Catch 22: Possibly mediocre research LOR/good TA LOR

  1. 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?
    Last edited: Dec 1, 2011
  2. jcsd
  3. Anyone? Any advice or opinions would be really useful (I've only been able to get the opinion of several peers).
  4. TAs mean nothing. . . you have to get a good rec from profs
  5. Slight misunderstanding: I was a TA for Prof T, and I would be getting a letter from him.
  6. AlephZero

    AlephZero 7,298
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    I wouldn't get too hung up about the fact that you didn't solve a problem in 8 months and somebody else solved it in 2 weeks. The question of "have you got what it takes to do good research" should be a lot broader than that. If nothing else, you probably learned more about what research is really like from 8 months of failure than you would have done from 2 weeks of "instant gratification".

    But without knowing any of the people involved, and only having one version of the story, it's more or less impossible to comment on whose letter(s) you should run with. If your peers know more of the relevant facts than we do, they are in a better position to give you advice than we are, unless your knowledge about them makes you distrust their judgement.
  7. Thanks for the reassurance.

    Hmm. I understand the difficulty in commenting.

    Let's assume that Prof P's letter would be rather glowing, but not too specific (which is likely and better than being more specific and "only" good/mediocre imo). Furthermore, let me change the focus of my initial post to the following: assuming the letter from Prof P would be "only" good (not glowing)/mediocre, which would be less of a red flag to my application: a mediocre letter from Prof P, or not getting a letter from Prof P (being that he advised my longest research project)? I'm leaning towards getting a letter from Prof T, FYI.

    I'm paranoid about admission committees noticing that I didn't get a letter from him, and reacting by contacting him for his opinion. Is this a realistic possibility? I'd think committees would be too busy to do this, but like I said, I'm paranoid.

    A bit of an elaboration on the whole situation: since Prof P assigned me to an inappropriate project for my academic/research level (which is the opinion of me, others working with Prof P, and my peers, but NOT of Prof P), I feel that he didn't get an accurate impression of me. As such, I feel that his letter might hurt my application, even though he said that he wouldn't mention his "doubt" of my abilities. Like I said, we've never really gotten along that well, so it's somewhat hard for me to have confidence in his definition of a "good" letter. However, I don't know if not getting a letter would hurt me more.

    To make matters worse, I had already asked Prof P for a letter, so if I told him to forget it, I'm not sure how this would affect his response to graduate admission committees (if they indeed contacted him).

    I feel like I'm overthinking this, but I really can't make up my mind.

    Oh, and my peers gave conflicting advice :)
    Last edited: Dec 2, 2011
  8. You seem to be in a really tough spot.

    It is good to keep in mind that Profs are people too. They are capable of being petty and vengeful, and have alternative motives for their actions.
    Although I do not have experience in applying for grad school I have had a bad experience when applying for university.
    A teacher of mine whom I thought was platonic with me, attempted to mess up my marks right before submission. I was completely caught flat footed. Long story short, he was caught and after some messy altercations I was fine. This was only possible because I was in highschool, where the system was in my favor.
    If you are getting weird vibes from this guy, I would be doubly careful.
    Do some 'research' on him.
    I found out later that a girl the year before me was not as lucky and was screwed over on her applications by him.
    Do some digging, ask around what other LORs did he do? How did they turn out? Look him up on 'ratemyprof'.
    I am suspicious why he would even give you a recommendation if you did so poorly on his project? I mean what can he write about, if all he has soon of you is that?

    I really hope you make the right choice.
    Take care and good luck!
  9. Thanks for the advice, n_student. I have decided to not get a letter from Prof P.
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