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I've currently finished two years of undergraduate study in physics. I'm at the end of a close to two month summer research program in math, at one of the best universities in my country. While I'd applied for a mathematical physics type project, the problem I was assigned has to do more with math and my job is to make a program in order to understand (the outcome of) this problem. My background in mathematics is not good, since the way it works where I study is that there is an extremely small math component in a physics degree and some extremely important concepts in math were excluded from this math component. While I have been studying independently, my course is generally lacking in rigour and depth in coursework so there always ends up being a lot of independent study that I need to do.

I wish to apply for a Master's program in Physics once I complete my undergrad (I'm doing a three year degree) and I'm considering applying to places in the UK and/or Europe. My background in math and my never having had formal education in CS certainly put me at a disadvantage during this internship. However, I am unable to decide if I should be asking this professor for a letter of recommendation in case my applications require one from a summer research guide or someone in such a position.

  1. This is the only such research internship that I will be doing before applications begin (which happen in 2 months) so I do not have the option of asking anyone else for this specific position.

  2. I'm also not sure how having only one summer research experience, and that too not in physics, plays out while I apply for a Master's in physics.

  3. I'm also quite disillusioned at this point regarding just going forward with physics itself because it seems like I already have heaps and heaps of catching up to do and I'm feeling extremely overwhelmed and unsure of whether this is something that I'm good enough to do. I've always wanted to do physics and I enjoy learning and I understand that this is simply one summer, but I am quite anxious at this point.

I'm unsure of what to do, specifically regarding the recommendation. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

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    Have you asked the professor for an honest assessment of your success in the program? – Nate Eldredge Jun 15 at 6:21
  • I intend to do that near the end of this internship. – newtothis Jun 15 at 8:28
  • I think you ought to do it now. If that conversation goes well, you can ask the professor for letters at the same time. – Nate Eldredge Jun 15 at 21:13
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I am unable to decide if I should be asking this professor for a letter of recommendation

Of course you should be asking!

Specifically, you should be asking whether this professor is willing to write you a strong letter of recommendation. The word “strong” (or a similar synonym) is crucial here. You want to make it clear that a weak letter may do more harm than good, and you’d much rather receive honest negative feedback now, face to face, while you still have some time to improve, than to risk spoiling your application.

Stop trying to read the professor’s mind. Stop trying to imagine all the impostor-syndrome-inspired weaknesses that the professor could write about. Every applicant has weaknesses. Just ask.

unsure of whether this is something that I'm good enough to do

Do not listen to the Impostor Syndrome. There is no such thing as being good enough; what matters is what you do.

And what you are doing is pursuing an internship that addresses the gaps you perceive in your own background. You see a gap in formal CS preparation (even though that preparation is rare among programmers, and even rarer among physics students), but you are addressing it by learning to program anyway. You see gaps in your mathematical background, but you are pursuing a mathematics internship that requires you to do a lot of independent study. You are deliberately working outside your comfort zone to strengthen your background—of course you feel overwhelmed!

In short, you’re acting exactly like a researcher.

I agree with Buffy. From out here, it looks like you’ll be fine. Keep up the good work!

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I'm a bit confused by your confusion. On the one hand you say you have some deficiencies in maths, but on the other that the internship is, somehow, filling in for those deficiencies. It seems like a good thing.

Next, you say you don't have formal CS training, but are doing programming in the internship. That too, sounds like a good thing. I'll also point out that a lot of programmers don't have formal CS training - especially those programmers doing it as an adjunct to some other field.

As to feeling behind, you also seem to have the attitude that will drive you forward toward success. Yet another good thing.

Finally, as to the title question. Normally you get to choose who will write letters for you. You want to choose those people who will say the best things about you - works hard, overcomes obstacles, lots of curiosity, etc. If your summer guide is one of those people, then get a letter. But as user Nate Eldridge suggests in a comment, you can explore first how you are viewed - and additionally ask for suggestions on a path going forward.

As an outsider, looking in, I think you will be fine. Work hard and also relax a bit.

  • Thank you for your reply. I was looking to ask the professor towards the end of the internship anyway. But the reason I'm nervous about it is that given our interactions so far, I think he may not be viewing me very well. I guess I will just have to ask him and then make a decision. – newtothis Jun 15 at 12:06
  • You can also ask for guidance so that his opinion improves if it is actually poor. – Buffy Jun 15 at 12:13

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