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I am a college student considering applying to PhD programs both in the US and internationally. Currently I research in a lab affiliated with a top US university and run by my older brother, an instructor at that university. I really enjoy my research here and hope to continue with it; however, I worry about getting letters of recommendation for grad school. I will ask professors in project based classes at my university, but if I continue with this lab as I hope to, only my brother will be qualified to write one about my research abilities. Although the group has other affiliated instructors, my brother oversees the division I research in and my work. Will an admissions committee simply chalk a letter from him up to nepotism or, provided I demonstrate meaningful research, understand the circumstances?

  • We can't guess what others will do. It is an unusual situation. Is it possible to get a joint letter with your brother and another, independent, professor? – Buffy Jul 18 '19 at 21:34
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  • @MorganRodgers One distinction between the two questions is that the mother one asks about having someone who is not in academia and with whom the candidate does not have a lab association write a letter of recommendation. There is a nuanced difference in this question here. – Vladhagen Jul 18 '19 at 23:13
  • @Vladhagen Given that in that question, the mother is someone who they have worked on projects with, I think the difference is very minor. I would say that all the reasons that the answer was "don't do it" in that case, also apply here. – Morgan Rodgers Jul 18 '19 at 23:38
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I am of the opinion that as long as you disclose that he is your brother, you can still get a LOR from him. This is one reason why most universities generally want at least three or four letters of recommendation. (Maybe not specific for the sibling case here, but more broadly just the various nepotism cases).

Assuming that your brother would be qualified to write you a LOR if he did not happen to be your brother, I personally would not be too worried about having him write you a letter of recommendation. He does need to focus on the facts and not speculate on future potential or future outcomes too much. If he states the actual outcomes you have accomplished in the lab, him being your sibling becomes somewhat less important.

I would have something at the top of the letter and in your statement of purpose that very briefly discloses your relationship:

Professor Jadir Grupta is my biological sibling [unless you are adopted I guess]. I have asked him to write a letter of recommendation based solely on the merits of my work in his lab.

Your brother could write something similar:

@taurus is my biological sibling. I am providing him a LOR based on his academic work in my lab, not on the basis of our personal relationship.

Every LOR I have ever written is for someone that I am biased towards liking. I could even recommend some of them more highly than my own sibling or spouse or child. At the end of the day, most every LOR is coming from someone who could show nepotism towards the candidate.

  • You are using “nepotism” incorrectly, favouritism is more applicable when applied to students. – Solar Mike Jul 18 '19 at 23:36
  • @SolarMike OP's term, not mine. – Vladhagen Jul 19 '19 at 4:35
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This is not a good idea. If you aren't suitable to grad school, can your brother even say it? He's your brother. You have to ask someone who's not a blood relative of yours.

See this related question about getting a recommendation from one's mother.

  • The mother letter case did deal with a non-academia based person (the mother) writing a speculative letter of "potential" for the candidate. I think if the brother here can write a fact based letter, with full disclosure of the personal relationship, such issues will be avoided. – Vladhagen Jul 18 '19 at 22:05
  • @Vladhagen and what will be the chances of the brother writing “keen but not suitable for research study”?... ie an unbiased opinion?? – Solar Mike Jul 18 '19 at 23:14
  • @SolarMike What is the chance in general that a recommendation does NOT recommend the candidate. I personally have never seen one. When the candidate chooses their own recommending people, there is a very high likelihood that they have already chosen someone who is biased in favor of the candidate. LORs are not random samples of people commenting on a candidate's fitness for the program; rather, they are biased and hand selected letter writers to begin with. – Vladhagen Jul 18 '19 at 23:18
  • @Vladhagen so you are saying LoR’s are a waste as they are only ever positive... I have seen some that range from mediocre to good to excellent... but how do you then get a true idea of the candidate if the LoR is no use as you suggest? – Solar Mike Jul 18 '19 at 23:21
  • @Vladhagen the mother in the linked question is a famous researcher with whom the OP had done projects with. How is it different? – Allure Jul 18 '19 at 23:27

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