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Would it be rude to email a famous professor asking for a recommendation letter to Dphil, if I had published in a high or moderately high ranking journal in her/his field and just have letters from foreign unknown professors?

The professor does not know me apart from the published paper. Information about whether the professor knows the paper, or knows me due to the paper, might be edited in later. I was thinking to add my grades (the lowest is an A-), curriculum, and send to professors that work in my subject (it is a very small field). But if it is rude doing this, I don't think it could improve my case.

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    Does the professor know anything about you apart from the published paper? – Patricia Shanahan Aug 17 '16 at 3:49
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    Do you have any information as to whether the professor does know your paper? If they have (e.g.) cited it, that makes a lot of difference. – Klaus Draeger Aug 17 '16 at 13:33
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    Professors outside your school do not have the expertise to write about you as a student; do not send them your grades. But experts in your field do have the expertise to write about you as a researcher. – JeffE Aug 17 '16 at 14:07
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    @enderland: Currently, it is still very unclear whether the famous professor is indeed familiar with the OP's work. – O. R. Mapper Aug 17 '16 at 14:30
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    @enderland: "that's a simple detail for the OP to clarify" - I fully agree. I, too, am looking forward to that response. "Right now, this is basically a "yes/no" question, which isn't really a good fit for SE." - I disagree, as many valuable questions in here are basically "yes/no" questions ... which come with an implied "and why?". – O. R. Mapper Aug 17 '16 at 14:54

10 Answers 10

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While I don't really like adding answers to questions that have too many already, I also think it's a little hard to cut through the arguing any other way.

  1. It's not rude to ask for a letter of recommendation. Ever. (I mean, if you do it rudely, then yes, but the bare fact of asking isn't). It might be unlikely to succeed, or unrealistic in some cases, but it's not rude.

  2. You should try to ascertain whether this is a normal thing to do in your field. In my field (mathematics), it borders on inconceivable that an undergrad would carry out and publish truly impressive work without an established researcher in the field supervising them and able to write a detailed letter about it. Maybe there are some other fields where that can be the case, though I can't say I know what they would be (perhaps some of the other answerers are). Similarly, JeffE's advice to try to create a dossier of the level that might be appropriate for a faculty position sounds completely preposterous to me, but I suppose it must not be in computer science.

  3. Whenever you ask someone for a letter of recommendation, think about what you are hoping the person will say, and whether they are placed well to say it. So, I would only consider asking for a person to write a letter based purely on having read my research if I knew they were familiar with it, and could place it in a context that is not obvious to the people reading the letter. It can be very valuable to have a letter saying essentially "this paper is actually really important. here is why." I've read such letters, I've written such letters. But the paper has to be really important (in the view of the author) for such a letter to work. I suspect a lot of the argument here is based around whether the answerer really thinks this is an impressive publication or not (which we are all guessing about).

So, if I were you, I would ask some of your professors whether they really think this potential letter writer will be impressed by the publication. If they think maybe yes, then you can email her/him, and say:

Dear Prof. X,

I'm a student at the University of Y and am applying to graduate schools in country Z (or maybe be more specific) in underwater basket weaving, with a focus on the use of hemp. Prof. W thought you might be interested in this publication of mine, since it relates to your work on macramae at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. I was wondering if you thought you could write a strong recommendation for me on the basis of this publication. Thank you very much for your time.

Sincerely,

Joe Schmoe

Asking someone if they think they are able to write a strong letter for you is good way of leaving them an easy out, and not getting a terrible letter since someone finds it easier to write a terrible letter than to say no (it happens). I would almost certainly reject such a request since I really wouldn't feel like I could write a strong letter. But if the publication really is that good, maybe someone will feel like they can.

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    This is a great answer that also hits two common Academia.SE refrains in one post (Academia varies and talk to your advisor) :) – ff524 Aug 17 '16 at 15:34
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    Yes, very nice answer. The range of (quite passionate!) opinion expressed on this page is a clear indication that your mileage may vary. So, OP needs to find out a) will such a letter help him/her in their particular situation, and b) will the professor be able to write them a strong letter? @BenWebster's suggestions for how to do this are spot on. – user2390246 Aug 18 '16 at 10:18
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    Hmm... I think point #1 is a stretch and likely varies more than what is allowed for by "never, ever." Personally, if someone who knows I had no basis on which to evaluate their work asked me for a letter of recommendation, I'd consider that rude, even if it were someone I knew personally. I would only ask for a recommendation (of any form) from someone who has been closely familiar with my work. – reirab Aug 18 '16 at 18:26
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    I like very much your letter about hemp on the Mariana Trench! – Rama Aug 19 '16 at 12:54
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    @reirab What's rude is a personal and cultural judgement, so I can't tell anyone else what to think. My personal feeling is that graduate admissions or hiring are sufficiently competitive, and sufficiently hard to get good information about that if someone I really can't write a letter for asks, I don't blame them for not knowing; I just tell them that I can't. My point was more that rude or not rude is the wrong framing for the question; wise or not wise is a much more important question. – Ben Webster Aug 19 '16 at 13:40
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The benefit of recommendation letters is that they give insight into abilities that are not reflected in the rest of your application. Your grades and your publication are already in your application. A professor who doesn't know anything else about you has nothing to write that will help you.

