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).

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Why You Must Never Ask Your TA for a Letter of Recommendation, Part One — 30 Comments

  1. The advice here is the opposite of the advice I was given by admissions officers when I was applying to graduate programs, but when you think about it, the points made in this blog make a LOT of sense!

  2. What do you think about getting a letter from someone who is an adjunct professor, but still only has an MA (actually she’s ABD)? I’m an archaeology student and I was hoping to ask for a letter from someone in that situation, as I’ve done fieldwork with her two years in a row. Would this be a mistake?

    Thanks for your time (if you still check these comments!)

  3. Hello Karen,
    Thanks for the tip.
    I was thinking about getting a letter from an instructor who did not get her phD but has been teaching 2nd and 3rd year level courses for over 4years.
    Would this be a bad idea?

  4. I know that this is an old post, but I have to share a story. When I was a graduate student, one of my jobs was supervising student teachers. One of them was having difficulty finding a teaching job and decided to go to graduate school.. She asked me to write a letter of recommendation. I told her that as a former teacher and her supervisor for student teaching I would be happy to write letters to school district, but I would not write a letter to graduate school. I never had her in an academic course and I WAS A GRAD STUDENT MYSELF. I recommendation from me would weaken her application. She was not concerned, as she had also asked for letters from (sigh) her cooperating teacher in her student teaching placement and the adjunct who taught the student teaching course. I said that the adjunct letter would be fine (this person has a good reputation) but she needed to replace me and the cooperating teacher with faculty members, preferably tenured. Worst part of the story: she couldn’t think of anyone. Nearly all of her instructors in her undergraduate program were grad. students. Luckily, she decided to rethink graduate school.

  5. I am seriously contemplating sending a link to this post every time I get an earnest request from a student to write a recommendation letter for grad school. I am currently a doctoral student, and I always decline requests to write recommendation letters for graduate school (for this very reason) and suggest they ask the professor instead. I just thought it was the ethical thing to do, and I assumed that my fellow TAs were doing it too…

  6. What if you are in a situation like myself where none of the faculty in your department have a phd? All of our faculty only have masters in our film department and I was looking for who to ask for LOR’s and came across this post and am now worried and confused since none of the faculty are a phd in the whole department, let alone the anyone I have actually taken a class with. What do you suggest for this problem?

    • I think the definition of TAs that Karen offers does not apply to your department.
      See: “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.”
      If a MA is working as a lecturer at a department he or she is not a TA but a normal faculty member. Also, if your department is organized that way, there is a good probability that other departments in your field are structured in the same way… Cheers

      • Thanks! When I started reading some of the comments it seemed like it might be bad if you didn’t have a prof. with a phd as a recommender and panicked.

  7. Hello, I have a question on this subject… Right now I have a choice between getting a third reference from a professor with an established reputation who is supervising my undergrad thesis – he agreed but was slightly hesitant as he’s only known me this term – or a woman who was a grad student when she taught me but has since completed her PhD and has been hired as a professor at a different institution. I know her better. Every other professor I’ve had is either still a grad student, or I only knew them for a semester and did not form any personal connections to them – I don’t think they would remember me. My other two references are tenured and very well-established in the field, and I know them both well. I know this isn’t a great situation and fortunately I’m not really expecting to get into the grad school that requires 3 refs but I don’t want to completely quash my chances based on this letter. I realize this is an old post but any help would be appreciated. Thanks!

  8. Hi! This seems to be a pretty old post, but I thought I’d try asking anyhow: I’m a second-year undergraduate student looking at summer research opportunities (in physics, if that’s relevant). While the arguments laid out here (and most other places I’ve looked) against TA letters of recommendations make a lot of sense for grad school applications, I’m having trouble figuring out whether or not a TA’s letter would hurt my chances. It seems to me that in this case, a TA would be in a good position to recognize and evaluate undergraduate potential, especially since they would’ve been relatively likely to have recently done something similar themselves. Any thoughts you have on this would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

  9. I have two strong recommendations from tenured faculty. However, all of my programs require three recommendations. I have extensive field experience under the direct supervision of a graduate student. Would his recommendation hold weight because it is professional rather than academic in scope? I’m worried because I don’t have another faculty member to turn to for the third required recommendation.


  10. I think that this is a very interesting topic and also makes some good points. Most of the comments/questions seem to be from the viewpoint of the undergrads trying to get into graduate school. So I would like to give my viewpoint which is that of a graduate student/TA/RA who has been asked for recommendations.

    I first must admit that I am an unusual grad student in that I am older, have experience in the non-academic workplace and also have a veterinary degree. With that said, I would be reluctant (for the reasons given above) to give a recommendation for an undergraduate trying to get into graduate school. On the other hand, most of the students for whom I have written recommendations have received awards, gotten into med school/grad school, gotten into summer programs or gotten jobs. I think that to some extent it depends on the type of recommendation written. I write recommendations based on what I know about the student and also based on the pertinent issues that I can address. Before I write a recommendation, I make sure that the student for whom I am writing understands that my recommendation will not carry the weight of a faculty member in good standing at a university/college.

    Some of the recommendations I have given were the following: 1 for grad school, 2 — 3 for scholarships (all successful), 2 — 3 for undergraduate summer programs, mentoring programs (all successful), one for a PA program (unsuccessful) and 1 for the NSF pre-doctoral program (successful). I think that my recommendation was helpful on the NSF pre-doctoral application because I could address the research project proposed directly as a veterinarian. That would not always be the case. I advised the student to find someone else to write the recommendation in that case but he still asked me to write as one of 5 people (my recommendation might not have been used). I am happy the application was successful.

    While I normally do not include my DVM on my correspondence, for references, I do include it and also include my MS. This is because the student is asking me to use my professional qualifications when weighing whether they will be able to do the work in the program for which they are applying.

