I am currently a Master's student and planning to apply for PhD. Now, I have directly worked with two professors for research projects. Unfortunately, those two are the only professors I have taken more than one course with too. With no other professor I had two or more classes so they do not know me well. I could be able to convince one of them to write letters for me. But surely that's gonna be a canned recommendation like "I taught him this course and he's got an A". Besides as an introvert, I am not memorable at all. I don't drop by during office hours to have small chats or ask many questions in the class. On the other hand, I have a PhD student in my research group. He doesn't have the credentials or experience, but he can write a more personal and accurate recommendation letter for me. I have worked with him closely and he can give his opinion from both our personal and academic interactions.

Edit: just to be clear, the two professors I have worked with already agreed to give me LORs. I need a third letter.

Edit 2: I have another option. I have worked as a TA for one semester. The instructor can give me an LOR. But he is neither a tenured professor nor a Ph.D. degree holder himself. So I am not much sure about this option. Is it gonna "hurt" my application?

Edit 3: I collaborated with the PhD student before and we are co-authors of two papers.

  • 2
    As a third LOR, it's probably OK if it's well-written and the other two LORs are substantial, but that sounds like it might not be the case here. Another option is to ask the doctoral student to pass his detailed opinion of you on to the PI of the research group and have her write the letter. Commented Dec 9, 2018 at 21:00
  • @ElizabethHenning thank you. The thing is, our PI is the same and it is one of those two professors I have mentioned. Those professors will give me good references- I am confident about that. I did very well in their research projects and I also have good relations with them in personal level- like going out for lunch together or being invited to their homes for Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner. Another option is I can ask a professor for whom I was the TA for one semester. We had a lot of interaction. The thing is, he is not a tenure-track faculty. He is a lecturer. Does it matter much?
    – Rjordan72
    Commented Dec 9, 2018 at 21:43
  • A "did well in class" letter from a professor might be actually better in this case, if you go and tell them a bit about yourself.
    – xuq01
    Commented Dec 9, 2018 at 23:46
  • If you already have an LOR that would say most of what the doctoral student would say, then get the third LOR from another professor who knows you as a student, not just as a TA. For grad programs, a tenure-track letter is much better than a non-tenure-track letter from someone without a PhD. The point is that you want the most credible letters possible attesting to your likelihood of succeeding in a PhD program. Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 0:21

6 Answers 6


You could do this, though it might be questioned. It would be best if the PhD student has some supervisory function in your group, rather than just a "fellow" student. The letter from the student should make your relationship clear so that someone reading it knows whether they should follow up with you or not.

But you can also, as an introvert, work to increase your own visibility with the faculty so that this need not recur. Many of them are possibly just about as introverted as you are.

  • Thanks, @Buffy. No, he is not a supervisor or anything. But we have collaborated in the past and are co-authors in two journal papers. Does that help in any way?
    – Rjordan72
    Commented Dec 9, 2018 at 23:06
  • Difficult to say. Just expect a question or two about it.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 9, 2018 at 23:13

I have heard a couple of times Ph. D. students writing recommendation letters, and the outcome was positive, it should not be much problem. But you may, in most case, try to get the 2 recommendations you mentioned from professors, and another one with "canned recommendation", to meet the requirement of 3 LOR, for instance. Additionally, you can get an extra LOR from that Ph. D. student.

P.S. even if you expect a canned recommendation, it may not be that dull. I have seen many professors who are very good observers. Besides, they can also check your exam papers and quizzes/assignments rigorously and infer some positive things from there as well. In short, don't try to imagine what a professor can write in LOR. If they accept to write it, and you are on good terms with him/her, it will not be as bad as you predict.



The fact that you cannot find enough professors to write LoRs implies that you are some random unknown student in your university. Unless you are applying to a PhD program in a much much lower rank than your current university, you don't stance a chance with this LoR.

