I am a Master's student who is currently applying for PhD programs. When it comes to the letter of recommendation, I need to choose one out of the following three professors.

Details are deleted due to personal matters. However the answers should still be helpful to a certain extent.

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    I would pick C. However, please explain why you cannot use them all? Possibly for different applications? Also, why not ask all three of them what they think? – Anonymous Physicist Oct 26 '14 at 20:40
  • I agree with the suggestion to use all three references. If you're worried about having too many references, my advice (based on having been on my department's graduate admissions committee for several years) is that no one will complain if you have one or two letters more than are officially requested. (We do get annoyed when there are a huge number of letters in an applicant's file, but one or two more doesn't count as huge.) – Andreas Blass Oct 26 '14 at 23:41
  • Thank both of you for the helpful comments! I didn't thought of this, but I could definitely have them write for different applications. I will check to see what their opinions are. And I definitely worried about having too many references. But if one or two more is okay, I can ask the department if there is such an option. – user23342 Oct 27 '14 at 0:56
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    Without the details, I'm voting to close. I have no idea what this question is asking, and I have no idea what A,B,C,D,E refers to in the answers. – JeffE Jun 9 '15 at 2:29
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    @NateEldredge: Only SE staff can do that. – aeismail Jun 9 '15 at 7:21

Remember, the main issue in the letters of recommendation is testifying to your aptitude as a researcher. Being well-known gives the letter somewhat more weight, but being able to comment in depth on your abilities can counter or outweigh the "big name" factor.

However, enthusiasm in writing the letter is also an important factor. Someone who doesn't immediately agree to writing a letter of recommendation for you is probably someone you do not want writing a letter at all. So, I would consider asking both A and B if they would be willing to write a letter. If both agree to write them, then I would use your long-term goal as an additional "screen." If you're primarily interested in a teaching career, I might lean towards using B a bit more than A, and vice versa for a research career.

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  • I appreciate your prompt and well-thought answer! These are not my top three candidates - if you have a few minutes, see update for details. – user23342 Oct 27 '14 at 1:00
  • Rewrote the answer in response to additional information. – aeismail Oct 27 '14 at 5:23

In this particular case, I think I might go for reputation, i.e. option (A).

I think you'll probably get your strongest letter (about your ability to do quality research) from (D), followed by (E). Since you have this base covered, by (D) and (E), I'd go for (A) for the reputation part.

As for how well a person needs to know you, it probably means they have to fill in a referee questionnaire of multiple-choice boxes--e.g. how do you rate (on a scale of say 1-5 or 1-10) in terms of "ability X"? leadership potential? ability to work in teams? likelihood that candidate is able to complete the PhD? What are the candidate's strengths? weaknesses? do you foresee any potential problems? What kind of research work (if any) did the candidate do you with you (explaining how this demonstrates his/her ability to do quality research)? I've been asked to be a referee before (for more than one person), and had to fill up these kind of boxes.

So I'm assuming (C) here doesn't know much about your academic ability to answer these kind of questions well. You mention that (B) knows about your research abilities, but I see two problems--(B) is in physics department and (B) is not in a tenured position, so even if (B) says something positive about your research abilities, it may not be interpreted as strongly as (A) saying the same thing.

Additional tips

  1. getting your "publishable results" published will help. If it's not possible within the time frame, then ask (D) and (E) to say that your research is in the process of being submitted for publication in their recommendation letter. If your research field (and supervisor) allow you to upload your paper to a pre-print server, you may wish to consider doing so.

  2. Note also that your Master's thesis supervisor's (D) recommendation is probably the most important of all--if it is weak, (A) may not help you.

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  • Thanks a lot for the thoughtful comments and tips! I think I will ask (A). – user23342 Oct 29 '14 at 1:33
  • No problem. If you have further questions, feel free to let me know. – nathanielng Oct 30 '14 at 2:41