The idea of working toward a PhD came to me very late in my Master's program. As such, my primary professors and adviser didn't necessarily coach me into PhD preparation and may have even seen me as somewhat of a black sheep in the academic community. I don't doubt that they would believe in my ability to research, but rather that it'd be somewhat of a surprise that this was an area of interest for me.

Having said all of that, while I believe that they could give me a good reference, I don't believe it would be the "great" reference that would be characteristic of this internationally-recognized expert in their field. With this in mind, are there things that I can do to make myself a more appealing candidate to a PhD program?

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    reference letters are overvalued and probably look 80% the same, most PhD job offers in germany don't even ask for reference letters, you visit the group and make a presentation of yourself and the your master thesis, the interest, motivation, ideas you show will be more important than a 3rd person mediocre to floridly reference letter. When I read so many questions on references here, it points me to its inflationary character ;) Read recent papers of the group, explain why it is interesting to you and how you would be a help. – Hauser Nov 2 '12 at 23:22
  • You should ask your recommenders if you can talk with them. Tell them about your decision to pursue a PhD. Also tell them about any projects or research that you have undertaken. The worst kind of reference letter is not one that says "this student is terrible" (those almost never get written). Instead, what you should avoid is a vague "he got an A in my class, and I think he'll do well" without any details to support this claim. Make sure that your recommenders know what you've accomplished and have something substantial to say in their letters. – Dan C Nov 3 '12 at 5:32
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    @Hauser In the U.S., most programs admit students to the program, and only later to a research group (I'm familiar with math and CS, but I think it's true in many other fields). As a result, students less frequently meet with their future adviser before applying. That's part of why letters of recommendation matter so much. – Dan C Nov 3 '12 at 5:34
  • @DanC In physics it's probably 50-50, or if anything a little more common the other way around. Or at least, students who identify a specific research group to work with before applying to the relevant university have a bit of an advantage starting out in grad school. – David Z Nov 3 '12 at 11:06
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    @Hauser: You're right—most reference letters look the same, and mediocre to florid letters are worthless—but you're missing the point. Strong letters from known experts with credible personal detail are worth their weight in gold. – JeffE Nov 3 '12 at 16:24

PhD programs are looking for strong evidence of research potential. We'll look for that evidence in your recommendation letters (preferably from people who know the field and know what potential stars look like), in your research statement, and in your academic record.

Get the best references you can. You write "I don't doubt that they would believe in my ability to research", which is excellent. They may also write about their surprise in your late interest, which will raise some eyebrows, but it's the truth, so you're stuck with it.

In your research statement, be sure to explain why you're interested in a PhD, and in particular, what changed in the late stages of your MS program to spark your interest. You need to actively pre-empt the perception that you just want to stay in school because you want to learn More Cool Stuff, or that you tried Real Work and you didn't like it.

You also need to include credible technical detail about your research experience and your specific research interests. (Yes, that means you need to have research experience and specific research interests.) Otherwise, readers will wonder if you know what research actually is. That naïveté might be excusable for someone with only a BS, but for an applicant with an master's degree, it's a serious red flag.

Good luck!

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  • Thank you so much for your input, I truly appreciate it. – swasheck Nov 3 '12 at 17:56

It is important if you have papers published by you as one of the authors in the field you intend to run a PhD, otherwise a good academic transcript will be enough. Sometimes some Universities take PhD students that they can groom and nurture in some fields irrespective of how qualified they are or not. I encourage you to believe in yourself and try your hands on some applications. Best of Luck.

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