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My mother is a quite famous researcher (she has a PhD) on the field I want to do a PhD in. She works on the industry (not academia). I helped her on successful projects. She knows more about my work than my professors since we have worked much longer together.

Is it a good idea to ask for a recommendation letter from her? Since our personalities are very similar she can point out the high probability that I will be successful like her?

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    If you helped her on successful projects, than you have certainly met and worked alongside her colleagues. They would be perfect for a recommendation letter. – famargar Sep 2 '17 at 7:43
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    "Since our personalities are very similar she can point out the high probability that I will be successful like her?". This is completely wrong. Life isn't deterministic. – Eric Duminil Sep 2 '17 at 9:52
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    @EricDuminil How is pointing out that life isn't deterministic supposed be a rejoinder to a probability statement? Probability is based on the fact that life isn't deterministic. – John Coleman Sep 2 '17 at 13:07
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    "My mother is a quite famous researcher (she has a PhD)" It would be extremely unusual for a famous researchers not to have a PhD. – David Richerby Sep 2 '17 at 19:49
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    As a "famous researcher" with a PhD, your mother presumably has a good idea of how things work in academia, and what is ethical/recommended. What does she say about the option of writing you a rec letter? – Clement C. Sep 2 '17 at 21:54
107

I would say no, this is a very very bad idea. Your mother going on about how likely you are to succeed will probably not carry much weight. What else would your mother say? If you were unlikely to be successful, would she say that? (even if she would, the perception of the people reading the letter will be that she would not)

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    @Mayou36 I think it would be very unethical to write a recommendation for a close relative without disclosing the relationship. – Patricia Shanahan Sep 2 '17 at 18:28
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    @Mayou36 Moreover, academia is a small world, and should they find out the relationship by chance, the applicant can say goodbye to the position, and their mother to a piece of her reputation. – Massimo Ortolano Sep 2 '17 at 23:48
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    This answer presumes that a recommendation letter is meant to say that the candidate is "likely to succeed". While the point of a recommendation letter is to help gauge the potential success of the candidate, the letter itself should state facts about the candidate's work. For example "I know that this person is smart because they solved hard problem XYZ", or "I know that this person works well on a timeline because they completed projects A and B simultaneously on a six month deadline". – DanielSank Sep 3 '17 at 8:04
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    @DanielSank The question mentioned specifically that "she can point out a high probability of success", which is why my answer focused on that. But the point remains, the mother is likely to overvalue the importance of the work, and honestly in projects they worked on together, to overstate a child's contribution (or at least from a reviewer's point of view, these are possibilities). – Morgan Rodgers Sep 3 '17 at 14:11
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    Or, in trying to be fair and honest, over-compensate and undervalue her child's contributions. – Patricia Shanahan Sep 3 '17 at 17:06
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Your mother is not a suitable person to write a letter of recommendation. Even people who know her professionally may not know whether she can write a really objective letter about you. One of your mother's collaborators might be a good letter writer, if they both know your work and are sufficiently independent of your mother to not have any conflict of interest.

Failing that, you can still discuss the projects you worked on with her, and perhaps indicate that you do not have a letter of reference for them because of the conflict of interest.

Although your professors have not worked with you as long, readers will put more trust in their objectivity. They have presumably worked with you as much as they have with other students at a similar stage for whom they are writing letters. They are better placed to know how you compare to your peers.

24

Not only would a letter from mother be discounted, it could have a negative effect.

It would simply beg the question "Why can this person not find someone independent to write a reference?"

10

No, don't ask for a letter of recommendation from your mother. I doubt she'd write one for you, anyway.

Letters of recommendation from close relatives are not accepted, because they can't be trusted to be objective. It's quite common for application forms to explicitly say that referees cannot be close relatives.

9

TL;DR: Nobody in their right mind would accept your application, as it could ensue considerable damage to them.

I want to add the perspective of the decision maker to what’s already been said. In all of this I assume that there is no explicit rule against recommendations by close relatives – because otherwise the situation is very clear anyway. Also, I assume that this happens in a country where nepotism and cronyism are frowned upon and not common.

If I had to make a hiring or admission decision and the application contained a recommendation from the applicant’s mother, I would probably reject it immediately (even if I did not read a single word of the recommendation). If it were my job to formally process applications before they get to those who actually make the decisions, I would ensure that they never even see that letter. Also, if the recommendation was authored by somebody with a name and biography making it likely that they are related to the applicant, I would check.

The reason for this is as follows: If somebody finds out that I made a positive decision based on an application containing a recommendation letter by an obvious relative, I can be accused of making a bad decision, ignoring a blatant conflict of interest. It doesn’t matter whether I carefully took the conflict of interest into account; it doesn’t even matter if I actually read the recommendation – because in such a situation the burden of proof is primarily on me. Possible repercussions include lawsuits, the end of my career, and similar. The only way to avoid this problem is to reject your application (and the fact that you used a recommendation by a close relative will give me sufficient argument for this).

And just to be sure: Hiding this conflict of interest is not a good idea either, because it shifts the blame for this almost entirely to you (not that you would be in a good situation if you had disclosed and were hired).

-5

She can write a letter of recommendation, but not because she is your mother.

If you have worked with her, and you were her report, then she can write a letter of recommendation as your supervisor, not as your mother.

If you have never worked with her in the relevant field of research, the letter has no meaning.

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    @Mayou36: Are you seriously suggesting to hide (or not mention) the fact that the letter of recommendation is authored by the mother? – Wrzlprmft Sep 2 '17 at 17:56
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    But she is his mother. Whether or not readers can tell she's his mother is immaterial. – JeffE Sep 2 '17 at 18:07
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    @Mayou36 Yes, it matters, because, as in this case, there can be a blatant conflict of interest. – Massimo Ortolano Sep 2 '17 at 18:09
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    @Nelson yes, sorry but even a respected scientist (female or male, doesn't matter) has no credibility when it comes to talking about their child's abilities. That is simply how our world (academia and all other walks of life I'm familiar with) works, as opposed to the planet you think you're living on. And no, it is not "discrimination" under any accepted definition of the term, rather it is a standard practice that's based on well-established insights about human nature. – Dan Romik Sep 2 '17 at 18:19
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    Of course a parent has no credibility when describing their child's capabilities/achievements. They are bound to be biased in favour of their child (with a small chance that they will be so careful to avoid that, that they will be biased against). – Martin Bonner Sep 4 '17 at 9:14

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