In blog talk, this entry qualifies as a “bleg,” but since I hate that term, I’m calling it a “query.”
Students sometimes contact me with questions about academic life on the mostly false premise that I know all about how it works, and how to negotiate the various shoals it presents. I do the best I can, but I always doubt the value of the answers I give, and could use a reality check on this one.
I recently got a query from someone interested in going to graduate school in anthropology. He majored in anthropology during his undergraduate years, and graduated from college a few years ago (two years ago, I think). He’s now looking to apply to graduate school, but faces the familiar problem of going back and asking for letters of recommendation from professors who may or may not remember him. He went to a large public R1 university where there was little one-on-one contact between professors and undergraduates.
Here’s a paraphrased version of his question:
Should I ask for letters of recommendation from professors who may or may not remember me (probably don’t remember me), or should I ask for letters from the graduate students and post-docs who taught the discussion sections for the lectures I attended? I’ve kept in touch with the latter bunch, so they have a better idea of who I am, what I can do, and my general fitness for graduate school. I’m just not sure it makes sense to ask for letters from people who don’t have tenure-track positions.
I told him that the ideal thing to do would be to find the sub-set of people who were then graduate students or post-docs but now have tenure-track/full-time positions, and ask for letters of recommendation from them.
Supposing that no one fits that description, however, he should go back to the professors he had rather than to people who are currently grad students or post-docs. My assumption is that admissions committees won’t take letters from the latter group very seriously. I don’t actually know that that’s the case, however, and seem to remember writing a few letters of recommendation when I was an adjunct without a PhD (not that I know how well they worked). Hence the query. (Incidentally, I think the relevant issue is not whether the faculty member has a tenure-track position, but whether he or she has a full-time position, regardless of its tenure-stream status.)
I understand the precariousness of this student’s predicament, however. How do you go back to professors who don’t remember you and ask for a letter of recommendation? What would they say in the letter about you, and on what basis? (“He was one of the many students to whom I lectured in the past few years. Frankly, he’s a blur to me–but an academically promising blur.”) Could you expect letters of that nature to be any good?
I came up with the following suggestion: Suppose that none of your old TA’s currently have tenure-track (or full-time) academic positions. Go back to them and ask for letters of recommendation from them, but have their letters co-signed (or even just signed) by the professor they taught for. That is, as far as I know, a somewhat unorthodox arrangement, but I don’t see anything wrong with it, and it seems to me to make the best of an otherwise awkward situation.
I’m curious what readers think.