Finding Letter Writers

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Joined: Wed Aug 07, 2013 9:40 am

Finding Letter Writers

Post by tgp217 » Wed Aug 07, 2013 12:26 pm

I'm having trouble right now trying to determine how I am going to get good letters of recommendation for grad school. I'm going into my junior year and I've been doing research under the same professor for almost a whole year (including a full summer). I know he will write me an excellent letter, but that is just 1 of the 3 that most grad schools require.

Like everybody else on this forum, I hope to get into top tier schools, but I worry that simply getting 2 more LOR from professors that teach my classes as opposed to advising my research won't cut it for a Stanford or MIT. At the same time, I don't want to ditch my current research just to find and ingratiate myself with another professor because my group is on the verge of a couple publications on which I'll be an author.

Hopefully I'll get an REU or something for this next summer and find a letter writer there, but there's no guarantee with those things. I have a strong GPA and I'm confident in my ability excel on the PGRE, but my school isn't noteworthy physics-wise, so I understand I need to impress with great letters also. Does anybody have ideas as to what I should do to get better letter writers? Should I seek out new research even if I like what I'm doing now? Or am I just being paranoid and professors of my classes will do just fine?

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Re: Finding Letter Writers

Post by TakeruK » Wed Aug 07, 2013 1:44 pm

Publications are good, so if you feel reasonably confident about getting them, then it's probably a good idea to make sure your year long project comes to fruition!

Also, I don't think you should view it as "ditching" your current research. Proper research projects, in my opinion, have a definite start/end date and my profs at my undergrad definitely encouraged all of us to try out at least 2 different projects (usually a different one every summer and/or a senior/honours thesis).

I think if you talked to your supervisor about your plans for grad school (beginning of junior year is a good time for that), they will probably advise you to try at least one other project too. If you really want to stay within the same group, then maybe there is a collaborator or another prof in the group that has a different project you can work on.

You can also consider doing something in a different subfield as well. The value of undergrad research experience is the breadth and variety of different techniques, code, experiments, collaboration styles, etc. that you get exposed to. So, I would recommend that undergrads seek breadth, not depth, in their research experience, to some extent.

In addition, you don't have to technically still be in the group in order to get the publication out. If you are not the only person working on your project, I'm sure the other students, grad students, post-docs, profs will want to finish the project and publish, and you still get to keep your co-authorship. After all, you still did contribute to the work! It's unlikely that an undergrad is the lead author and will write the paper anyways (if you are in this situation though, then it would be a good idea to stay and do that). Almost all of my coauthored papers from my undergrad research work got written, submitted, and published after I already left the group and moved onto a different project. And this was with me working full time on each project for 8 months! Even after I left my undergrad school, I was still involved in a bit of analysis and writing of paper that used my dataset/code/analysis when I was still there.

Finally, you don't have to worry about getting 3 research LORs, although that would be excellent (you're on-track for that: do a summer project with 2nd LOR prof, and then senior thesis with a 3rd LOR prof, so I think you should make this your goal). But 2 research letters and 1 class letter is fine too.

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