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I recently got asked by a professor who is also one of my recommenders to apply for a PhD in their department. This professor is also a co-chair of that said department.

Would I be incurring some kind of a conflict of interest by asking the same professor to also write me a recommendation? Or should I look for someone else to replace them as my recommender? The problem is that I met this professor through work and they can really attest (more so than others) to my critical thinking abilities as a prospective grad student.

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You cannot incur a conflict of interest within someone other than yourself. In the situation you describe, the only person in jeopardy of a conflict of interest is the professor.

This professor might have a conflict of interest if the professor were to be both a "recommender" and also someone who "asked" you to apply to the professor's department. That is not your concern, since you obviously are not familiar with the details of your school's rules on ethics—the faculty at your school has seen this same situation hundreds of times, and the institution will have well-demarcated guidelines which tell professors how to handle these things.

(I am puzzled regarding two things

  1. how is this professor a "recommender" without also already being committed to writing you a "recommendation"
  2. the difference between being a "recommender" and someone who recommends (someone who "asked [you]") that you apply to a certain department's program.

Perhaps you are referring to the professor as having some formal status as a Recommender. If that's the case, it is unclear. Anyone can be a recommender, but only a few are Recommenders.)

Do what you will, and if there is any potential conflict of interest for the professor, that is for the professor to resolve. It is not your responsibility.

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  • Thanks, I'm using 'Recommender' interchangeably in both of the definitions you point out: a professor who writes you a formal letter of recommendation and someone who verbally encourages you to apply to the department of the university they teach at. In either case, I think what you bring up about the responsibility shifting towards the professor is also true and he probably thought about it before asking me to apply to his department. He's written me a recommendation letter in the past as well, but not for admission to the university he's affiliated with. – anewbie Sep 30 '20 at 18:40
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No? I straight up got picked for MS and PhD programs through directly talking to some professors who then decided they wanted me.

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  • Nice! You probably still had to undergo a formal application process and if so did the same professors you spoke with write you a letter of recommendation as well? – anewbie Sep 30 '20 at 18:41
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"I recently got asked by a professor who is also one of my recommenders to apply for a PhD in their department. This professor is also a co-chair of that said department."

That means he wants you in, and that he knows you. In general recommendation letters serve the exact purpose of having someone who is minimally verifiable and known to have some minimum competencies to vouch for you. This is often meant to impede a random person who never delivers anything or maybe hasn't even graduated/got a job to apply for a program and be accepted based on faux papers. Sometimes, people will check in with the letters authors to ask further questions, which you should be comfortable with.

A co-char in the department knowing you and vouching for you basically renders the process of recommendation letters useless. If he disapproved of you, no recommendation letter would change his mind, and I've never heard of a recommendation letter smearing someone-'s reputation (they at worst look like some default encrypted message saying the writer doesn't really know the student). Someone who would badmouth you should (and normally would) refuse writing a recommendation letter for you.

However, recommendation letters may still be required as a formality, hence why the co-chair would write one himself, as there must be at least one letter attached to your application. Also, keep in mind that this gentlemen may no longer be in the department by the time your papers are evaluated, who knows, right?

I'd bet that this professor knows the rules of engagement, so he knows if it's okay or not to write a letter himself. If there is a conflict of interest, that should be on himself, not on you, who should not be in disfavor because a member of the committee appreciates you (unless you are family or something related, in which condition he would not be allowed in the commission to judge your case or vote for your acceptance or dismissal).

Finally, I'm only aware of programs that required at least two recommendation letters. I had to deliver 3 to apply for a master's program. So your others letters could and should be written by some independent third parties.

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You should include a reference from this person in your application, as not doing so will look very odd. However, it won't carry much weight by itself. You should choose your other referees baring that in mind.

Added:

A referee doesn't have an 'interest' in the situation, in the sense of conflict of interest. They do not benefit from either providing or not providing a reference, whether the person does or doesn't get the position, and they do not actually have any direct influence over the decision.

Neither does providing a reference result in any duty to you other than providing a (reasonable) reference. The recruitment panel is looking for the best candidate(s), and the fact that one of them has said a particular person is a good candidate does not prevent them from then choosing someone new who turns out to be better.

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  • Thanks! I am including two other references as that's part of the application pre-requisites. I am worried in case this professor decides he can't be my recommender due to the said 'conflict of interest' and then I have to arrange for a different person to write me one. – anewbie Sep 30 '20 at 18:43
  • @anewbie You have to ask him for the reference anyway, so you'll know if he says yes or no. But it would be very odd for him to say no. – Jessica B Oct 1 '20 at 7:07

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