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Imagine a case where I wish to apply for MIT. I happened to work with a young assistant professor who finished her PhD in MIT. How much will her good words weigh in recommending me to MIT PhD program?

I am asking this because I am facing a choice in asking for recommendations:

  • A recommendation letter from a more experienced full professor OR
  • One from a young assistant professor who just came back from MIT?

I understand that what matters most is whether the professor knows me well or not. But for them two, I think they understand me roughly the same.

  • 3
    Why not get recommendations from both? – user7130 Aug 24 '13 at 7:14
  • @Damien oh the thing is that I have already had two other references from 2 professors who even know me better. So only one slot left... – Sibbs Gambling Aug 24 '13 at 7:23
  • @perfectionm1ng well once you aquired both you can still choose which one to send in, right? probably doesn't hurt to send in 4 instead of 3 anyway. – superuser0 Aug 24 '13 at 9:10
  • Oh? I heard that the letters would not come to me, they would directly be sent to the school from the professor. I heard that most of the professors would prefer not to disclose the contents to the students. – Sibbs Gambling Aug 24 '13 at 9:21
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    @T.F. It's a school-by-school thing, and in some cases even department by department. – aeismail Aug 24 '13 at 11:52
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I disagree with Damien's answer for the specific case of your question. A graduate of the department, who knows you very well and can write a good letter of recommendation, is worth just as much as the "big name," because she is familiar with the department as it is currently operating, and would be able to place your work in context of people also known in the department. So, for the specific case of applying to a school that is someone else's alma mater, I would say go for it, with a caveat.

That caveat is that if a person is not able of writing a good letter of recommendation, then you shouldn't use it. A bad letter will not help you at all. If you have a career services office or academic counselor who can help you sort through which letters are most suitable for graduate school applications, that will help you make the decision.

  • But AFAIK the recommendation letters will not come to my eyes. I heard that most of the professors would prefer to send the letter out directly to the schools that I apply for. Is that true? – Sibbs Gambling Aug 24 '13 at 12:10
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    You would ask your letter writers to send a copy to the career center/advisor. The advisor reviews them, and makes recommendations on how to use them, without violating confidentiality. – aeismail Aug 24 '13 at 13:06
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As both the academics know you the same, I would obtain a reference from the more experienced full professor for your application and a reference from the new assistant professor for your records/supplementary notes.

I have found that you can never have to many references/recommendation letters, but strategically use them for what you are applying for wisely. However, use the recommendation letter only if their specialisations are the same or are similar to what you are applying for.

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    Except that no professor (at least in the US) would give you a recommendation letter for you. Letters are sent directly to the requesting institution, usually with the understanding that the recommendee will never be allowed to read them. – JeffE Aug 24 '13 at 13:44
  • @JeffE apologies then, as this has been my experience. – user7130 Aug 24 '13 at 14:19
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    @JeffE: In the rest of the world, this is decidedly not necessarily true; I've seen instructions for PhD fellowships explicitly tell candidates to send everything as one PDF—letters of recommendation included! – aeismail Aug 24 '13 at 16:47

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