Letters of recommendation advice (again)

(Note: I posted some of what I am about to ask quite a while ago, but I have been unable to find my original posts.)

I am (again) approaching getting science letters of recommendation. The problem is that there seems to be no ideal science professor from whom to get a letter.

  • The main professor from whom I wanted to get a letter passed away (died of complications of a stroke) before he could finish my letter. It was in his upper division courses that I really shined; he taught both microbiology and public health, and these are two areas that I intend to get more training in (I want to be a public health physician.)

    Several other professors are also possible candidates, but I did uneven in their classes.
  • In my biochemistry class, I got a C in the course but one of the few A's in the lab, which itself was a very tough course.
  • The same situation happened for the molecular genetics professor; in fact, she was nice to me when I got the only A in her lab, but disappointed in me with that C.
  • (Interestingly, in investigating why I did so well in one class but mediocre in another by the same professors made me aware of my learning disability issues and I was later tested for it.)

  • I did win an award for general chemistry performance, but that was almost a decade ago. And I am unsure if that professor would remember me.
  • There is also a microbiology professor for whom I got a B in her class. It was the first time that she taught the course and our entire grades were based on just one midterm and a comprehensive final. But she and I got along great and I was a frequent visitor to her office hours, so she knows me better than most of the other professors.

Any suggestions on getting science LOR's?

Do I need to take more upper division science coursework to get an LOR?

Does the LOR need to come from a professor with whom I interacted recently or from whom I took a course that was recent versus a long time ago?

(Note: I have plenty of people from whom I can get non-science and extra-curricular LORs; it is the science courses that I am lackiing.)

I’m a bit of a novice in the application process (this was my first cycle, and I didn’t put 100% of my effort into it on account of transition to a new research position; so please, take this grain of salt), but I had the same issues. The lab section prof with whom I had a great rapport left the program (he despised the school’s athletics-first mentality and went on indefinite hiatus to act as a stay-at-home father while his wife began her MD practice). The school refused to provide me with forwarding information for him and his school email bounced back every time I went to email him. But I digress…

Here’s my story: I attended a large state university for my post-bacc work, and only took the basic pre-reqs–why pay more out-of-pocket than is required? I understand that it is difficult to stand out in a class of 800 students regardless of your grades. Furthermore, how personal of a LOR can a prof with that many students write for you? The answer is a fairly generic letter that doesn’t reflect much on you as a student.

My solution was to turn to a graduate teaching fellow (TA) who taught me through five sections of Gen Chem/Orgo and two lab sections. I worked hard with him through help sessions, office hours, etc. Who better to understand the commitment that I put into my post-bacc? The GTF knew me better than any of my profs ever would and from what I gather, wrote an outstanding LOR for me. When I approached him for the LOR he had graduated and taken an Associate Professor position at a smaller state school, with which he signed. This letter has successfully earned me interviews at DO programs serving as my science academic letter. The lesson is, it’s worth exploring the relationships you had with other members of the faculty (i.e. advisors, TAs, etc.), you never know what they are doing now and the help they can provide you.

While some schools have strict policies regarding their letters, others are a bit more loose. Some schools will allow nontrads to submit one letter of someone with a good understanding of the student’s post-bacc work and a physician’s letter in place of two academic letters. Others will allow you to submit a letter from a non-science prof in place of a science if you have been out of school for some time (my Arabic prof from a decade ago wrote one on my behalf).

My advice is to look at every school’s individual letter policy, and to ask as many people as you can; you never know who will say yes or how strong a letter they may write for you. Most importantly, don’t be hung up on this or allow it to discourage you. It can be disheartening, but you can work around it and get the requisite letters you need to succeed; start now and don’t be afraid to hear no. Remember, a strong LOR should be a reflection of you from someone who knows your work level well, not necessarily the chair of the pre-med committee. If all else fails, a backup plan could be to take an advanced bio course in the evening from a local Comm College in hopes of getting a LOR. The classes are generally smaller in size, you will have more of a relationship with the prof, and it saves you tuition costs. If your other letters are strong, this won’t be the most critical letter in your application.

I hope this helps, keep up the efforts!