9

I took a research writing course at my university (which is required of most students) and did extremely well in the course, winning a writing award for the work I did in that class and having it published in the school's textbook for their introductory English courses. I went on to be a TA for that professor for two semesters afterward and did extremely well, and I think his recommendation would be nothing but glowing.

However, I am an Electrical Engineering major applying for an MS in Computer Science, and while his recommendation shows my ability to write and teach, the work I did was entirely non-technical. Would it still be worthwhile to ask for a recommendation from him, or should I focus on getting more letters from my EE/CS professors instead? I currently have one excellent letter from my employer (a small company that I worked for a little over a year during school, was able to lead development on a few projects and teach some people, mostly industry), but sadly don't have a good enough relationship with enough of my other professors beyond "got an A / did well on some projects".

  • You say that you "currently have one excellent letter from my employer". Can you clarify what type of employer this is, academic or industry? – Santiago Canez Oct 7 '14 at 20:13
  • As long as it's not your own only professor, I don't see any problem. Writing is an important skill even in the hard sciences. No good being able to program if you can't really communicate or explain it, in text or otherwise. It's easy to sell yourself as a programmer to a CSEE person, but to sell yourself as a writer while focusing on CSEE is rare. – Compass Oct 7 '14 at 20:17
  • And another thing that I just remembered. A big selling point for people is "playing well with others." Stereotypically, all the CS people hang out with other CS people as part of a group. English is definitely being outside of the traditional IT bubble, and a plus in my book. – Compass Oct 7 '14 at 20:26
  • @SantiagoCanez They're mostly industry – I added a small blurb to the post about it. – zo7 Oct 7 '14 at 20:57
  • And yeah @Compass, that was my hope in asking him for one. Glad to see I'm not too out of line :D – zo7 Oct 7 '14 at 20:57
11

I can't think of how an excellent letter of recommendation from a professor in an unrelated field of study could hurt you. Perhaps if it was the only (excellent) letter of recommendation, maybe then. But you mentioned you have an excellent letter from your employer and can (I assume) get at least one more good letter from someone else, so I think you are in a good position.

You are right, his letter of recommendation would not be about your technical skills related to EE, but it would mention your characteristics, work ethics, teamwork ability in a very good light. Research writing course is also not that far away from EE. It shows you are more diverse than the stereotypical programmer or engineer. You worked with this specific professor for 2 semesters, he could give you an outstanding letter of recommendation. I think his letter will give you more than any single average/solid letter from other professors.

6

It is always a good thing to have letters from faculty who are wholly enthusiastic about your performance. However, if the performance is in a different subject from the one in which you're applying for graduate study, their relevance will be at least somewhat lessened compared to letters from faculty in that subject. One reason that this is true is that the admissions faculty are more likely to know faculty in the same subject personally. Even if they don't, they have a lifetime of training at evaluating people in the same subject: e.g, when I read a striking letter from someone I don't know, I often look them up to find out their research profile.

It may be that my field -- mathematics -- is snobbier than most when it comes to discounting letters from those in adjacent fields. But with the exception of physics, statistics and computer science, if I get a letter from someone in a different academic field, they simply can't directly convince me that the candidate they're writing for will be successful in my PhD program because I can't be confident that they know what it takes to be successful in a (let alone my) PhD program in mathematics. They can convince me that the candidate is a very strong / talented / accomplished student in general, which is certainly a good thing, and what they tell me about their skills in Subject X might make a positive impression on me. I would be delighted to hear that a candidate was an award-winning writer. But this would not be a good substitute for a letter from a mathematician telling me that the candidate has what it takes to succeed in my math PhD program. (And you don't need a faculty letter to list the awards you've won; that information should be included elsewhere in your application.)

So I would say: sure, get the letter from this faculty member in a different subject. But use it in addition to other letters from faculty in your subject, not as replacements for it. (In most programs I know, you can freely turn in more letters than are asked for.) If you really can't find more than two strong letters from faculty in your field -- that's a separate issue, by the way -- then it would probably be better to use this letter in place of a letter from someone who is not going to rate you highly. In my opinion you should not use the letter to replace a letter from a faculty member who will say you are strong even though they don't know you well enough to say anything really insightful about you. We don't need deep insight from every letter: merely being vouched for by someone that we know (at least, by reputation) and respect may be good enough. "Got an A / did well on some projects" is not actually a bad letter from the right person.

1

The two relevant points are: 1) you took the course and 2) you had the professor. And may I add a third, you may well get your best recommendation from this professor.

"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth." That is, don't overlook the opportunity to get a very good recommendation from somebody. It's better if it is in a related field, "all other things being equal," but all other things AREN'T equal.

In a graduate school situation, it is quite important that you can (and did) excel "somewhere." That it is in an area close to your field is certainly of some importance, but it's not the only thing. And good writing skills are relevant in engineering, science, or ANY technical skill.

It's hard enough to get good/great recommendations as it is. Don't pass this one by. Then, of course, try to get good recommendations in your field as well in order to produce a strong, all-around package.

  • 2
    "In a graduate school situation, the most important thing is that you can (and did) excel 'somewhere.'" Having done graduate admissions, I can say with some authority that this is not the case. The most important thing is to convince the faculty reading your application that you are more likely to complete the program and go on to a successful career than the other applicants. Excelling in a different academic field is a good thing rather than a bad thing, but -- crudely put -- I'd certainly take an A- math student over a B+ math student who had A's in other subjects. – Pete L. Clark Nov 23 '14 at 1:41

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