To directly answer your question: it comes across more naïve/inexperienced than rude, but either way I do not see how it will help your case.

P.S. This answer assumes that the professor is not already familiar with your work before your email. To be more specific, I'm imagining you sending unsolicited emails to a bunch of the biggest names in your field (selected purely because they are "famous"), who have not previously heard of you or your work (as far as you know), asking them to write a recommendation letter for you entirely on the basis of your having published a paper in a journal.

If the professor is already familiar with your work (e.g. has cited it, or has had an email correspondence with you about it), then I agree with this answer that his/her letter can potentially be helpful. Similarly, I think Ben Webster offers some useful advice about attempting this in a more nuanced - and potentially more effective - way.

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    Disagree. I think you missed a crucial point of this question: the OP has published a paper in a high ranking venue. Now, if this venue is really a top place, and the OP thinks that the professor knows about the result, which is supposedly a great result, then the fact that the professor doesn't know personally the OP is a huge advantage. This is the best recommendation that one can get: someone that doesn't know him/her but have heard of his/her result, based solely on its scientific merit! – Dilworth Aug 17 '16 at 13:28
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    Strongly disagree; see Dilworth's answer. – JeffE Aug 17 '16 at 13:46
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    @JeffE do you still disagree with this answer if the professor in question is not familiar with the work? Dilworth's answer assumes familiarity with the work, so I'm wondering whether you consider that to be a prerequisite or not. – ff524 Aug 17 '16 at 13:55
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    @Dilworth The OP didn't specify that the professor knows the published paper, just that they don't know him/her in any other way. I added that part based on the exchange in the comments: Q: "Does the professor know anything about you apart from the published paper?" A: "No, I was thinking in add my grades (the lowest is an A-), curriculum, and send to professores that work in my subject (it is a very small field). But if it is rude doing this, I don't think it could improve my case. " See the edit history. – ff524 Aug 17 '16 at 13:59
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    @iayork: A researcher is not an "ignorant child" just because they don't know a paper from another field. (In fact, looking at the thousands of papers that each field produces year by year, I would not even dare to consider any researcher an "ignorant child" even for not knowing a given paper that seemingly belongs to their field.) – O. R. Mapper Aug 17 '16 at 14:20
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Let me disagree completely with all the other answers here, that I think have missed a crucial point of your question. In short: I believe it is a reasonable plan to ask for the letter.

Here's why: The OP has published a paper in a high ranking venue. Now, if this venue is really a top place, and the OP thinks that the professor knows about the result, which is supposedly a great result, then the fact that the professor doesn't know personally the OP is a huge advantage. This is the best recommendation that one can get: someone that doesn't know him/her but have heard of his/her result, based solely on its scientific merit!

P.S. do not add your grades. Ask for a reference based solely on the result, and explain your contribution if you're a coauthor.

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    This is the correct answer. A standard piece of advice in academia, whenever you apply to anything, aim your application at the next level. Applying for tenure? Aim to present a strong case for full professor. Applying for a job? Aim to present a strong tenure case. Applying for PhD admission? Aim for a strong faculty application. A successful faculty application must have at least one strong letter from a well-known active researcher who is not from the applicant's home department and has not worked with the applicant. A letter like that for graduate admissions is pure gold. – JeffE Aug 17 '16 at 13:37
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    I'm not sure I agree with you, but what I really don't understand: What incentive is there for a professor to write recommendation letters for someone they have no relationship to whatsoever since the person has not even studied at their university. – Roland Aug 17 '16 at 13:37
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    I think this answer makes sense if "the OP thinks that the professor knows about the result", but I don't see any indication of that in the question. Perhaps the OP will come back and clarify. – ff524 Aug 17 '16 at 13:49
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    Strongly disagree with this answer. If I were asked to write a letter of reference for someone I had never met, based on a publication and their grades, I would not do it and would think less of them for asking. If I were on a committee and received such a letter, I would conclude that if no one the candidate knows personally would give them a positive letter and that their personality must be terrible; it would pretty much destroy their chances. A positive letter from a personal acquaintance, no matter how obscure, would be ten times better than this impersonal letter. – iayork Aug 17 '16 at 14:06
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    I don't think it's helpful to conflate tenure or promotion letters and grad school letters. For the former you're trying to establish that you have a national or international reputation, and experts who do not know you are perfect choices. For the latter you're trying to establish potential for success in research, and someone you've interacted with is a better choice. (That said, given the choice of someone better known who knows you but not as well as someone less established, pick the person who people know.) – Noah Snyder Aug 17 '16 at 14:14
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Such a letter wouldn't help you.

