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My significant other (SO) and I are in five years of relationship. We met working in a lab and she already earned her PhD at that time. I was a graduate student. She was the main person I went after my adviser if I had logical questions about my project and helped me the process throughout. We now have two publications together. We worked professionally together for almost three years. She knows my potential both personally and professionally.

I am wondering if it is okay to use a letter of recommendation from her to apply for a PhD program. Updated: I edited the word "supervisor" as suggested by a commenter. She wasn't an official supervisor but, provided tremendous help with analytical issues. We also stay collaborating on other research projects until today even after we both were out of the lab.

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    Surely there are better alternatives? – Thomas supports Monica Mar 10 at 7:58
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    Better alternative? That's why I am considering her. Because of the nature of my project, I did not have very much contact with my committee members. My main adviser was also pretty dictating so, the others didn't feel like the need to advise me. I will have one letter from my adviser and one from my current boss. I am also applying to the top programs in my field. So, I am in need of someone who knows about me well and can write a strong letter for me. Let me know if you guys have any advise on finding alternative as well. I am very open about all the options. – RyanR88 Mar 10 at 18:59
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No. If she discloses your relationship in the letter, the reviewer will likely disregard the letter completely, and may question your judgment for having asked her for a letter. If she does not disclose your relationship in the letter, that is a serious enough omission that it could have consequences for you later on (I can't quite tell where you are in your career, but the more senior you are, the more severe these consequences could be).

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    I agree. It is a risk for both of our career future and it might not be fair for other applicants. Thanks for bringing up that point! – RyanR88 Mar 10 at 18:37
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    There are countless couples out there in academia. Often you see Jones and Jones, etc. and I know of couples who write letters for each other and disclose the nature of their relationship. I'm not sure a flat out NO is the answer here. I wouldn't do it if other options were available, but if my main colleague is my wife, I suspect reviewers might want to hear her take on my research. – Behacad Mar 10 at 20:41
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    I'm gonna stick by my "NO." I don't disagree that such a letter might contain useful information, esp. when one's primary collaborator is one's spouse (and for sure there is no ethical issue if the relationship is disclosed). But I think that's outweighed by the perceived or actual conflict of interest, and the perception of poor judgment in even including a letter from one's SO. But I think your perspective is valuable -- I was going to suggest you post a separate answer, but I see you've already done that. – cag51 Mar 10 at 21:36
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    One could argue that if a colleague enjoyed the experience working with you enough to want to marry you, one couldn't possibly dig up a better objective recommendation than that... – T.E.D. Mar 11 at 15:16
  • This is sad. The person who knows you the most (like your spouse who are doing the research together with you) is 'not allowed' to recommend you. And yes, because the person is so good in research, that's why a fellow researcher wants to marry him/her.. – kate Apr 12 at 9:18
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I'm going to come in with a no. (See edit remark at the end).

I originally said cautious yes. You can use a letter from your SO, with some caveats, as follows:

  1. It should be an extra letter. Like, if they asked for at least 3, your SO should write the 4th.

  2. If your SO is a postdoc at this time, the letter is already not worth that much, so after discounting for SO conflict of interest it might not be worth it.

  3. The answer from cag51 is correct that your SO must disclose that you are in a relationship.

  4. Given the nature of your relationship, your SO should make a huge effort to write a balanced letter, including your weaknesses / where you have room for improvement. If I read a letter from an SO that seemed honest, I might weight it even higher than another because the SO knows the applicant better than other letter writers.

So, after taking all that into account, should you still use your SO as a reference? Probably not. But as someone involved in admissions into PhD programs, I understand that in lab relationships happen, and I would be interested to hear what an SO had to say.

edit: It seems I'm more open minded about these things than other people in academia. There is a risk that having your SO send a letter will offend someone on the admissions committee, or be taken as a sign of bad judgement on your part. So the safe thing to do is to avoid using an SO (or any immediate relative) as a letter writer.

  • Thank you so much for the thoughtful response. Top programs I would like to apply might not even allow 4th recommender because that would be a waste of their time reading an extra. It seems like it is pretty clear I should not use her letter or it won't even be worth it. – RyanR88 Mar 10 at 18:35
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Look at things from another perspective: Suppose, you use the letter with full disclosure of your relationship. Suppose, you get admitted to the program. Suppose, somebody who didn’t get admitted finds out that you got admitted based on a recommendation letter from your SO¹. Suppose that somebody causes a ruckus about this, be it legally, internally, or publicly.

Now put yourself in the position of the decision maker who is handling your application and is aware of the possibility of the above scenario. The decision maker knows that it might be easily their head that rolls if it comes to the above situation. Even if they have not read the recommendation letter, they cannot provide evidence that they didn’t². It’s far safer for the decision maker to just reject your application. Using a recommendation letter from an SO gives them an easy argument for this.

In case there is no disclosure, this might be an career ender for you and your SO due to not disclosing a blatant conflict of interest. I can even imagine that you may even face criminal charges (e.g., if there are rules that compels you to declare any conflicts of interest, etc.).


