I know you should build a good network with your professors as early as possible, not only it will help your study, but also you can get great recommendation letter from them.

But not all students aim at graduate school when they start their undergraduate, for example, I only became interest in research and decide on going to graduate school after my third year of undergraduate. At that time, I have done a research project with a professor and certainly I can ask him for one. However, most schools require 2-3 recommendation letters.

I know a good recommendation letter should speak about the candidate research potential instead of 'did well in my class', but in my case, only my undergraduate adviser can speak about that. What should I do besides asking recommendation letter from professors I get A grade in their classes?

  • 11
    You are in the same situation as most undergraduate students. So, you could ask the professors close to the "area" you want to focus on and you did well in their class.
    – Alexandros
    Commented May 6, 2014 at 9:36
  • It would be better if all/most of the recommendation letters are about your research potentials. But, this is not an absolute requirement. @Alexandros made a practical suggestion. You just do the best you can.
    – Nobody
    Commented May 6, 2014 at 10:52
  • It is a good practical suggestion, but in my case unfortunately, the research area and the course which I have good grades really do not match...
    – bingung
    Commented May 8, 2014 at 8:02
  • Good grades aren't necessarily a requirement. If you were very engaged with the material, asking questions in class, going to office hours, etc, but only received an OK grade, that professor may still be willing to testify about your interest, etc.
    – chmullig
    Commented May 8, 2014 at 16:04

3 Answers 3


Of course, the best solution to this problem is not to have it in the first place. Being proactive and thinking about the future is sometimes a rare talent, especially in 18 year olds fresh out of high school, but then again grad school is supposed to select the exceptional individuals.

There is a world of difference between a recommendation from someone you worked with, and from a mere acquaintance. The latter kind rarely benefits your application in a meaningful way, and can sometimes even hurt it. No matter how enthusiastic your instructor is, unless the course is at least a project-centric course (eg. grade is based entirely on your individual term project), they will not be able to make a good, in depth argument for your abilities, and the recommendation will therefore be weak.

The point of the recommendation is that the admissions committee will read it, and decide whether you have potential to be a good researcher. How can they, if the recommendation does not talk about your research at all? And how much better if instead of hinting at your potential indirectly by citing course performance, the recommender can just say "this person has potential to be a great researcher because I have personally seen that they are good at research"?

This is why there is a qualitative difference. This can be a big problem when applying to a very selective program. What if you apply to a program where the committee has a philosophy that "an application is only as strong as its weakest link"? Even if you are quite exceptional otherwise, you can get eliminated early on because there are many other applicants who are also exceptional, but don't have a recommendation problem.

Also, similar to how a lukewarm recommendation can mean "I think this person is a bad candidate, but I am not being negative out of politeness", a recommendation from someone who only taught a course can mean "this person is a slacker who never bothered to do real work, so they can't find any supervisors to recommend them".

The best way to remedy is really to obtain more "good" recommenders. Because you want people who supervised you, the solution is obvious: You haven't been supervised by enough people who will vouch for you; you must undertake more projects and be supervised by other people whose recommendation will carry weight.

If still in school, look for faculty whose lab you can work in. If that is difficult, try approaching a former (or current) instructor with an idea for a theoretical or computational project (this requires less commitment from them, so they may be easier to convince). It doesn't necessarily have to be original research, so long as you can come up with a relatively long term (at least half a year) project where you are the primary contributor. It could also be (more) valuable to spend a summer working in a lab at a different university.

If out of school, delay your application by 1-3 years, and look for work as a lab tech at a university, institute or private company. Make sure not to displease your boss.

A related problem is working for a long time with the same person, for instance an undergrad who spends 3 years in the same lab. This is actually better, because you can accomplish much more in 3 years, and you can have a very impressive project to sell yourself with. The issue is that you will have only one supervisor - but hopefully after 3 years, you will have networked with collaborators and other scientists and will not have a problem there.

  • 1
    Your answer makes me rethink whether I should go to graduate school right now. Without enough people commenting on my research potential, I could only get into average school (I also do not have academic excellence). Exposing myself to other research labs can allow me show off my research skill (of course, I do not mean I am brilliant but at least I can try). It is tough, it requires longer time, but it may worth if I can get really good recommendation, and finally if it fails to get into some reputable schools, at least I have tried.
    – bingung
    Commented May 8, 2014 at 7:56
  • The other nice thing about taking time off to do some research full-time, is that it helps you decide whether you would even be happy doing research for the rest of your life, and the experience you get can ensure your success in the actual graduate program when you do get in.
    – Superbest
    Commented May 9, 2014 at 1:15
  • "If out of school, delay your application by 1-3 years, and look for work as a lab tech at a university, institute or private company." Superbest, what is the difference between this and research assistant posts please?
    – BCLC
    Commented Apr 2, 2018 at 4:47
  • 1
    @JackBauer Well, sometimes graduate students are also assistants, so it's a an ambiguous term. You basically want a BS-level position, sometimes those are called lab tech sometimes, they will be called research assistant, sometimes something else.
    – Superbest
    Commented Apr 2, 2018 at 20:03
  • @Superbest Thank you so much for answering! I posted a question about research assistant posts. Anything additional would be appreciated.
    – BCLC
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 19:54

I decided I wanted to attend grad-school at the end of my junior year - here is what I did

1) I had done research with one prof, so I had one good reference in the bag.

2) My senior year I was voted president of the ACM, and had a faculty advisory (2nd reference). Knowing I wanted to attend grad-school made the extra time I put into this make sense.

3) Third reference came from a prof I had taken several classes with and who worked with the other 2 references on several research projects.

4) Due to an incompetent class adviser (not academic) incorrectly signing me up for the wrong class, I had to wait an extra year to graduate. This gave me extra time to strengthen my application. Look around for a summer research opportunity.

NOTE: I'm not suggesting delaying graduation for a year to get into grad-school. There were several downsides to having that happen to me. Just start looking at everything more strategically, and if a situation presents itself to allow you to strengthen your application take it - even it it means sacrificing in the short term.


Here are some thoughts. Figure out what classes you took that

  1. are most similar to the type of graduate school you're applying for, and
  2. you did well in.

Then set up a meeting with your former professor(s) of those classes to tell them a little about yourself, why you're planning on going to graduate school, and the situation you're in. I think any professor, and especially those in your future area of study are going to be very understanding of your situation and happy to help you out. It might help to talk with them a little about your research experiences and/or furnish them with a CV/resume detailing those and other experiences so that they may write a nice letter for you.

I think short of taking off some more time, doing research in a second lab, etc, you don't have much choice in this matter! But never fear, I think the letter from your advisor is going to be the one that carries the most weight.

EDIT. Just wanted to add, in the process of deciding which professors to talk to, take a gander at this post about getting a 'strong' recommendation. Lots of good advice there. One idea that might be particularly applicable to you is asking whichever professor you talk to about where they think you should apply, etc.

  • I know this is what the best I can do with the given situation, but it is rather a compromise rather than solving the root problem. They can just say I am 'very enthusiastic in research' etc, but really cannot speak about my research ability strongly.
    – bingung
    Commented May 8, 2014 at 7:59

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