I am in my first year of my master's degree in Europe, and within a year or so I'll have to be sending out applications for a PhD (always in Europe), for which I need 2 to 3 recommendation letters. This is a huge issue for me because I pretty much don't know anyone inside academia.

Recommendation letters should be written from people inside academia who know you, which I suppose means they worked with you on something. The only person I worked with was my bachelor's thesis advisor, but I changed institution for my master's degree so I'm not in contact with him anymore. I also need to complete a thesis (equivalent to a semester of full work) for my master's degree, so I will have another thesis advisor eventually, but by the time I can start working on my thesis I will already have to be sending out PhD applications. Is it possible to work with academics in other ways than writing a thesis? Or is it otherwise possible to have an academic know you to the point of being able of writing a reference letter, without necessarily having worked with you?

Anyway this is not just a matter of recommendation letters. I think that having people in academia know and recognize me would give me better chances in getting admitted to a good PhD program. Moreover, it's nice to have someone to ask for advice when you need it.

I think for people who are already into their PhD it's easier, since at least you're put inside a research group and have your own advisor. But as a master's degree student I don't feel like I have many opportunities to establish contact with academics.

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    So why not getting in contact again with your bachelor thesis advisor? I hope you left in good. In this case he ia likely to support you with a letter. If you have left burned soil behind, you now learn why this is never advicable in your carrier
    – BerndGit
    Mar 25, 2018 at 20:20
  • @BerndGit My bachelor's advisor felt very satisfied with my work. I think it could be a good idea to contact him, however I'm not sure how to go about approaching him again. To be honest, I think he might not even remember me (he is kind of a forgetful person...)
    – user81260
    Mar 26, 2018 at 7:57
  • Just try it. What can you lose? Call (prefered) or e-mail (if you feel more confident): "Hello xxx! As you remember, I was working on xx at yy/20zz. Currently I'm applying for an PhD. I have learned that it is very beneficial, if I could provide a recommendation letter herefore. Do you think you could support me in this regard? I would appreciate your help very much. Best regards, xxxx"
    – BerndGit
    Mar 26, 2018 at 10:17
  • @LorenzoQ. It's essential that you contact your bachelor's advisor. It shouldn't be hard to approach him, since you really aren't asking a "favour": Writing references is part of an academic's job.
    – MJeffryes
    Mar 28, 2018 at 17:06

3 Answers 3


Since you appear to be in Italy – actually a fellow citizen! – I'll try to give an answer from an Italian perspective. As a master's student, you usually have three possibilities to work with professors:

  1. start working on your master's thesis;
  2. apply for a teaching assistant position for one of the classes;
  3. do an internship.

For what concerns possibilities 2 and 3, these may be available or not depending on university, field, year etc. For instance, I have TAs from both bachelor's and master's levels and I'd be happy to provide recommendation letters for them, as I did for others in the past.

If none of the above work for you, you can try asking professors whose classes you attended, getting top grades. In this case, however, they might not be willing to provide a recommendation letter. In fact, up to a few years ago, I wasn't willing either, as I explained in this answer. Nowadays, I accept (even though I don't approve of this practice) that recommendation letters are required almost everywhere, and I'm more willing to provide recommendation letters to students who attended my classes and somehow positively caught my attention (at the exam, through in-class questions, during office hours).

  • I already took into account the master's thesis, and an internship wouldn't be really useful as I'm studying pure mathematics. So that leaves option 2. In fact, I never though that teaching assistant positions could be useful for your academic career, I saw them more as a mean to earn a bit of money. That's because you typically do exercise sessions on very basic stuff with undergraduates. Still it's better than nothing I guess?
    – user81260
    Mar 25, 2018 at 19:59
  • Asking professors on the basis of having completed their exams was my last resort. I try to be interactive during lessons and I think that in general I leave a good impression, but I feel like the professor has forgotten me as soon as the semester is over.
    – user81260
    Mar 25, 2018 at 20:01
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    @LorenzoQ. Working as a TA is not only a way to earn a bit of money. What you do as a TA depends of course on the field (e.g. my TAs don't do exercise sessions, but lab sessions and prepare homework solutions), but whatever you do you'll have to interact with professors and if, during the exercise sessions, you are appreciated by the students, professors will know that. Mar 25, 2018 at 20:08

This is a partial answer intended to supplement the other answers.

  • Invite a professor to be the advisor for a journal club which you would start (with some other students). This would meet once a week and would include cookies. The students take turns presenting about an interesting journal article they read. The professor attends from time to time.

  • Attend seminars and talk about the presentation with other students, postdocs, and professors, afterwards.