¹ For example because your relationship ends badly, and your SO wants to take revenge.
² In exceptional circumstances such as pre-vetted applications, they may, but that’s nothing you can predict.

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    Criminal charges, for applying to a PhD program with a LoR from your adviser who also happens to be a romantic partner. That sounds completely ridiculous. Which crime in which legal system should that be? Also, a missing LoR from the adviser must be explained anyway, it is a huge red flag if it is missing. – Vladimir F Mar 10 at 13:25
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    @VladimirF: In many situations in academia, you are required to sign a statement that essentially says that you adhered to basic academic standards, be it committing no plagiarism, declaring all conflicts of interests, or whatever applies to the situation. One of the reasons for this is that if you fail to do this, the university has better legal options against such as charging you for fraud or similar. – Wrzlprmft Mar 10 at 13:44
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    @VladimirF: Also, a missing LoR from the adviser must be explained anyway, it is a huge red flag if it is missing. – Well, she is not the chief advisor, or whatever you want to call it (see the question); otherwise the situation would clearly be problematic without going to letters of recommendation. – Wrzlprmft Mar 10 at 13:46
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    @VladimirF: A romantic relationship between a (direct) supervisor and supervisee is a poses a serious problem due to conflicts of interest. In the vast majority of cases, the correct behaviour is to immediately end the supervisor–supervisee relationship if this happens. – Wrzlprmft Mar 10 at 15:00
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    @Wrzlprmft It's hard to imagine any such statement leading to more than civil liability. It would be very unusual for such a thing to rise to the level of criminal fraud. – David Richerby Mar 11 at 11:38
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I'm going to say yes, but, there is a conflict here. If no one else has worked with you this much, then perhaps it is not the worst choice. If this loved one writes a letter they must disclose their relationship to you, and stick to facts, such as how many papers you've written, grants you've gotten, your punctuality and relationship with peers etc. and how you would fit well into the position. They should avoid generally complimenting you as a person as this is too open to interpretation perhaps.

I know of two different couples who publish together constantly and write grants together etc. and are heavy hitting researchers, and write letters for each other all the time. These are ethical and good people and they seem to make it work. Clearly there are issues with doing this, but perhaps it is not an impossibility. I don't recommend it as a first option.

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    I know of two different couples who publish together constantly and write grants together etc. and are heavy hitting researchers, and write letters for each other all the time. These are ethical and good people and they seem to make it work. Clearly there are issues with doing this, but perhaps it is not an impossibility. – Behacad Mar 10 at 20:38
  • It would be more clear if you said "disclose their relationship with you." Your wording makes it sounds like the OP is the target of the disclosure, rather than the target of the relationship. :) – abeboparebop Mar 11 at 15:05
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While it is clear this situation calls for some thought, it is of my understanding that your personal life should have little to do with your academic/professional life when it comes to making decisions such as these.

When your SO makes you a recommendation letter, they will be speaking as an objective and professional academic with reputation on the line who has had experience working with you and has published credible papers alongside your - also professional - name. Not as as someone whom they've simply shared ice cream and would like to go to the Caribbean with.

The reason the relationship must be brought up in their writing is to recognize your personal and professional lives as two different things. If someone still goes at length about how it is a nepotism affair like other answers hypothesized, they'd be slandering your SO's and even your own reputation because it should not be the case.

If a reviewer who "notices" that you are together declines the letter "immediately" as other answers have suggested, then they have acted unprofessionally because you being in a relationship with them does not take away your credibility as a professional academic or your experience in any way.


tl;dr - Your SO is a reputable professional whose recommendation is as valid as any other. And like any other, it all really depends on how much real impact your SO's recommendation would have over someone else's.

If you don't have any meaningful recommendations in comparison, go with your SO's, and have no fear.

  • Your SO is a reputable professional Writing a letter of recommendation might damager her reputation – user2768 Mar 11 at 13:38
  • @user2768 Correct! And their reputation being on the line is precisely why them writing the letter holds meaning and has no justification to be disregarded. There aren't problems because of personal relationships per se, there are problems when recommendations happen because of the personal relationship - rather than facts - which isn't the case; The OP states they have professionally done work and publications together. It is preposterous to lampshade accomplishments and experience in professional life because of details in one's personal life. – lucasgcb Mar 11 at 14:27
  • Whether a letter of recommendation from a SO carries weight has been discussed in comments/answers. I'm highlighting that the letter might damage her reputation, by the same rationale. The OP might like to consider that – user2768 Mar 11 at 15:03
  • Writing any letter might damage her reputation, if it were to be originated solely from personal feelings or if it were to lead a very poor performance by the subject. In this case however the letter is based on theirs and the OP's professional experience together, whether they are acquaintances or friends or lovers is irrelevant. Based on this, their recommendation is as valid, and as risky, as any other. – lucasgcb Mar 12 at 7:55
  • I disagree. Using the reasons noted elsewhere, merely writing a letter for a SO may be considered as poor judgement on the SO's part. – user2768 Mar 12 at 8:27

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