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I am interested in going back for my masters. While I have been accepted by a masters program (quite a while ago) previously, I am looking at another university and require a fresh set of references. I have lost track of my previous advisors and am unable to get work references.

So I need to prove myself at this point to somebody. There are some optional courses in the undergrad that I am interested in, but to be honest I could just read the textbook and save some money.

So:
Is it ethical/acceptable to take courses for the sole purpose of getting a reference letter?

and

Should I inform the prof before taking the class of my intent if this is a gray area?

Note: I know that it is still the prof's choice if I get a letter and this method is nowhere near ideal. Just the best I could come up with.

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4 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Students have lots of reasons for taking courses and I don't think I want to be in the business of telling students that there are right and wrong reasons to take a class. I certainly think it's a good idea for prospective PhD students to think about who might be good letter writers early on in their program and to make sure they work with some of them — not doing so can make the academic job market very difficult. I don't see this as being substantively different. If you take the class, do well, and then ask for a letter, you might get a good one. Or you might not. So I'd say go ahead.

That said, there is something very mercenary about the way you have phrased your question that makes me skeptical. Do you really think that working with faculty wouldn't teach you anything? If it's true that the only reason you want to take a class is because of the letter you might get, something seems off. Maybe your interests are different enough from the professor's that I'm skeptical that this person would be such a great letter writer for what you want to do.

Being able to excel in a Masters program means not resenting the idea that you may have to learn from professors when you could "just read the book." I think it's OK to take a class for a recommendation but you should use this as opportunity to learn something you are passionate about in ways you could not with just the textbook.

Talk to the professor. Let them know you are an advanced and passionate student. Get feedback on your work. Go beyond what is just in the book. If you do that, you will get more than you would otherwise. In the process, you will also earn a much stronger letter. If you can't get over that hump, I suspect that your recommendations — and your experience in grad school — will underwhelm.

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My apologizes for the "mercenary". My classes to this point have been limited by my peers and administration. I found when I when I wanted to start a more interesting conversation it would be me, the prof and the rest of the class who didn't do the reading. My interaction time (after class) with profs has been invaluable. It just has been a rare instance where would get beyond initial topics and finish the book and get a point where the prof could be valuable. This is a new university, if I get a C and learn something and miss my chance for a reference this would still be a success. –  DarkSheep Feb 13 '13 at 18:58
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If the quality of your work surpasses those of your peers and you end up resorting to after-class conversations with the professors to push beyond what's on the syllabus, this is not a bad thing! It means you're passionate and learning! As a happy side effect, it probably means you'll get a good letter that reflects this. –  Benjamin Mako Hill Feb 13 '13 at 19:04
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If you take a class for the express purpose of getting a letter, are you sure the class is to your interests ? If it isn't, and you aren't good at the material, you're not going to get a letter (or worse, you'll get a tepid letter).

If on the other hand you're taking the class because you like the material AND you hope that you can impress the professor enough to get a letter, then that's perfectly normal.

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This is a completely personal decision. Is it ethical? Sure. People audit courses for all kinds of reasons. You're not the first person that has needed to get references so if you want to do that then just make sure that you're ready to give that course 110% to ensure that you get a 'good' reference.

There is, however, another implied question in your post: 'If I just go back for one class to get a reference will it have any value?'. Again, this is highly subjective.

(and here is why I didn't flag this question as being off topic) Your references should provide the admissions board with enough relevant information about your work, accomplishments, intellect, and character, to support your admission to the program. Taking one class, after a long academic absence, does not provide any frame of reference for your professor to make these types of assertions about you. You may find it better to solicit references from managers or people that you've done research with. Those people have the context to make a legitimate assessment of you and your work.

At the very least you should consider how your references support each other. If you need to have an academic reference and you don't have access to your previous references then taking a class to get one should be fine, just don't forget to support that as appropriate.

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Absolutely, this is ethical.

Life is about proving yourself, and if you want to take a challenge to make a statement, there is nothing unethical about it.

I would absolutely go ahead.

The purpose of a reference letter is for someone to make a character or professional evaluation of an individual. The reason as to why the individual needs the evaluation should not make a difference.

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