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I'm an undergrad with hopes of entering academia. My transcript isn't stellar, and the general sense I get is that I can make up for this with good references. How do I find which professors have the best reputation, so I can try to establish a relationship and hopefully get references from them?

If the subject is relevant, my area is mathematics.

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    You don't get good references by looking for "rockstars": you get good references by working hard and doing a good job. I suggest you to rethink your strategy and, maybe, also your motivation in entering academia. Academia is more about "rock stairs" than "rock stars".
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Nov 19, 2016 at 9:58
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    I think a legitimate question is buried here: suppose someone is looking to do a research project (e.g. an undergraduate summer scholarship) and wishes to work with a 'rockstar' then how to track them down? My answer: most department websites have a 'news' feed which tracks awards won by the department members. Alternatively, pick a field that you're interested in and ask one of your contacts - e.g. your personal tutor - who the university's leading experts are in that field.
    – lemon
    Nov 19, 2016 at 11:46
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    Usually by their publication record. I have seen that some very pedagogical professors who are very good at explaining mathematics and physics are not so good at a research level, not having many prestigious publications. The approach would be find a good tutor with a very good publications record.
    – Nikey Mike
    Nov 19, 2016 at 12:10
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    And I hope you realize that "rockstars" may be very perceptive about the potential/talent of other people, so that being chummy with them in itself may actually result in a net loss if you cannot make a wonderful impression. A very-lukewarm letter from a very well known person is more damning than an ambiguous letter from unknowns. So, that is, there's not "one weird trick" to develop a good reputation out of a vacuum... Nov 19, 2016 at 23:22
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    Have a look if Brian May is at your university; that's probably your best chance to find a rock star.
    – gnasher729
    Nov 21, 2016 at 1:07

5 Answers 5

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Every university instructor is a potential rockstar in terms of their ability to help you in your studies, and in terms of their ability to influence an admissions committee.

So, how do you find your personal academic rockstars?

  1. Consider the instructor of every single class you take as a potential rockstar. Visit office hours. You don't know whether the instructor will give you extra help, or whether the extra help will be targeted to your needs, until you try.

  2. When choosing courses, look for courses where other students say the instructor is highly effective. Here are some ways of collecting opinions: visit the drop-in homework help room. There you should be able to find students who are a bit farther along than you, who can talk freely about who are the best instructors in the department.

  3. Try all the tutoring options at your school. Some are better than others, so don't get too frustrated if your first attempts don't work out very well. Try any and all options.

  4. Don't be afraid to look at ratemyprofessor.com -- but do take what you read there with a grain of salt.

  5. Sit in on a potential class or instructor one semester ahead. This will help you in your choice of classes for the following semester.

  6. Make an appointment with your undergraduate dean or advisor. Ask for recommendations of courses and instructors.

The suggestion made in a comment by @lemon is good too.

I like your attitude. Everybody has their own rate of development. Late bloomers are welcome in academia too.

Do make sure you are solid on your foundational math skills.

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    I, in turn, am not impressed by the OP's request. They are more concerned about building relations and thus the quality of the references than about the quality of their work. The sequence should be the other way round. Relations are important, and so is PR and marketing, but should there not first be a product to sell? If they really come across rockstar profs, these have achieved their status through an astute mixture of exceptional work, and the other aspects. Don't expect them not to see through your strategy. Make sure you have something to sell, or it may backfire. Nov 19, 2016 at 23:01
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    I like your attitude. Everybody has their own rate of development. Late bloomers are welcome in academia too. - I certainly agree with the latter 2 sentences, but I'm not convinced the OP has the right attitude. (She may, but it's not clear from the question if her goal is to excel in her studies.)
    – Kimball
    Nov 20, 2016 at 0:35
  • @Kimball - I'm an optimist. In gray areas I like to believe the best about people and assist them in proving me right. But that's just me. Nov 20, 2016 at 2:26
  • @aparente001 I am an optimist, too, and people get always an initial credit with me. However, some blow parts of it right at the beginning. Still, they can improve credit history by the following steps... Nov 20, 2016 at 5:23
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    @aparente001 Sorry, it's a misunderstanding, the three dots were a "fade out" not a "continuation" - I meant that, once they blew their credit, they have to work hard to regain it. That's the reason I think they should not go to the high-reputation referees before they have work of matching quality. Rebuilding reputation after it has been damaged is even harder than getting to a good reputation level in the first place. Nov 20, 2016 at 17:58
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I'm very skeptical that this approach will net you stellar recommendations, but here's how: (A) Enumerate the professors in your department and any related ones. (B) Search Google Scholar for each and see who has a relatively high h-index.

