Does it really matter if your letter writing is in your exact subfield?

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Joined: Mon Oct 07, 2019 12:33 am

Does it really matter if your letter writing is in your exact subfield?

Post by PhysicsQuestions990 » Tue Dec 01, 2020 1:21 am

I'm applying to astronomy PhD programs primarily with a focus in exoplanets and my letter writers are all professors in observational cosmology with whom I have done statistical, exoplanetary related research with. They are top of their fields, but will likely not be known by professors studying exoplanets. I have two first author papers under these professors related to exoplanets/statistics for some background.

Will the fact that my letter writers are not in the specific field of exoplanets hurt me in my applications? Otherwise, I know they will be superb letters!


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Re: Does it really matter if your letter writing is in your exact subfield?

Post by geekusprimus » Tue Dec 01, 2020 4:31 am

I can only offer my experience, which is similar to yours. My undergraduate research was pretty solidly in high-energy astrophysics, but it was sort of a side project for my undergraduate advisor, who works in numerical relativity. Consequently, although all three of my letter writers were research related, none of them were in high-energy astrophysics. The one high-energy astrophysics application I wrote was my only rejection the whole season, and it wasn't even the best school on my list. Meanwhile, all four numerical relativity programs I applied for accepted me just fine, including two that were at least as prestigious as my rejection. This is just one data point, so take it with a grain of salt (I can think of a laundry list of other reasons I might not have been accepted), but it is something interesting to point out.

I don't think your letter writers not being in exoplanets will hurt you, and it will probably look better than just a random letter from one of your classroom professors. The fact that you have first-author publications in exoplanets looks good. You should also take solace in the fact that many people are likely to read your application, not just the people you write about in your statement of purpose, and people you weren't really considering might actually be interested in working with you. That being said, you're correct in assuming that cosmologists aren't likely to have much name appeal to exoplanet people.

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