Why You Must Never Ask Your TA for a Letter of Recommendation, Part One

In my work with undergraduate students helping them apply to graduate school, one of the biggest problems I encounter is the student’s lack of appropriate people to write their letters of recommendation.  All too often the student will come in with a list of names, and all of those names will be the TAs who are teaching their classes.

As you’re probably aware if  you’re reading this, a TA (or here at Oregon a GTF) is a graduate student who is getting their graduate school funded by working in the classroom, leading discussion sections, assisting the professor, and/or grading.  As such, TAs may be only a year or two out of their own undergraduate days.

It is true that you may know your TA better than you know the distant and perhaps slightly forbidding professor in charge of your course.

Nevertheless, you must never ask the TA to write your letter of recommendation.

This is true even if the TA has enthusiastically supported your graduate school aspirations and dreams, and has offered to write one for you.  This is true even if your TA is brilliant and working in the very field you hope to enter.

Submit an application that includes a recommendation letter from a TA, and you immediately downgrade your application’s chances of success.

TAs cannot write letters of recommendation for graduate school, because they are not actually professors.  This is NOT just because professors and graduate programs are elitist and status-obsessed.   Rather, it is because TAs have not finished their Ph.D.s, and they do not have the professional experience to be able to judge an undergraduate’s potential for success in graduate school and in the academic profession.

There are countless small and large hurdles to overcome on the path to a graduate degree.  The TA is familiar with some of them, such as the GRE, the application essay, coursework, working in the lab, and maybe even fieldwork and starting work on the dissertation.  As such, the TA may be a great informal advisor.

But the TA will not yet have experience in defending the dissertation, teaching hundreds of students, working closely with undergraduate and graduate students in an advising capacity, working as a colleague, and building a professional reputation.   Yet these are the ultimate skills of a successful academic career.

Professors, by virtue of the fact that they are professors, have experience in all of these areas.  And they are in a position to judge a student’s potential in all of these areas.

Therefore, in sum, you must never ask a TA to write a letter of recommendation for you for graduate school.  You must always go to the professor in charge of the course.

In Part II, I will discuss how to make sure you are enrolling in courses taught by faculty (and not TAs), and how to approach your professors for letters.

(This post originally published on the blog, Project Graduate School”–http://www.projectgraduateschool.wordpress.com).

Why You Must Never Ask Your TA for a Letter of Recommendation, Part Two

In an earlier post I explained the reasons that you must never ask your TA for letters of recommendation.  All of your letters must come from faculty, preferably full-time faculty in your major department or one closely affiliated .

Now I’ll discuss some tips for accomplishing this.

If you don’t know the professor well, then get to know her. Go to her office hours.  Discuss your graduate school aspirations with her.  Ask her for guidance.  Remind her gently who you are and what grade you are getting/got.  Bring in a paper that you wrote for her course.

And make sure, when choosing your courses for next term, that you enroll in courses that are taught by faculty members and not by TAs.  It is OK to call the department to ask.  You may also simply search the name of the instructor on your university website people/department directory to see if they turn up listed as faculty or as student.

As you get into upper division classes, make it a central goal to work with professors. If you have dreams of graduate school, you must gather around you at least two and preferably three faculty members, ie, actual professors employed by your institution, who will write you strong letters of recommendation.

And, what you are seeking are professor who are full-time faculty members of the school.  While “visiting”/”adjunct” professors will do in a pinch, they are not as good (for the same reasons listed above) as regular, permanent, full-time faculty from your college or university, and preferably from your major.

You want the professor to enthusiastically agree to write the letter.  Any hesitation or reluctance….move on to someone else.

And, do NOT expect to see the letter, or to in any way tell the professor what to write.  This is a trust exercise.  And, professors know the stakes.

In sum: do not be intimidated!  It is part of a professor’s job to meet with undergraduates AND to write them letters.  YOU ARE ENTITLED to ask faculty members to write recommendations. And as long as the professor is genuinely supportive of you, the professor has an obligation to fulfill this professional responsibility.

Good luck!

How Do You Write an Email or Letter to a Professor?

One of the most common points of confusion among undergraduates and new graduate students is how to contact professors to serve as potential faculty advisors.  This can be a minefield.   I have been on the receiving end of many emails from hapless students who clearly had no guidance, and whose communication with me ended up appearing flippant and rude.

Here is that sort of email:

“Dear Professor Kelsky, I am a student at XXX College and I’m thinking about graduate school/doing research on xxx and I’m getting in touch to ask if you can give me any advice or direction about that. Sincerely, student X”

This is an instant-delete email.

Here is what an email to a professor should look like:

“Dear Professor XXX,

I am a student at XXX College with a major in xxx.  I am a junior and will be graduating next May.  I have a 4.0 GPA and experience in our college’s summer program in xxx.

I am planning to attend graduate school in xxx, with a focus on xxx.  In one of my classes, “xxx,” which was taught by Professor XXX, I had the chance to read your article, “xxxx.”  I really enjoyed it, and it gave me many ideas for my future research.  I have been exploring graduate programs where I can work on this topic.

I hope you don’t mind my getting in touch, but I’d like to inquire whether you are currently accepting graduate students.  And if you are, if you’d be willing to talk to me a bit more, by email or on the phone, or in person if I can arrange a campus visit, about my graduate school plans.  I have explored your department’s graduate school website in detail, and it seems like an excellent fit for me because of its emphasis on xx and xx,  but I still have a few specific questions about xx and xxx that I’d like to talk to you about.

I know you’re very busy so I appreciate any time you can give me.  Thanks very much,

Sincerely,

XX XXX

Why is this email good?  Because it shows that you are serious and well qualified.  It shows that you have done thorough research and utilized all the freely available information on the website.  It shows that you have specific plans which have yielded specific questions.  It shows that you are familiar with the professor’s work.  It shows that you respect the professor’s time.

All of these attributes will make your email and your name stand out, and exponentially increase your chances of getting a timely, thorough, and friendly response, and potentially building the kind of relationship that leads to a strong mentoring relationship.

If the professor doesn’t respond in a week or so, send a follow up email gently reminding them of your initial email, and asking again for their response.  If they ignore you again, best to probably give up.  But professors are busy and distracted, and it may take a little extra effort to get through.

Good luck!

(This post originally published on the blog, Project Graduate School–http://www.projectgraduateschool.wordpress.com).