Since the professor doesn't know you, the best possible outcome would be for them to give very generic praise of you. Chances are the admissions committee will swiftly disregard this letter.

If you look into what makes a good recommendation letter, you will find that it's not so much the prestige of the professor, but how closely they worked with you, and whether they give specific examples of your good qualities. Occasionally you might get situations where a famous professor is so famous, that merely their good word is enough to get you in - but this seems to be the exception rather than the rule. It is also very awkward to write a letter for someone you don't know well.

I would think about finding a more suitable recommender. Granted, if you have not only published, but the publication has attracted correspondence from major researchers, this sounds like it would give you a huge advantage over other applicants - and in principle one could write "I don't know this person but I've read their paper, which is very good - here are all the things this person did right in this paper". It still sounds like a stretch to me. Perhaps talk about the paper a lot in your statement of purpose, and hopefully it comes up during the interview.

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    A letter from someone who doesn't know you, but does know your research, can write about the specific good qualities of your research. That's far more predicitive of your future success as a researcher than most recommendation letters. – JeffE Aug 17 '16 at 13:46
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Adding on to @ff524's answer, most professors tend to only write recommendations if they know the candidate for some time or worked/researched with them for a certain minimum period of time. There are also very few institutions who may require LoR's from people whom you are known to for at least X amount of time. Even if not, an LoR which is just a repeat of the résumé may not so serve your purpose.

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    I disagree somewhat: When applying for research postdocs (at least in my field) it is not uncommon (in fact encouraged) to get LoRs from professors outside your department. This will be professors who are familiar with your work but may not necessarily know you personally. They are writing about the quality of your research and putting it in context for the admissions committee, most of whose members will not likely be familiar with your specific research area. – John M Aug 19 '16 at 15:57
  • However, here we are speaking of a PhD applicant rather than a postdoc applicant. Such LoRs (where the letter writer does not know the applicant personally) are more unusual, but I think this is mostly a function of the fact that often PhD applicants often don't have significant publications. But I would suggest that if a PhD applicant did have a good publication, then a professor with research interests in the same specific area may be willing to write an LoR, and such a letter would be helpful to the applicant. – John M Aug 19 '16 at 16:02
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A recommendation is about a person. A review is about a piece of work. Such a professor may review your work, but he is in no position to give a recommendation, since he does not KNOW YOU. I would not give a recommendation to someone I did not know, and in fact, would probably write back telling such a person that his request is not appropriate, exactly for this reason.

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    A recommendation is about a person. A review is about a piece of work. — And researchers are judged on their work. – Mad Jack Aug 18 '16 at 21:25
  • Keep in mind that the "famous professor" is bound to be very busy. There's no exception to that rule. If you're Ramanujan writing to Hardy, or Bose writing to Einstein, then you're making it worth his while. Otherwise, what's in it for the Prof? Warm fuzzy feelings? Notice that the OP is not suggesting, for example, a collaboration. That might be worth something to the professor. And it could be the basis of a strong letter of recommendation later. – Joe Corneli Aug 21 '16 at 18:16
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I agree with Dilworth and JeffE: letters of recommendation from people who just know you via your reputation "is pure gold" (@JeffE).

A friend of mine is applying for an O-1 visa. Apart from papers and citations, press coverage etc, a crucial part of the application is 7 - 10 letters of recommendation.

Her employer is hiring a lawyer to help her on the process. Here is their suggestion to have a strong application: 3 letters from academic colleagues (including PhD advisor etc), 3 letters from industry, and 2 letters from people who just knows her via reputation (papers etc).

Applying for an O-1 visa is not the same as applying for a PhD (but a lot more difficult IMHO), but I think the way profiles are evaluated is similar. And I believe the lawyer know what they are doing.

