My friend is on his way to graduate with PharmD (outside US). He wants to apply for PhD program in US, and have asked his professors that he has worked with in the lab for recommendation letters. However, his professors refused to write him a recommendation letter unless he stays in the lab for 1 more year after graduation to work with the current on-going project (2 of them refused, another one has written him a recommendation letter).

The professor also belittled him when he asked for the recommendation letter, saying things along the line of

Am I, or this university not good enough for you? You must be pompous for wanting to go to another university.

That particular professor has also shared the rumor in the department that he thinks he is too good to be part of this university. In the past, they have offered him PhD program with scholarship, but have later retracted the scholarship so he rejected the offer to stay with them. He needs the recommendation letter to apply for PhD program.

What can he do when professors refuse to write recommendation letter for him unless he works with them longer? He definitely do not want to stay in that toxic environment anymore.

EDIT (12/19): All professors have agreed to write the recommendation letter, as long as my friend writes the draft of the letter himself. He has decided to go with this proposal and wrote three recommendation letters for himself, and gave it to his professors.

  • 41
    These are some pretty serious charges of unprofessional behavior and it's unclear what evidence you or your friend have to support them. If the charges are true, not exaggerated, you might discuss them with your department chairman or your university ombudsman, if your institution has one. They will almost certainly want to know and they will want to take corrective action. But if you raise claims that aren't true, prepare for a big boomerang response. Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 0:45
  • Why does he want one? It is often a trap to pass him on to higherups anyways. Smaller office space, worse & tougher working conditions, less freedom et.c. Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 17:30
  • the kind of quid pro quo suggested in this answer is unacceptable. Commented Jul 13, 2023 at 1:51

3 Answers 3

  1. Your professor is not obligated to write you a recommendation letter.

  2. You should think about getting a letter from someone who will write a good recommendation for you.

  3. Your professors' attitude is highly unprofessional and needs to be exposed to their academic community. When you're clear, file a complaint through proper channels to the dean/HOD. If possible, keep any record of your conversations/emails with the faculty members. Given the fact that such unprofessional behavior exists in your university (that they will ask you to work for them for 1-2 years after graduation as a condition for a recommendation letter), may be the human resource, dean office etc. themselves are unprofessional. So, tread carefully if you plan to expose their behavior. Maybe do it after you have received your degree etc. However, such behavior needs to be exposed in any academic institution for the sake of future generations.

  4. If your foreign university asks (e.g., in future) why your own advisors didn't write you a recommendation then there is no harm in telling the truth. However, tell only the truth not your version of the truth. It's common for students at a certain phase in their career to panic, act hysterically, and believe that everyone is out to get them.

  • 17
    On #4: do not, in particular, ascribe a motive to the unwillingness (i.e. 'to get more work out of the student'). Even if the professor told you in so many words. You have nothing to gain and lots to lose if the interviewer reads that as a hysterical over-reaction. Commented Dec 13, 2017 at 18:39

If someone declines to write an LOR for you, you should ask someone else. No one is under any obligation to write an LOR for you. Usually, when someone declines, it's because they don't feel they can truthfully write one that would be helpful. That could be because they don't know you or your work well enough or because they know you pretty well and don't think you were that good. Either way, there's no point in pressuring them to write a letter they don't want to write.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 0:06
  • 2
    Or, they could be not writing for petty reasons, as in the question that needs to be addressed, and it could hurt the OP's application for not having a supervisor's letter of recommendation. Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 3:19
  • @MartinArgerami There could be another side to the story. There's more discussion in chat. Commented Dec 14, 2017 at 10:57

I would seek a reference elsewhere. Who is suitable will depend on the precise requirements of the program your friend is applying to, but as one of the current professors is willing to give a reference this should be sufficient to speak for their current studies - you can ask a previous employer or even your old school to provide references. My successful PhD application had references from my current employer (outside academia), a professor from my undergraduate degree and a professor I did a summer project with.

I would not pressure someone to write a reference letter that they do not wish to provide - you're relying on them to reply in a timely fashion, and to say something helpful on your behalf whilst being truthful. That isn't likely to work well if they don't actually want to do it.

You must log in to answer this question.