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I am in the process of collecting recommendations for my PhD.

I was the best-performing student in final exams on three different courses, all given by a single professor. (The results of the exams are anonymized and published for a short period in my university.) These were the courses related to the fields I want to do research in. There is nothing else this professor could have written about me - I didn't do any research in their group.

Sadly, the professor passed away after a short and severe illness last month.

Is there any way I can get a recommendation letter which acknowledges that I was the best student in these courses? Would another professor write that, given the death of the professor in question?

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    Maybe ask the department chair, who would have access to your records ? – TCSGrad Sep 24 '20 at 15:19
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    was there a TA? – Ben Bolker Sep 24 '20 at 15:24
  • can you just put this info to your cover letter/CV/statement of whatever? – user2173836 Sep 24 '20 at 16:23
  • When is the app due? – Azor Ahai -him- Sep 24 '20 at 16:51
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    I would really have liked to have this included in a recommendation letter, otherwise one of my letters will look really bland - "generic strong student, never met them". – torre Sep 24 '20 at 19:51
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Your best letters will come from professors who know more about you than that you did well in their courses. I hope you have some of those.

You could say in a cover letter that your exams in this persons courses were tops in each, based on anonymized department reports. I doubt that you'd be required to provide evidence for that.

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  • Of course my other letter will be more personal and better. However, it's not that I had an A, which is sadly not remarkable, it's that I was the best (out of >100) people each time, in courses in similar topics. Everyone I talked to says it could matter a lot. – torre Sep 24 '20 at 19:47
  • Two is the minimum number of letters. I am able to obtain exactly one personalized letter. – torre Sep 24 '20 at 19:48
  • Perhaps your other more personal and better letter can include a paragraph in which that writer talks about your top performance in these three courses. You could ask about that. – Ethan Bolker Sep 24 '20 at 19:50
  • Not sure if the first letter writer even knew the late professor (they were in a similar research area, but at different institutions), but I can try. – torre Sep 24 '20 at 19:53
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    It seems this professor would not have written a terribly good reference letter as he or she would simply have restated what's already on your transcript. You must find a better referee. – ZeroTheHero Sep 25 '20 at 12:29

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