowledge.
posted by valkyryn at 2:23 PM on August 15, 2009

I can't see how an honest letter from your therapist would help you get into grad school. If he's going to fudge a little bit, leave out your doctor-patient relationship, and intimate that he knows you in an academic or scholarly context, you might get away with it, but it might also blow up in your face. I wouldn't want to start my career predicated on a letter of recommendation that came from anyone that couldn't evaluate me in a professional context.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 2:23 PM on August 15, 2009

It might be fine. It might not. Judging by the comments so far, you have about a 50 percent chance that the admissions person will think it's fine.

Are those odds good enough for you?

Even if you're fine with it, and your therapist is fine with is, and half the folks on mefi are fine with it, the 50 percent (or 40 or 30, or whatever, but certainly greater than non-existent) chance that the reviewer will get a bad vibe from it, probably means you might want to find someone else with whom your odds are a bit better.
posted by ochenk at 2:34 PM on August 15, 2009

I assumed in my answer above that this was a personal/character reference. If it's an academic reference, I don't see how he could even provide that in the first place, unless he was also an instructor at some point.
posted by rokusan at 2:42 PM on August 15, 2009

Psychology graduate schools want letters attesting to your academic, job, and research experience in psychology. Any other types of letters will probably not be considered by the graduate school, and they will not improve your chances of admission and acceptance.

I know this because I went to graduate school and received a doctorate in developmental psychology. During my time in graduate school (and after), I spent time with professors who had to read these letters and decide which student(s) they wanted to accept. They did not consider this type of letter in their decisions.
posted by Four-Eyed Girl at 2:52 PM on August 15, 2009

Absolutely not acceptable. You pay him for your interaction.
posted by phrontist at 2:53 PM on August 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

Ochenk, I don't think the people who are saying it's fine have any idea what it takes to get into a doctoral program. Personal/character references are not appropriate.
posted by emilyd22222 at 3:11 PM on August 15, 2009

No way. Letters of recommendation are about your qualifications within a professional context and the letter writer needs to indicate how they have come to know you. Your therapeutic relationship with this person =/ a professional relationship. This would probably be looked upon very unfavorably by an admissions committee.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 3:19 PM on August 15, 2009

emilyd22222: "Ochenk, I don't think the people who are saying it's fine have any idea what it takes to get into a doctoral program. Personal/character references are not appropriate."

That may or may not be true. My point was that if there's a very real chance that the reviewer will think it inappropriate (whether it is or not), then if for no other reason than strategy, the OP should consider asking someone else.
posted by ochenk at 3:26 PM on August 15, 2009

I think more mental health professionals should be required to get a recommendation from a therapist who has worked with them before they graduate.

I also agree with posters above and don't think a recommendation from a non-academic/professional contact will help with admissions at most schools.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 4:41 PM on August 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Bad idea. Terrible idea, actually.
posted by emd3737 at 7:04 PM on August 15, 2009

It is conventional in all professional reference letters to state how (and for how long) the writer has known the subject of the letter. How's your therapist going to "fudge" that without lying?
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:05 PM on August 15, 2009

My undergraduate psychology profs told us specifically NOT to do this. I think its a bad idea.
posted by rsk at 8:36 PM on August 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Once you are in the grad program, you will be SO GLAD YOU DIDN'T DO THIS because of the way it will potentially affect the way your future professors will see you, and once you've taken your first ethics course, you will get it from a whole other perspective. Don't do it. (You may also begin very seriously questioning the ethics of your therapist, as it is honestly a little horrifying that he suggested the idea to you.)

If nothing else, think of it this way: when the program coordinators (your future professors, people who are in charge of your future in the program, and whom you will have to see day in and day out) receive your application, how would you like them to view you? Do you want them to wonder, without even having met you, whether you are only considering this career to try and work out your own issues? Do you want them to wonder whether you are really good material for their program, since you thought it was appropriate to involve your personal therapy in your academic pursuits? And if your therapist were to not disclose his actual relationship to you, what value would his input have regarding your competencies in different areas of psychology? What if you're in the interview and they ask you who Dr. Therapist is and in what capacity he knows about your skills and qualities?
posted by so_gracefully at 9:44 PM on August 15, 2009 [3 favorites]

It's the kind of letter that might be acceptable in applying to an undergraduate degree program, since those can be letters about your character. At the graduate level, they want to hear from people who have worked with you in an academic setting. A letter from someone you were/are a patient for simply adds nothing to your application on that front.
posted by voltairemodern at 11:26 PM on August 15, 2009

Unless there's an aspect of this you haven't been real clear about, I can't see him doing you much good with a reference letter.

He might be useful for advice. He might even be able to put in a good word for you with an old friend. But just a to whom it may concern type of letter? Not so much.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:05 AM on August 16, 2009

Bad idea, not to mention unethical. Ethics are valuable in a counselor.
posted by kathrineg at 8:25 PM on August 16, 2009

I was asked this by a friend, and my answer was NO way. Faculty concurred. I'm a student in a psych program, by the way.

On a related note, talking about your stint with psychological issues is not a good idea when asked why you chose psychology. While its a good reason that many people have for finding psychology, its not what the school wants to hear. To a certain extent, applications have an extra "can they tell what to say/not to say" factor thats quite important. Too much personal info is bad. Mentioning your bipolar will, sadly, make you a bad bet for a school that is looking for stable students. Its not fair, but true as far as I've seen.
posted by gilsonal at 10:09 PM on August 16, 2009

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