Like many other students in a lab where interaction with the lead Professor is very limited, most of my time is spent with the graduate student who is working on their dissertation/publication project.

This student is a Ph.D. candidate (Ph.C.) and will have their degree by the time I apply to graduate school. Whether they will secure a faculty position or post-doc somewhere is unknown, but my question is whether it is okay to ask them for a recommendation letter since they will have earned their doctorate degree by then, despite having worked under them when they, themselves, were still students.

Will this be frowned upon by the admissions committee?

*This is for Social Sciences


I wrote one or two recommendation letters as a graduate student, though only after encouraging the students to find someone else if at all possible.

My experience is in math, which may be different, but it's been that a letter from a PhD student counts for somewhat less. Prestige of the letter writer matters a bit, as does experience, and a PhD student generally doesn't have either.

It would be common in your situation, I think, to have the lead faculty member write the letter, but consult with the PhD student about what to say. (Or even to have the PhD student write portions of the letter and have the lead faculty member complete and sign the letter.)

When students have done a research project but the supervising faculty member doesn't write a letter, that can be a red flag. A letter from a PhD student helps, especially if it explains that they did most of the supervising, but it still raises questions.

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  • I would concur that having someone other than the lead researcher from your lab write the letter raises questions, and would encourage you to try to find a full professor to write your letter. In my case, I had a highly renowned professor from my department who knew me well write my letter even though we hadn't done research together, and that letter was a big factor in my successful PhD application. – Jennifer Rae Pierce Jan 8 '17 at 14:36

How seriously a letter from a graduate student (or very recent Ph.D. graduate) will be taken will vary from institution to institution and from person to person. At some places, a detailed letter from a student might be of value, if there is simply no way to get a comparable detailed letter from a faculty member. However, I know from talking to application readers from various institutions that at some places, there is a semi-official policy that letter from grad students are given extremely little weight. (Most memorably, I was told by one of the professors on the graduate admissions committee in the physics department at MIT that they did not take letter from students seriously at all.)

Of course, there are valid reasons to take letters from students significantly less seriously than letters from more senior people. Students do not tend to have enough experience to provide a good evaluation of a given undergraduate, relative to the population of other undergraduates. In some cases, having a letter from a grad student may not really hurt an applicant, but in other situations it may be very bad for their application; and for this reason, I always strongly advise students against getting recommendation letters from grad students.

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I don't think it will be frowned upon by the admissions committee. This person was, for all practical purposes, a co-worker, or a supervisor. It's perfectly reasonable to include that person on your list.

The person might have a very good reputation among people in your field. It might be foolish not to include that person.

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It's totally OK to ask a graduate student or recent graduate for a letter of recommendation when applying to graduate student school. Just make sure you ask for one from faculty as well.

There are two main things that matter about letters of recommendation:

  1. What do the letters say? Do the authors know you well? Do they think you are absolutely fantastic? Do they think you have a wonderful career in research ahead of you?
  2. Who are the letters from? Does the reader know, trust, and/or respect the person writing the letter?

Ideally, all of your letters would come from incredibly well known famous senior faculty and they would all say that you walk on water. Of course, that rarely happens for folks applying to graduate school. As a result, you often need to compromise between the two things.

A letter from somebody who has worked with you more closely but who might not be as well known or whose credentials might not inspire as much confidence might (i.e., less good at 2 above) can still be useful if it can provide details about how hard you work and how smart you are (i.e., 1 above). Indeed, if your other letters are from more senior people that are going to be thinner on this kind of detail, it might be a good move to ask for a letter that can complement these.

You could also try to find some compromise. Here are two ideas:

  • You might be to coordinate with the senior person (i.e., the PI in the lab of the graduate student writing the letter) to let them know that you're also asking the student. Although you can't force it, it might means that the PI can say, "I think the student [you] is great and you should really take my word of my incredibly trusted former student who is writing a letter as well."
  • It is rare (but not impossible) for the senior person to collaborate with their (former) graduate student to submit a dual-authored letter. You might want to make this suggestion to the PI and/or the recent graduate.
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