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I'm thinking about applying to a PhD program in computer science this coming December and I'm wondering a couple things about getting letters of recommendation.

For some background, I have a BS and a thesis MS in computer science, and I've been working in industry for a while now, but not that long.

I did a lot of work with my fellow graduate students while getting my masters and I think that, other than my advisor, they are in the best position to write a letter of recommendation for me. They have all graduated with PhDs and are now working as professors themselves. However I'm not sure if having my former fellow students write letters of recommendation would seem appropriate to a graduate committee. What do you all think?

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When I started reading, I already thought about how to answer "no", because I was thinking of other students writing recommendations. If, however, they themselves are already professors, they should have some academic reputation with which they can vouch for you. Thus, I would suggest the following steps:

1) Ask them what they think about it and let them send the letters to you first.

2) Ask other people, e.g. your advisor from back then, contacts in the field, maybe even a contact in a graduate committee you know but don't plan on applying to.

3) Get "enough" recommendations to not depend on your former colleagues to much, so that you have the desired number of letters (some PhD programs post such numbers online) and these are but add-ons. As you have been working, and this working time was long enough for your fellow students to get a position as a professor, you might need to explain why you apply for a PhD just now, why you didn't so before and why you don't just stay in the industry. As this is rather important, I put an extra number for it:

4) Get recommendations from your current industry job to show that you are not (only^^) applying for a PhD because you want out of the company or lost your job, but rather because you want to learn, study, better yourself. One or two superiors at your current work place, stating that they advise on you getting a PhD (as you show the necessary skills, etc.) might be just as convincing as your former advisor. If possible, take supervisors who themselves hold PhDs and make sure that they sign as something like "Mr XXX, senior YYY at ZZZ, PhD in ... from ..." to show that they are able to judge your capability and the usefulness for you to get a PhD.

So long story short, I would if possible get letters from your advisor and from your current job. The former colleagues could be a nice addition to that, but I would not put the main focus on them if possible.

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    Note that some programs (I know many examples in the US) might prefer that you do not know the contents of the recommendation letters. – Peter Kravchuk Apr 27 '17 at 7:32
  • I get three letters, exactly three. My advisor will certainly be one of the three, but I'm on the fence about getting someone from the management chain to write one. I think my manager certainly would, but no one in my management chain has a PhD. Some of my colleagues have PhDs, but I would think that if I'm getting a letter from work that it should be from a manager or someone higher up than me. – Ethan Apr 28 '17 at 5:05
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Depending upon your other possible reference letters, one such letter from a former PhD student - now professor may be a good option.

The strongest reference letters, in the eyes of a PhD admission committee, will be from someone who can personally attest to your research ability with specific examples. The length of time they have been doing research/working in the field is important as it improves their credibility and allows them to make comparative statements between you and the bulk of people they have worked with or advised. Having a well established professor saying you are among the top 5% of students they have performed research with is very powerful.

As you mentioned, your MS advisor is in the best position to give you a reference letter, and indeed his/her recommendation is critical. If you have any undergraduate research experience or involvement with outside collaborations during your MS degree, they may offer additional opportunities for recommendation letters. If your industry experience involved any research, or if your letter writer can credibly state your suitability (and is perhaps even pushing you to get your PhD as Bemte mentions), that may be another good option.

If your only other options are letters from professors you have taken classes with (when your letter will only be based on grades/class participation) or letters from work (when it will only be based on work ethic/personality), do consider a letter from a former PhD student - now professor. If you were essentially advised by this student, in a sub-project or offshoot of their thesis, it would be considerably better. Be sure, however, that you at least worked together on the same project. Be aware that generally they will only be able to discuss the same work as your MS advisor, which will further reduce the letter's impact. Do not include more than one.

  • I worked on a side-project with the PhD student I have in mind, so the project was not my MS thesis and I'm the second author on a paper of theirs on the project. So that's good to hear! I have a small follow-up question, what would make a stronger third recommendation letter, a letter from my current industry manager where research is not a part of my job at all or a letter from a professor from undergrad that I TA-ed for? – Ethan Apr 28 '17 at 3:35

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