    Hopefully this is somewhat helpful, but understand that I do have more qualifications than the typical TA. Maybe some other graduate students/TAs should weigh in.

  11. I am required to have three letters of recommendations,but only two are supposed to be from professors. I asked my TA to write me a letter of recommendation. He has been my TA for four classes and he really knows how I had been helping many students in the classes. Do you think it will be looked down upon if he has 2 Master degrees, his is almost done with his PhD and also was an elementary school teacher for 5 years. I am applying for a Master of Education so I feel like it might be acceptable, but I am not sure.

  12. The following comes from Princeton University’s website, enjoy.

    “Letter from Preceptor or TA

    A letter of recommendation from a preceptor or a TA is fine. You’ll want two letters from someone who taught you in science courses, and often in the science disciplines it is the preceptors, TAs, and lab instructors that get to know you best. If a preceptor offers to co-sign his/her letter with the primary professor for the course, that’s nice, but it certainly isn’t necessary. Any doctoral candidate at the University who instructs our undergraduates is a perfectly acceptable recommender. Now, one final note: Princeton is not a large state school where many of your courses (particularly introductory ones) might be taught by graduate students; you do have the advantage at Princeton of meeting our more senior faculty from time to time. It would appear strange to medical schools if all of your 4-6 letters were from preceptors! “

  13. Hello, I hope you’ll see this post!
    I’m currently a freshman and grad school is a long ways away, but I’m fairly certain that my career choice will require a PhD. I’m a volunteer research assistant for quite a large lab at my university, so I’ve been assigned to a graduate student mentor. She’s very experienced and has earned several grants. Since she’s graduating next year, would she be a good source for a letter of rec? I’ve been working very closely with her and will most likely do the same until she graduates. She plans on teaching college level courses and perhaps conducting research, but she isn’t going to pursue a postdoc. Thanks!

  14. I disagree and feel this is poor advice, I am a T.A. with 6.5 years professional industry experience at a fortune 500 company. I got my Master’s fully paid for by the company. Currently finishing up Ph.D. I have wrote multiple LORs. Literally best part of my job seeing that I helped get my students in programs of their dreams.

  15. Hi! I read all these articles you linked to and I also have your book which i’ve read a few times. I have a question that you haven’t addressed in these posts regarding recommendation letters. I currently hold a postdoc at an SLAC that’s not very known beyond the Northeast. I also have a PhD from an outstanding R1 institution. For the next round of job apps, I was thinking of getting letters from my diss. advisor, and one from my current chair (SLAC). I’m torn about the 3rd letter. If I am applying for other fancy R1 jobs where — let’s be real — institutional capital matters, do you recommend that my 3rd letter is from one of my diss. committee members (both pretty well known), or from someone at the SLAC (given that my postdoc is a 2-yr gig and they’re supposed to know my work)? Would love your thoughts! thank you

    • I’d have a third letter from an R1, and now that you’re out of the phd, it can be from someone not from your committee, if you have such a relatinoship. Read the blog post, Why You Need a Letter From Outside You Committee. (a version is in my book as well)

  16. Hey, I realize this is a really old post but I wanted some advice. I’m applying to grad school and I’ve been out of school for almost 4 years now. I have the option of getting a recommendation from my TA who was in the last year of his PhD when he taught my class and has, since then, become at professor at the same institute.
    The grad school requires you to submit at least one recommendation from a faculty member. Will this fulfill that requirement?


  17. Hi, I know this is an old post, but I want to throw in 2¢ for undergrads who might be reading this, from the perspective of a grad student who serves as instructor of record at a large university and who has been a TA. Dr. Karen is right on—even those of us who are late-stage PhD candidates are still trying to figure out for ourselves what makes a successful academic! Three reasons:

    – we may not know you as well as you think. TAs who lead discussion sections for large courses often have 60 students they see for an hour a week for one semester. While many of us want to nurture your learning, we don’t have a strong sense of who you are, just what kind of grades you earn and how much you participate. Even if we do work with you for more than one term, in large or non-major courses and TA-student interactions we just don’t have an opportunity to learn that much about your interests and intellectual drive.

    – many (if not most) of us don’t know how to write good academic recommendations. Even if we’re good writers, an academic recommendation letter is a weird genre and we haven’t had any practice at it. You don’t want our first attempts.

    – you should consider the ethics of who you’re asking. Most TAs are grievously underpaid. Some are working multiple jobs, trying to finish a dissertation at the same time, and also doing other not-required-but-required stuff like conference travel and service. Professors who have full-time, benefited jobs (not lecturers or instructors) get paid to do this kind of mentoring work; we essentially don’t. Even though we might be flattered to be asked (and I am, when it happens!), it’s better to get a letter from someone under whose job description it falls.

    What TAs *can* do (when willing) is give you The Real Sh*t about what it’s like to be in grad school. That’s something you won’t always get from profs, who may have, er, selective memories.

    *descends from TA soapbox*

  18. What if the TA is also the instructor of record (designed the course, gave all the lectures, did all the grading, led all the discussions)? This is the case in many writing/composition courses. Is it ok to ask the TA to write a letter for a med school application, even if the TA is ABD? (it would be one of 4-5 letters)

  19. How about getting a LOR from a postdoc? I am applying for PhD programs in Applied Math, and I worked on a research project with a postdoc while I was an undergrad. However, he does not work in academia anymore and works as a software engineer somewhere overseas. Can I still get a letter from him? Besides him, the next option for me would be a professor who taught me 3 graduate-level courses. I got A’s in two of them and a B in the third one. I was thinking if I should get a letter from this professor instead of getting a letter from that postdoc.

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