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Important Context: I should note that while we are both American and did our BA/MA in the US, both of us have/will have gone abroad for our PhDs. My friend is applying to a university in the UK and has already made personal contact with potential supervisors in this department.

I completed my PhD a few years ago and have been working as a postdoc at a well-respected European university since. I have a friend from my master's degree, which we both completed about 8 years ago, with whom I have remained in contact and acted as a bit of an academic mentor for throughout our MA and now as she has decided to pursue a PhD. I have a solid understanding of her academic abilities (know most of her grades, for example, and worked with her in group projects and understand her learning abilities and academic drive) and her personal commit, which I do think would make her a good fit for a PhD.

My dilemma: She asked if I could act as an academic reference for her as she has not been in touch with any of our instructors from our MA in the past 8 years, and I do, of course, work in academia. In the moment, I said yes, but now that I have received the link and it specifically asks that I explain "how long I have known the candidate and in what capacity", I realize that I would need to note that I was a fellow student, not just explain when we met and what I believe her academic abilities to be.

I was originally assuming I could simply write something like, "I have known X since her time in Y degree at A school" and then proceed to explain different examples of her work ethic and abilities (of which I have many because, as I mentioned, I have been mentoring her and know her story in quite some detail). Now, I am wondering if it will be noticeable if that is all I say or if it will hurt her if I specifically mention that we were students together during that time and I have acted as an academic mentor to her since then.

QUESTION: Will it hurt her either way if I: (1) only mention knowing her from when she started her MA and specifically do not mention in what capacity or (2) do include that I was a fellow student with her in her MA?

P.S. I have read quite a few other questions here that are similar, but many of them seemed to be noting that the person could not actually speak to what the readers would want to know (i.e. academic performance and abilities), but I do believe I can speak confidently to such information.

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  • In case you've had worked on some projects or papers together, you could describe your experience and evaluation in reference to those joint works.
    – Ehsan
    Feb 25 at 11:03
  • I'd answer "in what capacity" with something like "fellow student and (later) unofficial mentor." Feb 26 at 20:31

3 Answers 3

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One of the points to consider with LORs is how advisors are going to view the perspective of the letter writers themselves. They are going to look at a letter and ask "Is this person writing from a perspective similar to mine?" and if that letter writer is a PI/advisor, their words are going to carry the most weight because the answer is going to be yes. In some cases, post-docs and others can provide a valuable perspective when they have overseen the applicant in a research capacity, but that seems not to be the situation here. You can skirt around the fact that you are writing as a friend, but the fact is that rank matters when writing letters and the reader may see through this, then wonder if there is a more significant reason than time as to why she selected a peer to write for her instead of a faculty member. If this were my friend, I would urge her to reconnect with former mentors over using personal connections.

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Axiom: the weight that an LOR carries is, very loosely speaking, equal to the credibility of the letter-writer (in the context the LOR is related to) times the strength of the writer’s recommendation.

If you believe this axiom is correct, then your letter will carry just as much weight as it would if it were stating the exact same opinions but expressed from the point of view of a postdoc of equal repute to you and who knows your friend as well as you but in a different capacity (for example as her mentor, coauthor, etc).

Personally, I believe this axiom is correct.

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Unless explicitly requested that it had to be written by an academic supervisor, I think an academic peer can serve as a good referee/recommender as well ! It feels equivalent to a colleague of the similar position/rank, writing a letter of recommendation for another colleague.

I think most importantly, as you have mentioned, you believe you can speak confidently about such information. If you can provide concrete examples to back them up, I think it would be perfectly fine !

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  • Thanks. I'm not sure exactly what the wording provided to her was, but she said "academic reference" to me, which implies to me that was the only explanation/direction provided. Question: Do you think I should be clear that I was a fellow student or leave it at "I have known X since her time in Y degree at A school" and begin describing her suitability and providing examples?
    – N Glynn
    Feb 25 at 12:10
  • @NGlynn i feel that both are fine. But do let your friend know, as what the other answers has said, that since you both are peers to each other, the letter may carry less weight.
    – fatbringer
    Feb 28 at 6:51

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