Letter of recommendation from department graduate?
October 14, 2013 9:28 AM   Subscribe

I'm considering applying to an MS program in statistics at a competitive school. A guy I've worked with holds a PhD from the statistics department at that school, and I think he'd give me a pretty good recommendation if I asked him for one. But I'm unsure whether or not that's a good thing to do, as this fellow isn't a professor.

Two things I’m unclear about:
  1. Are recommendations from graduates worthwhile? Presumably this fellow has some cachet with professors in the department since they granted his PhD. But, perhaps those professors are not so involved in the M.S. admissions process? (I actually don’t know much about how admission review works.) And anyway, perhaps a recommendation from a graduate means little if he's not a professor?
  2. How about if the recommendation can only speak to my capability in an industry/non-academic context? This guy can certainly suggest I'm competent and can attest to my enthusiasm about statistics, but he can’t legitimately claim we've done research together.
Further context: I’m a nontraditional applicant; probably a decade older than the median age of students in the program. I don’t have any research experience. Though I just finished another degree and know a couple profs I could hit up for recommendations for classwork, the degree was an MBA, which is only tangentially relevant to stats. My job and my GRE scores work in my favor, but otherwise I'm an unconventional candidate for the program. General tips for someone in my position are welcome.
posted by mf_ss to Education (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Ask him, he would have a better idea of the helpfulness of any letter from him than you or any of us, but make sure to mention the general quality of your other three best options for letters to help him get a complete idea. At the very least he might be good for advice about how you can best present yourself and most importantly about whether this program would be a good fit for you. Really, having someone with personal experience of a department who is unburdened by conflicts of interest that favor that department and who would be willing to discuss what getting a graduate degree there really means is an incredible asset that takes a lot of the risk out of graduate school, which could potentially save you a hell of a lot of bullshit down the road. That is what you should be taking advantage of.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:50 AM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

How many letters do you need total? If it's the standard three and your other two will be from academics who knew you in an academic context, it's probably worth a shot. If you only need one, it's maybe not a great idea.
posted by oinopaponton at 10:01 AM on October 14, 2013

Hmm, I think it would definitely be an unconventional recommendation letter. Whether or not the department would see it favorably is really hard to answer, because ultimately that comes down to the admissions committee and their particular preferences. I think this partly depends on the context of your work with this graduate - if "worked with" means "worked in the same office, and sometimes talked to about work stuff", I don't think his letter would mean much at all. If you've worked on specific projects with him or he supervised you in some way in this work setting, it could mean a lot more.

Overall, my hunch is that letters from your own supervisors and professors would always be more meaningful than a letter from someone you know casually, who happens to be a graduate of their program. Like I said above though, graduate admissions are very individual to the school/department you're applying to, so there's not really much great "this is definitely what you should do" advice anyone here can give you. I completely agree with Blasdelb that this guy's greatest help to you would probably be as a source of info about the actual day-to-day of being a student in that program, and as someone who might steer you towards good professors to talk to about the admissions process. Good luck and I hope you do get in so that you can have more stats fun!
posted by augustimagination at 10:06 AM on October 14, 2013

I've been on many M.S. graduate application committees in Mathematics at a large public university. Non-professor recommendation letter writers are indeed relatively rare. The problem is that they often are not in a position to compare the applicant to other students in his or her cohort. If you have two so-so reports from professors and a glowing, but ultimately meaningless report from someone else ("he's really smart!"), that would make the applicant look bad.

Outside recommendation can work, but only if they are in tandem with good academic reports and if they describe some genuinely impressive specific achievement of the applicant. Overall, it's safer to use only profs as letter writers. If you're concerned about the lack of stats references from your MBA professors, I would ask one or more of them to specifically say something about your statistics background. And the cover letter is also a good place to describe your motivations and background.

Good luck!
posted by tecg at 11:54 AM on October 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Unconventional students have unconventional applications. If you've never done anything but go to undergrad and grad school, then all you have are professors to recommend you. If you've been out for a decade, then you probably have people outside of academia that can evaluate you.

So ADD an extra recommendation. Get the three you need from professors and add one from this grad.
posted by 26.2 at 12:23 PM on October 14, 2013

When I've been on committees at our university discussing student applications, everyone is pretty unanimous in their response to letters of recommendation that are from people like grad students, ex-grad students, and other low-tier academics. The response is: Well, clearly the applicant couldn't find three senior academics who would recommend them. And that's a red flag. By itself it might not kill the application completely, but it's something you want to avoid. The exception is if the recommendation is from someone in industry who you worked for.

I think a lot of committees see letters as name-dropping exercises. It's not about what the person says about the applicant (unless it's lukewarm or negative). It's about whether the student can show that he/she has networked a bit, been involved with some big-name researchers, and caught the attention of senior people. So ideal is to have letters from world renowned experts (nobel prize winners or something). Next step down is people the committee will have heard of and trust the opinion of. Next step down is the most senior people in your department, even if they aren't people we will have heard of. Next step down is full professors, even if they aren't the most senior. And then if you are getting people below that, it doesn't tell us anything much at all, but it only starts raising a red flag if they are super junior, and yes, a former PhD student does count as that.

I am a postdoc and I get students asking me to write letters for them all the time. I always refuse unless they honestly can't find someone else, and I tell them straight out that it will look weird for them, no matter how glowing my reports are.
posted by lollusc at 8:01 PM on October 14, 2013

If this person supervised you directly then it's 100% appropriate. If they did not, then it's weird and I wouldn't bother.
posted by FrereKhan at 11:33 PM on October 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the advice. I think I'll hold off on asking for a letter of recommendation. The suggestion to ask this fellow for insight about the application makes sense to me.
posted by mf_ss at 12:01 PM on October 16, 2013

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