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I am wondering is it important who is writing our letter of recommendation? I mean, does it matter whether the faculty is assistant professor or distinguished professor?

  • What are you applying for? A PhD program, a tenure track academic job, a non-academic job? – shane Oct 5 '14 at 11:23
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    @shane I think in all cases, the answer will be yes. – xLeitix Oct 5 '14 at 11:56
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    I think this question is close to a duplicate of this one: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/12959/… – xLeitix Oct 5 '14 at 11:57
  • I believe there are cultural differences here. In Europe, letters are often very short, and they basically say that the person worked with Prof. Bigshot; the reader is supposed to infer that the person must be really good if s/he worked with Prof. Bigshot. In the U.S., letters tend to be long and flowery, with claims that the student can walk on water. – user1482 Oct 5 '14 at 16:28
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If all of your choices wrote the same letter, then of course the letter from the distinguished professor would carry more weight than that of f the assistant professor.

However, often the letters from assistant professors are much more detailed and insightful than the letters from distinguished professors, because they have usually worked with the applicant much more closely. They can therefore offer more detailed insights than can more senior staff. This is not always true, but it is at least mostly the case in my experience.

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  • I agree that a more insightful letter from a younger professor should often be balanced out against more standard letters from senior personnel (and I think this type of issue is exactly why we ask for more than one letter). However in my experience assistant professors do not work with undergraduate students any more closely than more senior personnel. By "work with", do you mean "do research with"? Because that is very rare for undergraduates in my discipline (mathematics), so I don't have much to compare with. – Pete L. Clark Oct 5 '14 at 15:31
  • @PeteL.Clark: I meant "have direct contact with": an assistant professor is more likely to have directly observed the work of the undergraduate (through presentations, through meetings and emails, etc.). – aeismail Oct 5 '14 at 16:03
  • Hmm. I don't doubt your experience; I would be interested to find out why it's different from mine. In the US, there is really no difference in the job description between assistant professors and tenured faculty that would lead the former to have more exposure to undergraduates. In fact, most assistant professors I know are so research-intensive and focused on that that they interact with undergraduate students less than certain tenured faculty who have decided to concentrate on teaching and undergraduate mentoring. – Pete L. Clark Oct 5 '14 at 16:55
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    @PeteL.Clark: In my area—engineering—I believe it's probably because groups tend to get larger as professors progress in their careers. You simply can't get to know everybody working in your group well when there's dozens of them. – aeismail Oct 5 '14 at 17:05
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    That's interesting. As you may know, math departments in the US are not organized into "research groups" (other than as a heads up as to what individual faculty members are interested in: some will belong to several groups). I think there are no research groups in the humanities either, and not in all of the social sciences. For that matter, what makes a good PhD candidate is someone who has taken (and completely mastered) the right classes and perhaps done some independent reading...which full professors are just as happy to supervise as anyone else. It really is different. – Pete L. Clark Oct 5 '14 at 19:23

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