I worked as an RA and a TA with a professor, therefore I am hoping for a solid recommendation letter. However, I am concerned if the admissions committee would run a background check on the professor who wrote the recommendation letter, mainly:

1) Would they be looking at the students opinion of that professor? Examples of student's opinions can be found at websites like ratemyprofessor.


2) Will the admissions committee just check his research history and research related accomplishments?

And if they found something like bad student ratings, or a gap in the professor's research history, how would that affect the recommendation letter he wrote on my behalf?

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    Most people I know in academia considers sites like ratemyprofessor to be a joke at best and an abomination at worst. They certainly wouldn't use them to decide how to interpret a letter of recommendation. Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 19:51
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    @NateEldredge "most", really? I'd say all! We are generally loath to judge an academic's reputation without having read a few of his / her papers and heard them speak at a conference.
    – Moriarty
    Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 20:14
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    @NateEldredge -- you must not have a good "hotrating" ;) Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 23:24
  • ratemyprofessor seems to be only targeted on US. This makes it useless as a reference here, as this site is targeted to a world audience.
    – kebs
    Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 14:38

4 Answers 4


When I read admission application letters of recommendation, I certainly do care who the letter writers are. I do not look at student-oriented, commercialized, ad-click sites like "rate my professors". If I do not already know the letter writers by reputation, I might look at the math genealogy project to see where the letter writers went to school, who their advisors were, and what PhD students they've had if they're at a PhD-granting institution.

Yes, some particular small liberal-arts colleges manage to establish a reputation for producing students with a certain outlook. Some such outlooks are better in grad school than others...

In contrast to some other answers/comments, no, I do not think that everyone with a not-so-new PhD is able to assess future potential. And I do not think that the percentage demands in grad-school forms are sensible... considering that maybe it's not all linearizable, totally order-able? Srsly?

I absolutely do not assume that all letter writers are capable assessors... I don't necessarily assume that they're incompetent, either, ...

What a student would want to maximize might be a "product" of (1) familiarity of faculty person with your work/ability/interests, and (2) the visibility/credibility of the person in the research community.

This "visibility/credibility" is not at all easily determinable, not by beginners, certainly not by the commodified "impact factor" and other silly things. It's by something more like "lifetime achievement" and prior mentoring of PhD students (if any).

  • Amen to "I do not think that the percentage demands in grad-school forms are sensible". Worse yet are demands for overall rankings among all graduating seniors, like "7th in a graduating class of 84". I have the impression that some schools (outside the U.S.?) actually compute such relative ranks in each graduating class, but mine doesn't, and so I've never known what to do with such questions. Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 9:42
  • I would add a third factor: (3) past experience with strong undergraduates applying for graduate school. A letter that says "This student is really good!" is not as strong as "This student shows the same signs of future success as my previous students XXX, currently a PhD student at YYY, and ZZZ, who just received tenure at QQQ."
    – JeffE
    Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 16:44

While the idea of basing any important decisions on ratemyprofessor reviews is laughable, the answer to the spirit of your question is yes. If someone's writing a letter about your research, their reputation as a researcher matters a great deal. How am I supposed to judge someone's research potential if I have none myself?

As for teaching recommendations, in my field (math) this depends on what kind of position you're applying for. Having a teaching letter from someone in a teaching-oriented role (like a calculus coordinator or, if you're lucky, the Director of Undergraduate Studies) is always nice, but this matters a lot more when applying for teaching positions. In fact, I've heard that teaching letters from research superstars (or people who aren't specifically known for caring about teaching) don't get you very far at small liberal arts colleges.

  • A teaching recommendation from a Famous Person in Research® can often sound like faint praise.
    – RoboKaren
    Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 0:17

In addition to the recommender's reputation for research and teaching, his reputation for letter-writing may be taken into consideration if the readers of the letter know about it. If every letter from Professor X says that the student is in the top 5%, then people who know that won't be so impressed when he says that you're in the top 5%.


A recommendation letter is a specific type of expert knowledge. The recommender is asked to evaluate you because one or (preferably) both of:

  1. He is an expert in the subject of "you", having first hand knowledge there.
  2. He is an expert in the subject of teaching/research/whatever his expertise is especially pertaining your interactions.

If you are asking the person to write your reference letter and he has agreed, presumably the first condition is satisfied. They impact the letter will have on the admissions committee comes mostly from the second.

  1. If you are thinking about a teaching letter, a letter from someone who is demonstrably a good teacher is treated more favorably then someone who is 'merely' a top tier researcher. (How do you demonstrate good teaching? Someone who is active in modern pedagogy, who has won teaching awards, or simply someone who is, by word of mouth, a good teach. [Word of mouth meaning conversations with other academic professionals, not ratemyprofessor or any of those websites.])

    To help ameliorate this process, it helps if your recommender has access to documentation that can factually and objectively demonstrate you are a good teacher. (If the recommender explains that you have won such and such award and this award is prestigious because so-and-so, that's a lot easier to accept than just 'because I say so', especially in the case where the recommender is not well-known to the committee.)

  2. Similarly, if you are thinking about a research letter, then a letter from a research star who happens to be familiar with your work is usually better than a letter from a research superstar who only knows the surface of what you do.

  3. People tend to take opinions of people that they personally know and have a good opinion of more seriously, compared to people whose name that they have heard of, compared to complete strangers. So part of the selection of recommenders that you are doing should be trying to maximize impact by optimizing between "the people reading the letter will have heard of the recommender and respect his/her opinion" and "the recommender can say something insightful about the aspects of you that he or she is commenting about."

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