14

I am a mathematics grad student who is often the primary instructor for undergraduate courses, and I have been asked by one of my previous students to write a recommendation letter for REUs, which are summer research programs for undergraduate students. This student was in a ``Introduction to Proofs'' course that I taught. I know that recommendation letters from grad students for grad school are looked upon poorly; is the same true for REUs? Applying for REUs is rather different than applying for grad school, so perhaps it is more accepted in this case.

If the best option for this student is to have me write the letter, what should a good letter from a grad student focus on? Since I don't have as extensive a teaching record as a professor I can't realistically compare them to other students I have had-- is it enough to talk about their excellent performance in the course I taught?

In case anyone is concerned about the student, I brought up the issue of me being a grad student when they asked for the letter, and after guidance from a faculty member they still think my letter is their best option (a professor is writing a letter as well). Of course, I'll ask someone at my institution for advice also.

  • 4
    This is an excellent and well-written question. – Tom Church Feb 10 '16 at 6:58
  • I think you're going to see a lot of opinions on this, because I'm not sure there is a true correct answer. To opine on the first part of your question... For me, as an evaluator, I'd much rather have a good letter from someone who knows the student well than a marginal or generic one from someone who doesn't, regardless of the academic rank of the letter writer. – z_dood Feb 10 '16 at 9:43
  • is it enough to talk about their excellent performance in the course I taught? Did that student have excellent performance in the course you taught? – scaaahu Feb 10 '16 at 12:28
  • It would be great if someone who's actually helped run a math REU (admittedly a small demographic) could weigh in on this. In principle, a letter from a grad student seems fine to me, but it's possible that with increased volume of applications, enough people have two good letters from faculty members that this is a real disadvantage. – user37208 Feb 10 '16 at 13:35
  • @scaaahu Yes, they performed excellently in the class, showed a good work ethic and curiosity, and were able to help their peers. – James Cameron Feb 10 '16 at 22:22
5

I am the project director for an NSF-funded REU program, so I will offer my thoughts on how the faculty reading applications for my program would respond.

Overall, we will not take letters from graduate students very seriously when considering students for admission. The basic problem is that few graduate students have the perspective to judge an undergraduate's potential to do research. When I look back to my own time in graduate school, I know that I would not have done a particularly good job evaluating undergraduates' relevant skills.

While a letter from a graduate student would be essentially worthless when a student is applying to graduate school, an REU program is a more relaxed and lower stakes admission process. So getting a letter from a graduate student would not necessarily doom an application. If I received such a letter, I would write back promptly to the applicant asking for another letter from a faculty member. If we did not receive a replacement letter from a professor, we would not rule the application out automatically, but it would have to be very strong otherwise to make the cut (and students who are very strong applicants would often have little trouble getting a good faculty letter to begin with).

Other programs may be more willing to accept at least one letter from a graduate student, so if you feel that you have adequately warned the student about the risks in having you as a recommender, you may want to go ahead and write the letter. However, you should definitely look at the admission requirements for the specific REU programs; if they specifically ask for faculty letters, I would suggest that you decline to write.

  • +1 for students who are very strong applicants would often have little trouble getting a good faculty letter to begin with – scaaahu Feb 10 '16 at 14:24
3

I think that you have done all of the due diligence that is needed, and at this point should feel confident to write a letter on the student's behalf. The key things that I see in the situation are:

  1. You've advised the student of your concern, and after due consideration they still wish to have you write. Even better, the have consulted with a professor as well, who seems to concur.
  2. The student also has another letter from a professor.

As noted in the comments, a strong letter from a graduate student can often be much better than a weak letter from a professor. I have personal experience with this as well: even as a graduate student I wrote letters for undergraduates who had worked with me that appear to have helped them (or at least didn't prevent their application to various programs from succeeding). Moreover, since they also have a letter from a professor, they're not without faculty recommendation.

Finally, an REU is a much lower-stakes application than a Ph.D. program: the degree of commitment on the part of the hiring party is lower so they may be more willing to take risks, and if the student misses there are often many alternatives for getting research experience in the same time period.

In sum: you've taken all the cautions you need to take, and can now go write a nice strong letter.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.