Should You Seek a Recommendation for Grad School from Your Therapist?

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Question:  I am about 3 years out of school and am applying to doctoral programs in Clinical Psychology. I'm concerned about recommendation letters. I’m not asking any of my old professors for recommendations because it's been too long and I don't think they can write helpful letters. Instead, I'm asking an employer and a colleague. My question is whether I should get a recommendation letter from my therapist. She would be able to speak very favorably of me. What should I do?

There are several parts to this question: Is it ever too late to seek a grad school recommendation letter from a former professor; when should an employer or colleague for a recommendation, and – most critical here – is it ever a good idea for an applicant to solicit a recommendation letter from his or her therapist. I think the third is most important for us to tackle, so let’s consider it first.

Should You Ask Your Therapist for a Recommendation Letter?

No. There are a great many reasons for this. But, simply, no. Here are some reasons why.

  1. The therapist-client relationship is not a professional, academic, relationship. Contact with a therapist is based on a therapeutic relationship. The primary job of a therapist is to provide services, not to write a recommendation. A therapist cannot provide an objective perspective on your professional competencies. Given that your therapist is not your professor, he or she cannot offer an opinion on your academic abilities.
     
  1. A therapist’s letter may look like an attempt to fatten a thin application.  A letter from your therapist might be interpreted by the admissions committee that you don’t have sufficient academic and professional experiences and that the therapist is filling a gap in your credentials. A therapist cannot speak to your academics.
     
  1. A recommendation letter from a therapist will make an admissions committee question an applicant’s judgment. Your therapist can speak to your mental health and personal growth – but is that really what you want to convey to the admissions committee? Do you want the committee to know the details about your therapy? Likely not. As an aspiring clinical psychologist, do you really want to raise attention to your mental health issues? Luckily most therapists realize that this would be ethically questionable and would likely deny your request for a recommendation letter.

Effective recommendations for graduate school speak to the student's academic and professional competence. Helpful recommendation letters are written by professionals who have worked with you in an academic capacity. They discuss specific experiences and competencies that support an applicant's preparation for the academic and professional tasks entailed in graduate study. It is unlikely that a letter from a therapist can fulfill these goals. Now that’s said, let’s consider the other two issues

Is It Too Late to Request a Recommendation from a Professor?

A qualified not really.  Professors are used to getting recommendation letter requests from former students.

Many people decide to go to grad school well after graduating. Three years, such as in this example, isn’t long at all. Choose a letter from a professor – even if you think too much time has passed – over one from a therapist any day.  Regardless, your application should always include at minimum one academic reference.  You may think that your professors don't remember you (and they might not), but it isn’t unusual for them to be contacted years later. If you are unable to identify any professors who can write helpful letters on your behalf you may need to work on building your application. Doctoral programs emphasize research and prefer applicants with research experience. Obtaining these experiences puts you in contact with professors – and potential recommendation letters.

When Should You Request a Letter from an Employer or Colleague?

A letter from an employer or colleague is useful when an applicant has been out of school for a number of years.

It can fill the gap between graduation and your application. A colleague or employer’s recommendation letter is especially helpful if you work in a related field and if he or she knows how to write an effective letter. For example,  an applicant who works in a social service setting may find an employer’s recommendation helpful in applying to therapy-oriented programs.  An effective referee can talk about your skills and how your competencies suit your field of study. A letter from your employer and colleague may be appropriate if they detail your capacities for academic work and success in the field (and include concrete examples as support). That makes for a high-quality recommendation regardless of who writes it.