Quick Question

QuantumLancer
Posts: 15
Joined: Thu May 21, 2015 7:15 pm

Quick Question

Postby QuantumLancer » Thu Jun 25, 2015 2:34 pm

Hi all,

I posted this question in another forum, but then realized it should be in this category. My question is basically this, will a letter of recommendation from someone without a PHD be less then ideal? I believe this individual will be able to speak a great deal about my experimental and research abilities it is just I am worried a lack of a PHD will be looked down upon because I am planning on applying to PHD program. While he still has a good reputation in the fields of nuclear fusion, plasma physics, and even cosmology (he is actually an avid opponent of the Big Bang and the expanding universe model) he was not able to finish his PHD due to personal issues when he was younger.

admissionprof
Posts: 364
Joined: Sat Feb 02, 2008 7:50 pm

Re: Quick Question

Postby admissionprof » Thu Jun 25, 2015 9:28 pm

Usually it won't hugely matter if they have a PhD, although it is preferable. After all, Freeman Dyson didn't get a PhD. But if he is an avid opponent of the Big Bang and the expanding universe model, then he is a nutcase and his letter would not be valuable, even if he has a PhD.

QuantumLancer
Posts: 15
Joined: Thu May 21, 2015 7:15 pm

Re: Quick Question

Postby QuantumLancer » Thu Jun 25, 2015 9:53 pm

admissionprof wrote: But if he is an avid opponent of the Big Bang and the expanding universe model, then he is a nutcase and his letter would not be valuable, even if he has a PhD.


Thanks for answering my question, but I would rather you didn't insult my boss. In his field he is highly respected in the field of plasma physics, I would hope that people who know of him and his theories would look past those in a letter of recommendation.

TakeruK
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Re: Quick Question

Postby TakeruK » Fri Jun 26, 2015 12:43 pm

A LOR from someone without a PhD is "less than ideal" (to answer your question directly) but as admissionprof points out, it may not the deciding factor. I think it would be okay if one out of three letters were from someone who does not hold a PhD and who does not work in academia.

There are many good physicists who are great in one field but hold very wrong and very incorrect ideas about other fields. For some reason, many smart people think that when they are good at one thing, they are also experts in others.

Whether or not this letter will help you depends on your boss and how they are an avid opponent of the Big Bang / expanding Universe model. For example, when I hear this, I think of the many many many "crackpot" letters with theories from people with little or no training in physics that are sent to me and my colleagues about their own ideas. If your boss comes across as one of these people, then I think a letter from him will hurt you. Also, when you say he is an "avid opponent", what do you mean? Is he the type of person that is actively writing research articles about alternative theories? Does he have a reputation of attending talks on Big Bang / expanding Universe to criticize the speakers? That is, does he have a reputation in the cosmology field? If so, the department you are applying to might know about him and it can hurt you.

However, if you mean he is simply not convinced by the evidence for the Big Bang and the expanding Universe but the people reading your LORs won't know this about him, then it probably won't matter at all.

QuantumLancer
Posts: 15
Joined: Thu May 21, 2015 7:15 pm

Re: Quick Question

Postby QuantumLancer » Fri Jun 26, 2015 1:00 pm

TakeruK wrote:A LOR from someone without a PhD is "less than ideal" (to answer your question directly) but as admissionprof points out, it may not the deciding factor. I think it would be okay if one out of three letters were from someone who does not hold a PhD and who does not work in academia.

There are many good physicists who are great in one field but hold very wrong and very incorrect ideas about other fields. For some reason, many smart people think that when they are good at one thing, they are also experts in others.

Whether or not this letter will help you depends on your boss and how they are an avid opponent of the Big Bang / expanding Universe model. For example, when I hear this, I think of the many many many "crackpot" letters with theories from people with little or no training in physics that are sent to me and my colleagues about their own ideas. If your boss comes across as one of these people, then I think a letter from him will hurt you. Also, when you say he is an "avid opponent", what do you mean? Is he the type of person that is actively writing research articles about alternative theories? Does he have a reputation of attending talks on Big Bang / expanding Universe to criticize the speakers? That is, does he have a reputation in the cosmology field? If so, the department you are applying to might know about him and it can hurt you.

However, if you mean he is simply not convinced by the evidence for the Big Bang and the expanding Universe but the people reading your LORs won't know this about him, then it probably won't matter at all.


