In my work advising undergraduate students to prepare for and apply to graduate school, one of the most common 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.