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How much does the reputation of the prof/department matter?

InquilineKeaInquilineKea - Posts: 2,309 Member
edited July 2007 in Graduate School
For example, are there any general trends wrt assistant professors as compared to tenured professors? I'm sure that the variation between types of professors is lower than the variation between professors of the same type - but there could possibly be special cases where the type of professor who gives out recommendations may matter.

And what of the departmental reputation? Sakky said in the old "MIT is a complete joke" thread that a stellar student could go into a state school and do exceptionally well in that state school. But then - there's the issue of the reputation of those who can issue out recommendations. And not all highly motivated students will necessarily get exceptionally well GPAs in state schools - and these students will need research to offset lower GPAs.

And in the case of a famous but jaded professor vs. an enthusiastic but non-tenured assistant professor - would the recommendation from the former type of professor matter more? (even if the latter type of professor may be more enthusiastic in helping the student out?)

And then - how can I tell which people are the most reliable in giving out recs, and the ones who aren't so reliable?
Post edited by InquilineKea on

Replies to: How much does the reputation of the prof/department matter?

  • molliebatmitmolliebatmit Registered User Posts: 12,374 Senior Member
    I don't know that I can answer any general questions, but I got the feeling that it helped me very much as an applicant that I had a letter from a professor who a) is very well-known and a star in his field, b) is known for being demanding, tactless, and for not liking slackers, and c) wrote a letter saying that I was the best thing since sliced bread. I think for me, the real kicker was the relation between b and c rather than a per se, but I think it did help that everyone knew him and knew the quality of the research being done in his lab.

    I think perhaps "this is the best student I have encountered in years" means quite a bit more coming from a professor who's seen it all rather than a greenhorn assistant prof. Lukewarm recommendations will hurt, whether they're from Nobel laureates or from adjuncts.
  • ysk1ysk1 Registered User Posts: 740 Member
    ...wrote a letter saying that I was the best thing since sliced bread
    How well do you need to do to make profs say in your LORs things like "this is the best student I have encountered in years"? Also, did you take one or more classes with your LOR prof, or was the prof just your lab sponsor, or both?
  • molliebatmitmolliebatmit Registered User Posts: 12,374 Senior Member
    The letter-writer was my lab supervisor. In the sciences, admissions committees will be more interested in letters from people who have seen your ability to do research -- doing well in class is nice, but it's not really going to help you get through a science PhD program.
    How well do you need to do to make profs say in your LORs things like "this is the best student I have encountered in years"?
    Well, better than anyone they've seen in years, I suppose. I don't think it's exactly quantiifiable.
  • WilliamCWilliamC Registered User Posts: 785 Member
    Dude - you're WAY overthinking this. An excellent LOR from a brand new asst. prof. is going to do you more good than a generic "joe was an excellent student" type letter from Professor BigName.

    The vast majority of applicants will not have super letters from famous profs like MollieB. We have (hopefully) super letters from regular profs who believe we can be a success in a particular program.

    Get to know your profs. Go to office hours, colloquia, etc. Go "above and beyond" on assignments. Read current research. Be in your department's honors program. By the time fall of your senior year comes around the 3 names you need will be obvious.

  • Mudder's_MudderMudder's_Mudder Registered User Posts: 585 Member
    OP, could you be more specific? What field? What level of post-graduate degree (master's or PhD)?

    I will say generally that for PhD programs that are research-based, the admissions committee members are looking for people capable of doing research--just as Mollie posted. That's what it's all about. Research experience may vary by field. Best you contact your profs to determine what types of research experience grad schools in your field are looking for: Long-term in one lab, varied experience in different labs settings, research internships in industry or government labs, etc.

    The best recommendations come from researchers who are capable of speaking in detail to a student's research skills. That doesn't mean a stellar recommendation says "This is the best student I have encountered in years"; rather, "This student's research experience thus far is the best our school has produced in years." Initiative, independence, and perseverence are qualities that committee members like to see; so are working well and playing nice with others. (If you're getting research experience now, try to focus on letting your supervisors see those qualities in you.) If that track record can be backed up with evidence (conference presentations, awards, publications, etc.), then so much the better--although, again, this may vary by field; it may be harder to get published, say, as an undergrad in some fields than others.

    When it comes times to get your recs, you'll give a "cheat sheet" to your recommenders listing your accomplishments. Talk to them about the recs. You may want different recommenders to speak to different aspects of you.

    A couple of things to keep in mind about recommendations. Have a few solid recs you can count on and a few more in reserve. (Profs sometimes take sabbaticals and can be hard to reach when the time comes.) Ask upperclassmen which profs are good recommenders. (Profs get busy, and you don't want someone who's late on the draw and rushed at deadline.) Which profs have a solid track record for writing recs that got students in your department into top grad schools?

    It's a good idea to get some experience yourself in your underclassman years with recommenders. Which ones worked for you? Which ones wrote recs that got you that coveted internship? that competitive research position?

    Look at a school like Olin. They're brand new yet having spectacular success getting their students into great grad programs. I suspect that has a lot to do with something a prof at my son's college told me about how they got their students into grad school when the school was brand new 40-50 years ago: The rec letters made all the difference. Profs had to convince grad schools that their students were capable of doing research, so that's exactly what their recs did.

    (p.s. WilliamC is right!)
  • ysk1ysk1 Registered User Posts: 740 Member
    If your LOR writer is a prof you took one or more courses with, you simply have to do really well in their classes and go to their office hours often to have them write great LORs for you. But what if your LOR writer is only your lab supervisor? What things do you need to do well in the lab to make your lab supervisor have a great opinion of you? Obviously, things like recording data and cleaning lab facilities won't count, right?
  • larationalistlarationalist Registered User Posts: 916 Member
    I figure this is why you submit more than one LOR. Get one from each and call it a day.
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