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I am applying for math graduate school. I have two people that I did research with: A professor and a postdoc. I have a strong connection with the professor, but the postdoc I do not. He was very passive aggressive with me and our relationship does not seem to be a good one. I do not want to ask him for a letter. However, I am wondering if this will look suspicious or hurt me in any sort of way. If I say in my application that I did do research with a postdoc but I did not receive a letter from that postdoc, will that affect me or the admission committee's decision? Will the admissions committee likely email this postdoc to hear about me from him?

Thank you very much.

  • Please clarify: do the postdoc and professor work together? – Anonymous Physicist Aug 25 '18 at 10:08
  • No they do not work together – ta9719 Aug 25 '18 at 12:09
  • How will anyone know unless you tell them? – Nicole Hamilton Aug 25 '18 at 17:37
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Admissions committees expect letters to be signed by professors. It is perfectly normal to get a letter from the professor who supervised the postdoc. The only case where I would expect the postdoc to even be mentioned in your application would be if you published a paper with the postdoc which did not include a contribution from a professor.

Keep in mind that professors often ask postdocs to help them write letters of recommendation.

  • I should have clarified earlier. My apologies. The professor and postdoc do not work together at all. I mentioned the professor to state that I have a letter from a faculty member that I did do research with. – ta9719 Aug 25 '18 at 12:10
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    Are you writing about mathematics specifically? I am the chair of the graduate admissions committee in my mathematics department, and I have never seen a letter written by a professor who supervised the postdoc about research in which the professor was not directly involved. I wonder why you assume that the postdoctoral supervisor even knows about the work the postdoc did with the undergraduate: for instance, as a postdoc I led a summer research project with two undergraduates. It was in a completely different subfield of mathematics from my supervisor's specialty. – Pete L. Clark Aug 25 '18 at 16:48
  • "I have never seen a letter written by a professor who supervised the postdoc about research in which the professor was not directly involved." I was assuming the professor was involved. The asker has since explained that is not the case. "I wonder why you assume that the postdoctoral supervisor even knows about the work the postdoc did" Usually postdocs tell their supervisors about their work so they can get credit for it. – Anonymous Physicist Aug 26 '18 at 1:54
  • @AnonymousPhysicist At least in math, postdocs usually get credit for their work by publishing it. – JeffE Aug 26 '18 at 6:47
  • In my case (as a postdoc), I got a very small amount of credit by putting the fact that I led a summer research project with two undergraduates on my CV. This research did not lead to any published paper, nor was I really "collaborating" with the students: rather, I gave them some things to explore. I think this describes the most typical research experience in mathematics for undergraduates, although (unfortunately, I mostly think) in the NSF sponsored REUs there is increasing pressure to publish. By the way, I did write a grad school letter for one of these students. – Pete L. Clark Aug 26 '18 at 8:10
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For every US graduate program in mathematics I know of, the application process includes three letters. So evidently you won't be getting letters from most of the faculty you've worked with.

If I were advising a student who had done two successful research projects with two different faculty members, I would advise against getting letters from both of these faculty members unless each one can also discuss your coursework and progress through the major. In my experience, when it comes to letters for math grad school describing undergraduate research, the writers almost universally paint a happy picture of the work, which most often leads to an "all happy families are alike" situation. Namely, they (most often) say nice things about the student, their work and that potential, but not sufficiently incisive nice things to really help out the admissions committee. Which makes a lot of sense: if you gave a student a project to, say, determine whether each continuous map of surfaces such that the induced homomorphism of fundamental groups has a nontrivial kernel must then have a nontrivial element of the kernel represented by a simple loop and the student eventually got some partial negative results*...how do you compare that to other students -- no other student has worked on that problem.

Moreover, getting letters from more senior academics is (other things being equal) better than getting letters from more junior academics, because the more senior academics have more experience watching and guiding students through the various stages of their academic careers. I would think that a typical postdoc in mathematics is still more heavily informed by their own undergradaute and graduate experience than those of students they have been involved with.

Anyway, long story short: even if the postdoc had great things to say about you, you wouldn't necessarily want their letter unless they had the best things of anyone who could plausibly write for you. As this is not the case: don't get the letter from that postdoc, and don't worry about it at all.

*: This is in fact a description of my own undergraduate research. I did not get a letter from the faculty member about it, though I'm sure he would have had nice things to say.

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    I would advise against getting letters from both of these faculty members unless each one can also discuss your coursework and progress through the major — I find this suggestion odd. In my experience, PhD recommendation letters rarely say anything about coursework that can't be gleaned from reading the transcript; whereas, research collaborators have more direct personal insight into the applicant's interests, work habits, and skills. – JeffE Aug 26 '18 at 6:59
  • @JeffE: One of they key parts of a math grad school recommendation letter is where the recommender explains where the student falls with respect to the spectrum of other undergrads from that institution. With regard to research: the research that most undergraduates in pure mathematics do need not have much to do with their future interests and skills. As I mentioned in my answer, my undergraduate research was on surface topology. Twenty one years later, if you squint at my work very carefully you can see some residue of this interest, but the connection is pretty faint. – Pete L. Clark Aug 26 '18 at 8:01
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    Right, but your research supervisor could still talk about your approach to research, your mathematical maturity, your creativity, your stubbornness, your attention to detail, your communication skills, your independence, your comfort with frustration, and other habits of successful mathematics researchers, regardless of subfield—much more directly and personally than your real analysis instructor. On the other hand, it's not hard to tell where a student falls with respect to other undergrads at that institution by comparing their transcript to others from the same or similar institutions. – JeffE Aug 26 '18 at 21:06

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