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I heard somewhere a few days ago that while selecting a college for an M.Sc., it would be great for me to look up with whom the professors there have coauthored papers. This would mean that the two professors know each other and it would lead to a more trustworthy recommendation letter if written for a PhD.

How true is that? My guess is that it could make a difference but in the end it is mostly about the quality of research work that I have done.

I am from India thinking of applying to the US or UK in the future.

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    What country is this? In Austria this would matter much more than the quality of research. (SCNR) May 6, 2021 at 7:32
  • Indian willing to apply to the US or UK
    – Physiker
    May 6, 2021 at 7:41

2 Answers 2

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If you are applying for a Ph.D. (or an academic job), a strong recommendation letter from someone who is known well by the person making the admission or hiring decision is almost always a very big advantage. It will ensure that your application gets serious consideration, and will give you the edge against similarly-qualified candidates.

That said, for M.Sc. admissions, the evaluation is likely done by a small committee, and if that committee does not include the specific professor who knows your recommender, it might not matter at all.

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In my view (and I was MSc admissions officer at some point) recommendation letters at MSc level are largely a tick box exercise. I have admitted more than hundred MSc students and a recommendation letter hasn't made a difference even once. It is fine from my point of view that the student shows they can find somebody professional to recommend them, but as long as such a letter is not actively damaging, the box is then ticked and it doesn't make much more of a difference. Obviously I can't speak for all places.

This makes sense as well; applicants shouldn't have an advantage if they know somebody who published with me or XXX from our institution. Generally admitting students is not about whom they know but how good they are, and because 99% of recommendation letters are positive, I have to assume that there's very little information in them about the quality of the student. Even if some read a little bit less positive, this may be because the writer has a more critical attitude to recommendation letters, rather than the student being bad. People who write glowing recommendation letters for everyone who asks are around all over the place. Also recommendation letters at this level are quite regularly written by people who don't know more about the student than their set of results and maybe that they asked a few questions in class, but maybe not even that (at PhD level this is a bit different). Previous marks and course choices should totally dominate what's in recommendation letters. I'd go so far and say I'd be wary of institutions where this is different.

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    Which country did you work in, and can you elaborate on what is meant by "tick box exercise"?
    – Allure
    May 6, 2021 at 9:34
  • In my country a BSc is generally 3 years long, and it is very customary to go for an MSc before a Phd. Would even that M.Sc. fall into this category?
    – Physiker
    May 6, 2021 at 10:12
  • @Allure: UK; "tick box exercise" means that providing reference letters is just something the students have to deliver. If they do, a "box is ticked" (the task is fulfilled), and the thing is not further looked at. I did read recommendation letters, but they were all positive and all written by people who had a regular position, so that was fine, and admission decisions were made based on previous results and occasionally admission test results. May 6, 2021 at 10:14
  • @LoneAcademic: Yes, I'm talking about an MSc that as a standard follows up on a BSc. I'm not quite sure I'm understanding your situation... so you have done research already before applying for an MSc? Do you mean an Undergraduate project by this, or do you have a higher qualification already from India when applying for an MSc in the UK or US? Or something else? May 6, 2021 at 10:32
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    I am honestly baffled by this answer. Considering that probably hundreds of hours have gone in to writing letters to you, and the content does not matter anyway, why are you not reducing them to a tick-box on a web-site saying "yes, I recommend this student"?
    – nabla
    May 6, 2021 at 13:44

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