To clarify, he has written several papers pointing out observational problems with redshift and luminosity of distant galaxies and their impact on the current Big Bang theory so I would say he is just not convinced. He is a proponent of plasma cosmology and has recently been invited to a conference in the Canary islands to present his research and his theories. I would assume he would not be invited to these conferences if he was disruptive or if he was referred to as a crackpot. As for in his field of plasma physics, some of his papers have been the most read articles in their respective journals and an internship with him came highly recommended by a family friend who helped establish the National Ignition Facility. I guess my main hope would be that people would not look down on the letter itself simply because he scientific disagreement between himself and the general population of physicists. Especially since I am not applying to a cosmology program.

TakeruK
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Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Quick Question

Postby TakeruK » Fri Jun 26, 2015 5:25 pm

I think that when evaluating a candidate's Letters of Recommendation, the committee considers the product of (qualification of letter writer) x (content of the letter). For example, if a "crackpot" physicist writes that you are the best researcher ever, the letter won't be taken very seriously. Or, if a nobel prize winner writes you a very impersonal letter, then it also won't be very helpful to you. To maximize the product, you want letters from people that the committee will trust and for the letter to say great things about you.

This doesn't mean the letter writer has to be well known to the committee or even famous, there are other ways that the letter writer can earn trust in the field. To me, it makes sense for the committee to do research on the letter writers to get context of their letter. For example, the statement "This student is the best undergraduate researcher I have supervised in years" mean very different things depending on the experience of the writer.

I am not a cosmologist but I do have background in astrophysics and Plasma Cosmology is certainly not something that is well regarded in our field as a reasonable alternative to the "standard" cosmology. Whether or not this could hurt you is hard to say. One might reasonably question your boss' judgement on what counts as "good scientific work" if your boss' work on plasma cosmology is not taken seriously. There are certainly issues with the "standard" cosmology and pointing them out is one thing, but refusing to accept/consider counter-arguments or supporting ideas with even less scientific evidence (or more observational problems) can be harmful. Again, I'm not saying your boss does these things, but that these are standard "crackpot" actions that distance people from the field.

But it is hard to guess at what will happen.

You mention that you are not applying to a cosmology program. That is true but PhD admission committees are often composed of faculty from the entire department, which may include cosmologists.

Two additional miscellaneous thoughts:

1. The phrase "invited to a conference" can be used in misleading ways. There are invited speakers to the conference that conference organizers ask to come and give keynote presentations. These are prestigious and a sign that your work is respected. But the usual type of talk in many conferences are contributed talks, and depending on the conference, having your presentation accepted as a contributed talk/poster does not mean that your science is sound. In fact, many societies that run conferences have a policy that all members have the right to present once per year. In most major conferences in my field, there is usually at least one or two "crackpot" presentations that everyone sits through because a) they are society members and have the right to present and b) most people will at least listen and consider the argument objectively first, instead of dismissing it right away. But, if the presentation does not present good science, it will not be taken seriously. In any case, technically, when your contributing talk/poster is accepted, you are still "invited" to attend, but you can't use this as a proxy for "recognized for this work".

2. Also, some conferences are just crackpot conferences that are not taken seriously in the field!

admissionprof
Posts: 364
Joined: Sat Feb 02, 2008 7:50 pm

Re: Quick Question

Postby admissionprof » Fri Jun 26, 2015 5:42 pm

Takeruk is correct. Plasma cosmology was a rational alternative in the 80's (although believed by a small minority), but the overwhelming evidence in the past decade or two regarding the microwave background eliminates it as a viable alternative. Of course, like cold fusion adherents, there will always be a small group that "keeps the faith". If your letter writer is known to those on the admissions committee as an advocate of plasma cosmology, they will consider him to be a crackpot and won't take it seriously. But if he is known as a good plasma physicist and they don't know about the cosmology stuff, there won't be a problem. To find out, I'd simply look at his publications in the past few years.

QuantumLancer
Posts: 15
Joined: Thu May 21, 2015 7:15 pm

Re: Quick Question

Postby QuantumLancer » Fri Jul 03, 2015 1:53 pm

admissionprof wrote:Takeruk is correct. Plasma cosmology was a rational alternative in the 80's (although believed by a small minority), but the overwhelming evidence in the past decade or two regarding the microwave background eliminates it as a viable alternative. Of course, like cold fusion adherents, there will always be a small group that "keeps the faith". If your letter writer is known to those on the admissions committee as an advocate of plasma cosmology, they will consider him to be a crackpot and won't take it seriously. But if he is known as a good plasma physicist and they don't know about the cosmology stuff, there won't be a problem. To find out, I'd simply look at his publications in the past few years.


Well I will accept that you have superior knowledge in this case and will look for other possible letters of recommendation. Regardless, I think working with him as definitely taught me a lot and solidified my belief that I want to study experimental physics. The thrill of working in a lab and applying theories and ideas to our results and scenarios is the best thing I have got out of this experience.




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