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No

If I was part of the admissions board, and received a letter of recommendation saying essentially "I don't know them personally, but this paper they wrote is great", this is what I would be thinking:

You are applying to a place where you believe no-one is capable of evaluating your paper on its own merits, so you need to get someone else to look at it and explain its quality to them. In that case, why are you even applying? It's clear that there is nothing you can learn from them. After all, if they are not even competent enough to evaluate your previous paper, how are they going to be able to evaluate any future work?

I wouldn't dismiss you out of hand for it, but it would definitely count strongly against you - someone who thinks they already know more than the professor is not someone I would want to be teaching, and is almost certainly going to be causing problems throughout their course - potentially even legal trouble, if they start making accusations of discrimination when the professors give them anything less than full marks.

If you think your paper is very good, and should be considered, then include it with your application. Otherwise the best case you could hope for is being damned by faint praise; the worst is something like I describe above.

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    This argument doesn't make much sense to me. It is certainly plausible that there are faculty in the department who are in the same subfield as the OP and would be able to evaluate the work, but happen to not be on the admissions committee. "The paper they wrote is great" is not helpful, but "The paper has revolutionized subfield X" certainly is, and it's plausible that the admissions committee wouldn't know that if they're not in subfield X. – ff524 Aug 17 '16 at 14:27
  • I would expect that the faculty doing the evaluation would be (or would be able to consult with) the faculty involved with that specific programme. Otherwise, how could they properly evaluate the applicant? Unless their academic ability is not being evaluated, in which case I would expect the recommendation to not count for anything. – Benubird Aug 17 '16 at 14:34
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    Well, a letter about the impact of the research might get them to consult with faculty not on the committee :) Given the large number of applicants to prestigious programs and the ease with which applications that are not obviously outstanding can be filtered out, it can be helpful to have something in the application to suggest to the committee that they do that. – ff524 Aug 17 '16 at 14:36
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    @ff524 But why would you need to refer to a third party? Surely the reviewing committee is capable of recognizing the name of prestigious journals in their field. OP can just include in their CV "I had an article published in Nature" (or wherever), and that should be enough to get their attention. I the paper they wrote really is a big deal, then the faculty should be able to recognize that for themselves, otherwise why would you want to learn from them? – Benubird Aug 17 '16 at 14:52
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    Some papers and journals are widely known throughout the broad field they are in. Some are very well known and highly regarded in their specific subfield, but not nearly as much outside of that. – ff524 Aug 17 '16 at 14:56
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On one hand, I wouldn't "ask a famous professor who doesn't know me personally for a recommendation letter." On the other hand, your idea of asking a famous professor in your field to endorse you, based on your work in a high ranking journal, is a very good one.

The "bridge" solution is to get to know the famous professor personally. Since you have published in the same field as him, there must be plenty of people that you know that he also knows. (The editors of the journal for starters.) Find out which of your acquaintances is in this category and ask at least one of them for a personal introduction, or at least a letter/email of introduction. If all else fails, you might manufacture your own introduction by emailing him on his work in your common field, and perhaps asking him to comment on yours.

The likelihood is that you will get a good letter of recommendation. But the tactics in the above paragraph were to "take the temperature." There's a small chance that he disagrees with your approach or (less likely) sees you as a threat. You want to guard against that small chance of getting an unsuitable recommender.

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The point to a letter of recommendation is that it is a recommendation. If they don't know you, then what is their basis for recommending you? If they're straightforward and honest, they can't. Therefore, the request is basically asking someone to lie. Yes, that is rude.

Hence, I favor the first sentence of Ébe Isaac's answer.

  • You might want to quote or paraphrase the current first sentence of Ébe Isaac's answer, in case it is ever modified or removed. – J W Aug 18 '16 at 5:09
  • @JW : A sensible idea. The reason I'm declining to make the change is that I'm intentionally pointing people to Ébe Isaac's, where they are more likely to check out his entire answer and give him the up-vote he deserves. It's not my goal to steal his thunder by copying the info. His original sentence should remain in history if his answer is edited. So, until I notice it changed, I'll be nice to Ébe and keep sending people that-a-way. All that said, though, you are right, and I do appreciate your kindness by pointing out the idea. – TOOGAM Aug 18 '16 at 12:55
  • Certainly couldn't recommend someone for admission to a PhD program based on the quality of their published research, even if you didn't know them personally? On the other hand, I might know a lot of professors personally, but most of them may have no idea about my research work. – John M Aug 19 '16 at 16:14
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    If they don't know you, then what is their basis for recommending you? -- Your work. – JeffE Aug 22 '16 at 12:32

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