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I had my M.A. degree in a public university in the States. After working in media for two years in China, I want to pursue research and teaching career so I started to plan for PhD in media psychology (under communication).

I had my GRE tested (the last one has expired) in Sept and got good scores. But due to my heavy workloads and procrastination, I hesitated to contact two professors who instructed my thesis and know me relatively well until I finished SOP in November. After a week, with my follow-up letter, both of them refused to write me strong LOR.

My thesis advisor said "as the Director of PhD studies I am unable to write letters this year."And he suggested me to ask the other instructor.

But the other one replied: "It is good to hear from you and nice to hear that you are applying to doctoral programs. Part of the reason that I was so delayed in my response is that I am a bit overwhelmed with work right now. Given all of my existing demands, unfortunately I do not think I am in a position to give the time and effort to write you a strong recommendation. I am sorry about this."I discussed about possibility of pursuing PhD with him when I took his seminar, but he was not very encouraging.

But reading between the lines (especially "part of the reason"), I feel like they are not confident that I will succeed as a researcher. I asked my thesis advisor for more feedbacks like whether he thought I am less than qualified and where to improve and if I should take another M.A in Psychology. But he did not reply. :(

I know to a large degree it's my ill plan to blame. But I am not certain if they are making excuses and whether to ask them for LOR next year. Is it often for faculty to refuse LOR because they don't see your potential with other excuses?

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There's a chance they're trying to avoid writing the LOR because they don't think they can write one that's good enough to help you.

If an instructor can't write an LOR they think will actually help a student based on what they know to be the truth (even if only because they don't think they know you well enough), most instructors will try to encourage the student to go to someone else. No one likes writing a bad reference. But they also struggle with how to do that without hurting the student's feelings. Some just won't tell you the bad news directly and they may foot-drag and hope you go away or they may make silly excuses about being busy or whatever. That's spineless and it's not right, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen.

So, if you ask someone for an LOR and they don't seem to want to do it, you should probably just ask someone else.

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  • Thanks! Your answer is close to what I inferred. I am considering dropping application this year and resuming next year... I will kindly ask them for LOR the second time but if I get refused I may give up this path of career.
    – PegRocks
    Dec 7, 2017 at 7:40
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    To be completely honest, waiting a year and asking again has an even lower probablity of getting a letter from either of these professors. When I feel I can't write a positive letter in support of a student, I won't write a letter. I never say I'm too busy, but I do say that someone else may be a better person to ask, could write them a better letter. I suggest applying this year, finding others, even TAs, to write letters for you, and see if you get accepted. If your applications are not successful, changing your career path now vs. a year from now is a better way to go. Good luck.
    – user82849
    Dec 22, 2017 at 21:53
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I very much doubt anyone has the kind of systematic data to actually answer your question. In lieu of that, some thoughts:

My thesis advisor said "as the Director of PhD studies I am unable to write letters this year."

Unless there is more content to this that you haven't posted, it's possible that this is not a scheduling thing, but some sort of requirement of the position itself, perhaps to avoid perceived conflicts of interest.

"It is good to hear from you and nice to hear that you are applying to doctoral programs. Part of the reason that I was so delayed in my response is that I am a bit overwhelmed with work right now. Given all of my existing demands, unfortunately I do not think I am in a position to give the time and effort to write you a strong recommendation. I am sorry about this."

This seems quite straightforward. You've bolded "part of the reason" and read a lot into those four words, but I'd suggest that this is probably just an unnecessary qualifier, or at most a note that even when we're not technically overwhelmed, faculty are not known for their rapid email turnaround times.

You've also chosen to ignore their otherwise positive comments about you.

My general advice is to take faculty at their word. Coming up with cloak and dagger reasons for faculty saying what they do is rarely productive, and in my experience, also rarely happens. "I'm busy" is also a bad polite excuse - if they didn't want to write you a letter, "I'm too busy right now" invites you to ask again, while "I don't think I could write you a strong letter" would make you go away.

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  • Thanks for your comments!! I did not think of the conflicts of interests could be the reason at first. (but is it a real thing? director of PhD studies can't write LOR for students??) For the latter one I would stop paranoid and believe in him since I notice he reply me at 3AM....sigh....I don't think it's a good idea to continue application this year since the only two person can speak to my research capability can't support me....
    – PegRocks
    Dec 7, 2017 at 7:48
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I am not sure anyone has really studied how professors tell students that they are not willing to write a letter for them. That said, it really doesn't matter. At a minimum your MA thesis adviser, and probably anyone you took an MA seminar with, owes you a clear explanation about what type of recommendation they would be willing to write for you and their policies on what you need to do for them to write you a letter.

While I don't feel that taking a class with someone forces them to write letters for you, being an MA thesis adviser does. This doesn't mean they will write dishonest letters suggesting you are a strong candidate, but they owe you truthful letters in a timely manner, even if they don't think they will be strong letters. You should discuss with your former advisor what types of jobs, if any, they would be a strong recommendation for.

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  • Thanks! I agree! I really need to know their true feedbacks even if it could be brutally honest and unpleasant at first.
    – PegRocks
    Dec 7, 2017 at 7:50

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