  • Get to know professors in your department through more advanced students. Pick a couple whose work particularly interests you to visit in office hours. You can ask them to tell you about their current or past research interests. (Make sure to read up on them before you go.)

  • Go to conferences.

  • Form a study group for one or more of your classes.

  • Attend other students' defenses and practice talks.

  • From time to time visit a class you're not taking, to see various professors in action. (You can kill two birds with one stone by keeping a journal about the teaching techniques you observe.)

  • See if there are other students who share some hobby, and put something on a bulletin board to invite anyone interested to a get-together, for example, soccer, origami, board games or what have you. As you get to know other students in the department better, you will get better integrated in the department, and will get an idea which professors you're interested in getting to know better.

One of the side benefits of all of this is that it's good preparation for your master's thesis -- you can get ideas from the seminars; you'll get ideas about what makes a good talk; you'll notice which professors might be advisor material.

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    Maybe in the OP's field is different, but all your suggestions are really far from the common academic culture in Italy, and none of them would work. Mar 25, 2018 at 21:16
  • I think aside from taking up a journal (which is not a thing at all here, indeed) these suggestions might be useful. I attend conferences organized by my department but I usually find that I don't have the prerequisites for asking good questions or discussing things. I should definitely try to visit my professors more often. However in my past experience I found it hard to have a honest and open conversation about topics that go beyond the courses they're teaching, sometimes it seems like I can't bring them to talk freely. Maybe I should try to come up with better questions.
    – user81260
    Mar 26, 2018 at 7:48
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    @MassimoOrtolano - I confess I didn't notice the "Italy" tag. Sadly I have no acquaintance whatsoever with Italian academia. I was writing based on my own experience of grad school in the US (95%) and 5% from a stint as a visiting student in Denmark. But your wholesale rejection of every single one of my ideas makes Italian academia seem pretty depressing and inhuman. Which I never would have expected, judging from your and other Italians' participation at SE. Mar 28, 2018 at 1:42
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    No, it's not depressing or inhuman, it's just organized differently with different traditions. It also depends on the size of the faculty. OP's department is fairly small (I attended lectures there when I was a student), and things might be slightly different from my university. A first important difference with respect to the US is that in Italy there are no campuses and most of the students commute, with up to 1 hour commuting times, and tend to go home at the end of the lectures. This reduces a lot the number of periodic group activities. Then, let me make a few examples from all points. Mar 28, 2018 at 10:16
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    @MassimoOrtolano - I'm sad to hear about the professors running away right after seminars. // Not sure your source of information about the TA to student ratio in the US. As a TA, I've had a variety of ratios, including some quite that were quite large; as a student, I've had plenty of classes with no TA. // So what actually are the warm fuzzy aspects (if any) of your system? I'm not asking in order to judge, I'm just wondering. Mar 28, 2018 at 16:28

You can also contact a researcher and say you are willing to work on some research project, with the goal of writing a paper together. It requires a lot of effort from you as a student, but it can definitely pay off, both for you and for the advisor.

I had a student (freshman) contacting me a few years ago, wanting to work on discrete mathematics. We ended up writing two research papers together, and I wrote him a recommendation letter for a transfer to a different university. He is now at MIT.

The downside is of course that you do not get course credits for the research (but if successful, you get a paper).

  • I always had the impression that publishing before a PhD was something absolutely out of the ordinary, say for less than 1 student out of 100. Personally I don't know anyone who did or intends to. I enjoy challenges but I don't really feel like I'm ready for research, when I try to read research papers I find out I barely know the basic concepts behind. I will consider it for the future, but I was hoping there was something more within my current reach.
    – user81260
    Mar 25, 2018 at 19:54
  • @LorenzoQ. Sure, it depends a lot on the topic - discrete mathematics is quite reachable actually, for students who know a bit of programming. One can basically 'start' doing research after reading the two books by Richard Stanley (Enumerative combinatorics I & II). There is a lot of theory and stuff, sure, but these problems eventually boils down to counting, and counting is easy to understand. Mar 25, 2018 at 20:25
  • @LorenzoQ - I don't know if this is possible in Italy, but in the US one can sign up for an independent study as a way of dipping a toe in the water, getting ready for original research. In your case, the professor would probably suggest that you spend some time learning to read journal articles. The professor would start at whatever level you are currently at, and go from there. Thus, perhaps you would spend a month or more on one article. First, try to get an overview of what it's about; then slog through some of it and bring a list of questions to your weekly meeting (prob. one hour). Mar 28, 2018 at 16:45

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