  • 1
    I disagree, let's say the OP has published ina good journal, the letter of reference become much less important. Surely the acceptance onto a programme is due to a number of factors, if you're strong in one and weaker in the author you still have a great chance.
    – user22485
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 8:05
  • 1
    Totally agree with Zarina here. Also the OP says they've co-authored 2 papers with the PhD student in question. If those were good papers that were well known in the field, an LoR from one of the co-authors could actually be a lot more valuable than from some random professor from a different research focus.
    – E. Rei
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 8:25
  • @ZarinaAkhtar The most mature co-authors in those journals are the ones to ask for LoR. You don't think a PhD student and a Master's student published in a good journal, do you? (I dare not to say it it impossible, but I don't believe it)
    – sean
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 9:42
  • @qsp define good, a healthy number of PhD students publish in a 4* finance journals, the OP did not suggest whether this was written alongside a more experienced professor. Regardless, even a 2* journal would signal potential. When taking on PhD students surely universities of backing potential. Any publishing signal you send can only be a good thing.
    – user22485
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 12:29

When applying for my PhD in the UK with funding I needed two letters of reference.

The first one was my Master's Dissertation supervisor, I would really recommend trying to get a professor that has worked with you before in a research sense (if possible), if this is not possible I would try to open up the conversation with a great research proposal. If the Professor is interested in it and you do a good job then he would be able to see that you already have some good research skills, a good proposal is the start of the project.

The fact the you have co-authored with the Ph.D student is good, they can mention it in the LOR.

The second letter of recommendation I got was from a Senior Lecturer in Finance, I could have tried to go for another professor but I did think a more personal one from even a junior member of the faculty would be better (similar to a PhD writing for you).

I would recommend trying to work on the professors that you already have, if they send two great letters, the third one becomes much less important.

I am also extremely introverted, however, you have to try, you have to stop by there office hours, (it gets less daunting each time), you have to go back even when they are to busy on a certain day. Win them over with a good proposal, if at all possible try to cite them in your proposal. Do whatever it takes, getting a PhD place is not easy, there is lots of competition, other people will be persevering with the small talk. Its like you're in a race with them, run faster.

Also the fact that you have publications is already a big thumbs up. You have a proven research record, that is far more than the majority of PhD applicants.

It is also good for the PhD student to frame the letter well if they frame it as your co-author rather than pal that could be better.

A last note on your Instructor without a PhD. There are some people in Universities that don't have PhD's but are still world-class researchers. I have met a few that have come from industry and rightly or wrongly, they would never bother with the fees for a PhD and their publications speak a lot more than the title, so double check if your instructor has good publication. Also, teaching experience is extremely important...

So if it was me I would probably go with the instructor that you have been a TA for and the two Professors. The fact you have written papers will come up in your application anyway, the University can judge how well these are with reading them, looking at what journals they are published in them etc. It is much more difficult for them to judge if you are a good teacher or not, so signalling this to them by a LOR from an instructor would be my best bet.

In my PhD interview, I was asked a lot about teaching, its important for the modern academic. As there is so much competition, they want good researchers and good teachers, not just one or the other.

Best of luck!

  • What? Teaching experience of the writers is extremely important for their LoRs? "I have met a few that have come from industry and rightly or wrongly, they would never bother with the fees for a PhD and their publications speak a lot more than the title" Can you point me to the profiles of some of those people?
    – sean
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 5:25
  • I meant teaching experience is important for the OP!
    – user22485
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 9:47
  • If a letter of reference can signal they are a good teacher this can only be a good thing
    – user22485
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 9:49

If you’ve already got a couple of strong recommendations from your supervisors, it shouldn’t be a problem, especially since you have a strong resume if you’ve already published. What matters is that referees can say something different to each other and that they know you well enough. A character reference is totally fine provided that you have worked with them enough that they can vouch for your work ethic and technical skills.

The position and reputation of a referee is not so important. What matters is its authenticity. Taking on a PhD student or postdoc is a serious commitment. A supervisor will be looking for someone who can be trusted to meet their goals and work well with others in the lab. In that respect, an authentic letter from a more senior member of your lab would help your application more than a generic template letter from a busy professor who hardly knows you.

With a strong resume, letters of recommendation are often a formality. What is important is to be honest in your resume and application. If you exaggerate, they will notice if there are inconsistencies or you cannot answer questions in the interview process. If you are polite and respectful when contacting potential supervisors (and when requesting letters of recommendation), that will also help show you can work in the lab.


Ask your supervisor if the PhD student in question has the skills to write a letter that will help you.

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