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To me, the way you ask this question sounds very mercenary, OP. I for one would not be willing to put any effort into a student if I had the impression that they were merely after my name on their reference letter rather than genuinely interested in learning from me.

At your stage of your studies, shouldn't you be more interested in learning exciting maths and getting good references because you do good work, rather than whose name will look best on your letter? (Good work does not have to equal good grades in exams; it could be research projects, reading courses, student seminars...)

My advice is also to establish relationships with faculty whose research genuinely interests you and who put effort into mentoring students (ask older students!); that will get you somewhere in terms of making you a better mathematician. Enthusiastic references from any such professors will serve you well.

You need to give someone a reason to actually write you a good reference. Simply approaching whoever has the most citations/ won the most awards/ published in the most high-impact journals will not cut it by itself.

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You have two issues: deciding who to approach and then what to do to make them support you. I'll focus mostly on the second part.

But first, the upper level students in your university will have a pretty good idea who the best teachers are. In some (smaller) places that might be all you can hope for. But you can also ask any professor, including your academic advisor, about their own research and a general question about who on the faculty does a lot of effective research. For math, however, you might need to specify a field within math so as to match your own skills.

And a combination of the two approaches (ask students and faculty) might be best. My further suggestions will depend on finding someone who is willing to do actual research with undergraduates. Finding a superstar who won't work with you will bring no benefit. And some such people are too focused on their now research, which is probably above your level anyway, to provide any help.

But once you find someone who does interesting research in a field that also interests you and has some track record of working independently with undergraduate students, approach them for an independent study research project that they would be willing to guide. You probably don't need a specific topic, but a field (algebra, topology, ...) would probably be essential.

Then, spend a lot of effort on that project. If you do a good job of it, then they will be impressed and will probably be willing to write you good letters of recommendation for further study. But it is your work than matters more than the (international) reputation of the letter writer.

If you can get a publication along the way, even a joint publication, even a modest publication, all the better, but as an undergrad this isn't essential.

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Academic "rock-star-ness" is a factor in reference letters, but not that big a factor, especially at your level, for a few reasons.

  • As others have said, if you had to choose between a letter that could speak in detail about your work written by a less famous professor, and a generic letter by a famous professor, the former letter is much, much more valuable. (After all, the admissions committee will evaluate you, not your letter writers!)

  • If you do a PhD, you will specialize in a certain subfield. You want to use undergrad to find the subfield(s) that most interest you. Having a letter from someone in or adjacent to the subfield where you want to work, is much more important than having a letter from someone "famous" in abstract terms.

    • If you are tempted to choose your subfield based on the interests of the professor with the most "rock-star-ness", keep in mind that this is very institution-dependent. You will build a career by going to many different places. If you choose to study X because rock-star professor Y studies it at your undergrad institution, but you don't really love X, then you will be in for a long lifetime of misery when you go to other places where the people who study X are not rock stars. An academic career is long and difficult; a pre-requisite for starting one is that you are genuinely passionate about the subfield you are studying.
  • Entering graduate school, you will be judged much more on your potential for success in research, as opposed to your previous accomplishments. Of course your grades and undergraduate research experience are important evidence of potential. But, you are not applying for a faculty position, where you would be expected to be well connected in your field. At that point in your career, it does matter what famous and well respected people in your field think of your work. But, you are not at that level yet. No one expects famous people in your field to know who you are at this stage.

Where "rock-star-ness" could matter, is if you are deciding between doing a research internship between two (or, a small number bigger than one) of groups in your area. Then, one factor that weighs into the decision is which group is more successful. However, even then, that is not the only factor. Oftentimes, choosing to work in a "famous" and well-established group over a new and up and coming group can lead to a situation where you get less personal attention from your advisor and need to compete more with others in the group.

Therefore, I would strongly advise focusing on (a) doing quality work and (b) seeking out professors who work on things you find interesting, and not put attempt to do a generic ranking of professors in the abstract that doesn't account for your specific interests.

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