I am applying for a PhD program and I am in the process of choosing people for recommendation letters. Being someone in the final year of master's program (and not been involved with many people in research), one of my potential referee is my internship guide. I had worked with him closely for 3 months and a paper came out of the work.

He does not hold a PhD. He is not involved with research in a big way. He holds a Senior Manager post and possesses 20 years of experience. Although he can write a good recommendation letter, will it carry weight considering his background?


I would think at least twice about getting a letter of recommendation for admission to a PhD program in X from someone who does not themselves have a PhD in X or some closely related field. (No PhD at all is to my mind no worse than a PhD in a totally unrelated field.) The reason is that a grad school admission letter makes an argument that you (i) are a strong candidate for the program compared to the stream of candidates known to both the recommender and the readers in the department and (ii) will succeed in the program. Someone who does not have a PhD in a closely related field to X is simply much less convincing with regard to (ii) than the majority of people who do. One also worries about (i).

In my experience, all the letters you get for admission to a PhD program should address (i) and (ii) and not too much else. Thus getting a letter from someone who directed a corporate internship you did or non-academic job you had or volunteer experience you have is a poor choice unless these experiences are directly, intimately related to (i) and (ii) above. For instance if you are applying to a PhD program in chemical engineering then if you worked for a chemical engineering firm and did research that academic chemical engineers find significant (so especially if you published any academic papers), then great: get a letter from someone there, whether they have a PhD in that field or not. Also, qualifications are correlated with credentials but not perfectly: everyone has their own example of a famous academic who happens not to have this or or that academic degree. If you are interested in a program on the border of mathematics and philosophy and can get a recommendation letter from Saul Kripke, do it! Don't be deterred by the fact that he doesn't have a PhD: that would be ridiculous.

Back to your situation. About your potential recommender, you write:

He does not hold a PhD. He is not involved with research in a big way. He holds a Senior Manager post and possesses 20 years of experience.

This does not sound like a good choice. By "not being involved in research in a big way", he cannot speak to your research potential as well as someone who is. Since he does not have a PhD, the readers will probably wonder about how trustworthy he is (relative to other writers) when he insists that you will be successful in a PhD program. Unless you have a good reason to believe that the faculty doing admissions will know this person personally and esteem him highly, I would avoid getting a letter from him. However, if you feel like he is uniquely well qualified to speak to issues (i) and (ii), then it might be worth trying to have him give information to a more traditionally appropriate letter writer.

  • 2
    For what it's worth, the single most effective letter I've read in the last four years has come from an engineer with a master's degree who explicitly stated a student was the most promising young engineer he's worked with in a half-century career, and then explained in detail all the work he's done. While it was more of the "D" side of research than the "R," it was clear that the student had all of the skills necessary for success as a graduate student.
    – aeismail
    Aug 27 '14 at 17:28
  • @aeismail: I appreciate your comment. In my answer I tried to leave room for stuff like this (though it is outside of my direct experience as a pure mathematician). Aug 27 '14 at 17:33
  • If faculty at the school are interested in transfer, evidence of (iii) transfer potential will be valuable as well as your (i) and (ii). If, for instance, you are applying to Stanford, then many of the faculty may be interested in start-ups. Apr 27 '17 at 8:30

When I am evaluating prospective PhD students I am looking for evidence of research potential. While someone might write a postive letter, unless it provides evidence of research potential (or in rare situations addresses a weak aspect of your application) it is not going to be a helpful letter.

In general admission committees are going to question the ability of someone who has never been involved in research to assess research potential. So even if the letter talks about you research potential it may be discounted. The more of an unknown quantity the letter writer is, the more effort he/she is going to have to spend explaining how he/she can evaluate the person. Is is almost independent of the actual experience. Admissions committees often have hundreds of applications to look through and don't always spend the time they should evaluating everything.

  • 3
    +1. The OP mentions that a paper resulted from the internship, so some research appears to have been involved. Even people without Ph.D.s may do serious research. So: someone without a Ph.D. should devote a few sentences in his recommendation letter to establishing his research credentials - which would not be necessary from a professor. Aug 27 '14 at 13:18
  • 1
    @StephanKolassa : From what I understood, the answer speaks the questioning of someone who has never been in research (my guide) assessing my research potential. It seems to discourage him as a referee.
    – Applicant
    Aug 27 '14 at 13:34
  • I downvoted this because it depends strongly on who is writing the letter. Someone who has supervised many interns and can cogently explain why someone is one of the X best interns they've ever worked with can offer supporting details that can be as relevant as in a "true" research project. There are many skills applicable to the business world (clear presentations, solid critical reasoning, organized work, strong interpersonal skills) that are as vital as knowing how to use equipment X or software code Y.
    – aeismail
    Aug 27 '14 at 17:17
  • @aeismail I edited my answer. It doesn't really matter if the person is qualified, my point a the person reading the letter might discount it anyways.
    – StrongBad
    Aug 27 '14 at 17:39
  • OK. I've removed my downvote.
    – aeismail
    Aug 27 '14 at 18:01

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