A friend of mine finished his Master's program a year ago and started working as a Teaching Assistant at a university. He will be granted assistant professorship this year but he is in the process of applying for his PhD and plans to quit the job. His Master's project supervisor has agreed to write a recommendation letter for him. For his other letter, he is thinking about asking the department head of the university that he presently works as a TA at because it counts as the latest assessment of his academic capabilities.

This is where I come in; I have been advising against asking for this recommendation because my friend had a minor discord with the Head a few weeks ago and though things smoothed out, kind of, my friend isn't sure where he stands when it comes to his department head. Also, by asking for a rec, he will be revealing that he will quit the job, which might not be welcome news. To sum it up, he isn't on best terms with more than one person at his current job and rather than take a risk, it'd be safer to ask another professor from his Master's program to write the letter.

But I'm confused about things myself so: Does this recommendation carry a lot of weight for his higher studies since it shows his current status in academia? Since he is an employee and not a student at the university, does a recommendation from an employer for pursuing an academic degree count in the first place? Does this recommendation add value to his PhD application since despite working as a TA, he has had to do more to support other faculty than teach students for the most part?


I would discount "minor discord" especially if it has been resolved. Yes, a letter from a department head would be valuable. The head likely doesn't consider the person to be a permanent employee and would, I hope and expect that a decision to extend ones education would be celebrated.

When applying for admission, just as applying for a job, the candidate needs to make a case that they will be a success and that there is no risk in accepting them. Work as a TA can certainly contribute to this positive case, as can one's academic studies.

If the person is working toward a career as an academic, this sort of engagement will be seen as positive. There is more to the academic life than just study. If a person is seen as effective in teaching and advising students, it will be evidence of commitment to the whole academic endeavor.

Of course, your friend should think about all of the people who would write letters and what they might say. If they all say the same thing, even if good, it might be less effective than having a number of different viewpoints on different aspects expressed by people who are respected. It might even be that for different applications, different people would be better than others.

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