Catch 22: Possibly mediocre research LOR/good TA LOR

charndt
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Catch 22: Possibly mediocre research LOR/good TA LOR

Postby charndt » Thu Dec 01, 2011 4:37 pm

I worked with a professor (let's call him "Prof P") at my home institution for an REU, then the following spring semester (~8 months in total). I didn't make much progress on the project for a number of reasons, but mostly because I was essentially working on it alone (no other grad students) and Prof P couldn't help (the project was centered around a circuit, and he admitted that he didn't have much knowledge of modern electronics).

I asked him for a LOR for applying to physics graduate schools. He said that he would write a good one, but he wasn't sure why I didn't do well with him. I explained to him that I was kind of thrown into the project with little guidance, and floundered as a result. He responded by saying that the project shouldn't have been difficult for me to do (even though he couldn't figure out what was wrong with it) and that another student who worked on it after I left got it working in ~2 weeks. He claimed that it was an easy fix (and that the project wasn't difficult in the first place), yet he wasn't able to explain to me how the other student got the circuit to work (go figure). The REU was basically my first research experience, so he thought that my performance could be chalked up as "immaturity" (at least that's better than incompetence!)

Regardless, he said that he would write a good letter and wouldn't mention any of the above. He seemed honest and sincere, so I think I trust him.

Since his recommendation would just be "good" and not "glowing," I was thinking of asking another professor ("Prof T") who I TA'd for (he enthusiastically offered a letter when I finished teaching his class).

Here's the issue: My work with Prof P was for 8 months. My only other research experience is ongoing (and with 2 other professors), but I've only been working on those for the past 3 months. Those 2 recommendations should be very good, but one of them isn't in the physics department (it involves designing amplitude and frequency modulated RF pulses for use in MRI, and simulating the resulting nuclear magnetization in Fortran). In the other research project, I'm not directly working with the professor (I'm working with a grad student of his), but I also TA'd for that professor, in which I communicated with him often. Also, I didn't interact all that much with Prof T, so I think his letter would be pretty brief and would solely focus on my communication skills.

Will it look really bad if I don't get a recommendation from Prof P, since that was my longest research experience? I would think that 2 good research LORs and 1 teaching LOR would be ok, but I'm really not sure. Prof P and I never really got along or communicated very well (he sometimes was rude in emails, one time implying that I was faking an illness), but I got along great with the 2 other research professors and Prof T. I don't want Prof P's possible mediocre letter to weigh down my other 2 great letters, but I feel like not getting a letter from him could be just as bad (a bit of a catch 22, eh?)

Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

Edit: Something I just thought of: would it really be that bad if I didn't get a letter from Prof P, since graduate schools might see my continuation of the project in the spring as evidence that Prof P liked my work enough to still want me to work with him?

charndt
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Re: Catch 22: Possibly mediocre research LOR/good TA LOR

Postby charndt » Fri Dec 02, 2011 5:38 pm

Anyone? Any advice or opinions would be really useful (I've only been able to get the opinion of several peers).

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midwestphysics
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Re: Catch 22: Possibly mediocre research LOR/good TA LOR

Postby midwestphysics » Fri Dec 02, 2011 6:48 pm

I look at it this way. How much are you emphasizing this work in your SOP? If you are using it as a strong and clear example of your abilities and experience then it would look really odd if you didn't get a letter from that professor. The letter needs to fit what you say about the experience, your presentation of your research should be in line with what your recommender will probably say. So, given that it sounds like he really wasn't all that impressed, and according to him the solution should not have been so hard. Even saying that he'd ignore the issues with that project and write a good letter, what will he write about? What are you going to write about in your SOP? You won't know exactly what he writes, but you should to be able to imagine what will be written if you just realistically think about it. I just don't see what "good things" he's going to write about. And you don't want to overstate something and come off as sounding egotistical or dumb in your SOP. And you definitely don't want to just talk about how big of a pain in butt it was. On the other hand, you say you can get a good letter from a TA. The problem is, how good is any letter when it comes from a TA? Professor's, Department Chair, Research Scientists okay, but TA is pushing it if you ask me. Still, that is a topic of much debate, but I'd consider it a last resort. Never the less, looking at it strictly from this position I'd approach the matter this way. If you are emphasizing this research, using it as a sort of keystone, then you need the professors letter. If you're not, then go with the TA and don't look back. A lot of people have their 3rd become basically a fluff letter, and fluff is better than a potentially negative one because can you honestly say you trust this guy to not mention how things went down or rather how he sees things went down? What I would do is sit back down with this professor and be frank. Don't ask him directly what he'll write, but address the issue that if the project didn't really make progress with you but with someone else, and that his impression of your work doesn't appear to be spectacular, what "good" can really he write about? Unless you're completely convinced by the end that the letter will be good, rethink your emphasis on the work, and go ask the TA. I just don't trust him myself. He didn't understand why you couldn't get the work done, openly told you it took another student no time to get it working, had suspicions of your own word about your illness, etc. He sounds like he's either lying to you, or will write a letter that is so vague and loose, which it shouldn't be considering the time you were technically working under him, that when people read it they'll tell right away that this guy isn't really recommending you. Personally, if I were him and I felt the way about the situation that you say he does I certainly wouldn't tell the student I would write a good letter, in fact I'd probably refuse to write one in first place.

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grae313
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Re: Catch 22: Possibly mediocre research LOR/good TA LOR

Postby grae313 » Fri Dec 02, 2011 7:52 pm

Agreed. Focus on your more successful research endeavors in your SOP and with strong letters to back that up I wouldn't worry too much about not having one from your least recent experience, even if it was the longest in duration. It's not ideal, no, but on the bright side you'll still have strong research-related LORs and that's more than a lot of applicants have.

CurseTheseFactorsOf2
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Re: Catch 22: Possibly mediocre research LOR/good TA LOR

Postby CurseTheseFactorsOf2 » Sat Dec 03, 2011 4:00 pm

To clarify - I think the OP was the TA and is talking about getting a letter from the professor of the class :)

If the professor you TA'd for had a lot of interaction with you and can talk about your communication skills, work ethic and physics knowledge that could be a helpful letter for the adcoms to have. If you can provide him with a detailed description of your project with Prof. P (and your other research experience) he can even work that into his letter, but minus the unfavorable comparison with another student.
As already mentioned above, you probably shouldn't be really highlighting your Prof. P project in your application without the letter of rec from him. Good luck!

charndt
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Joined: Thu Dec 01, 2011 4:36 pm

Re: Catch 22: Possibly mediocre research LOR/good TA LOR

Postby charndt » Sun Dec 04, 2011 11:22 pm

CurseTheseFactorsOf2 wrote:To clarify - I think the OP was the TA and is talking about getting a letter from the professor of the class :)

Thank you! I've posted this on several forums and the majority of responses made the same mistake. :?

Many thanks, grae313, midwestphysics, and CurseTheseFactorsOf2. You've helped me come to the decision of not getting a letter from Prof P. I'll mention the work with him in my SOP, but I'll emphasize my recent research.




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