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I'm a PhD student and one of my research assistants (undergraduate student) applied for a non-research volunteer position on campus. He asked (via email) for me to be one of his references on the day of the application deadline. I didn't see the email until the day after. In my reply email, I apologized for not catching the email in time, said it would have been better if they gave me more than a few hours warning, and that hopefully he was able to find another letter writer in time.

He replied and said that he had put my name down as a reference anyway because of the deadline. I'm not sure if this was due to them misunderstanding how references work (first job?), or cultural differences (international student?), or procrastination with the application and simply assumed I would be OK with it. In his followup emails he seems to be aware that this was an inappropriate thing to do, but had no choice due to the deadline.

The problem is that even if he had asked me earlier I would have declined to be a reference anyway, primarily because I don't know the student well enough to write a positive letter (he had only been working in the lab for a couple of months at that point).

Today, I received the request for my reference letter, asking me to rate the student on various qualities and some open ended questions. I have enough time to write the letter, but I'm not sure of the correct course of action.

On the one hand I wouldn't have written an overly positive letter in the first place and putting me down as a reference without my permission worsens my impression of the student. But on the other hand I feel that as a supervisor (of his lab work anyway) I should suck it up and help them get the job regardless of how I feel about this situation, as he has been a fairly good student (kind and friendly) in the lab for the little time that I've known him. Additionally, I'll still be supervising the student in the lab regardless of whether he gets the job, and writing a bad letter may sour the relationship and create unwanted tension in the lab.

I'm not sure how to handle this situation. Should the employer be made aware of what happened? Can/should I decline to write the letter? Would there be any negative repercussions for me if I decline to write the letter after being put down as a reference?

I see that there is already a question on here about declining to write a reference (Should I decline to fill out a recommendation form after saying that I will do it?), but in this case I never agreed to write the letter in the first place and this was all done without my permission (or awareness, until after the fact).

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    This is quite unwelcome, but the student may not be aware that he needs the permission (which is quite unpleasant, but it does happen, esp. with international students). If the student has some redeeming qualities, you may write those down. If not, you can state that you supervised them over that period on that project. – Captain Emacs Aug 28 '18 at 19:27
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    Do you have any reason to think he may have learned about the opportunity that day and decided to just go for it? If it's a once-a-year thing, maybe he was hoping the chance of getting the job was worth the social faux pas? – Azor Ahai Aug 28 '18 at 23:05
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    Are you confusing recommendation forms and recommendation letters here? I just want to note that the forms take very little time 10 minutes... – Dawn Aug 29 '18 at 12:02
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    A reference is not a recommendation, the etiquette is more relaxed and often you are forced to provide references for everything you claim on a resume, like prior landlords on a rent application. Note that the employer is contacting you directly instead of the student asking you for a personal letter. Professionally speaking you can still speak to their work during that time honestly, even if it is not enough for an academic letter of recommendation. While it is a good idea to give references a heads up, this is not as big of a faux pas as asking for a recommendation letter on short notice. – crasic Aug 29 '18 at 18:13
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    You are a graduate student who has been placed into a position of authority, managing the work of an undergraduate. This is a chance for you to help this student grow, both by explaining how they should ask and provide more notice, and by providing honest feedback. – ChuckCottrill Aug 29 '18 at 23:48
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As the student’s supervisor, it is your duty not to “help him get the job” but rather to act in a supervisory role, and that includes giving your honest opinion about the student to anyone he requests you to. When I get requests from students I hardly know to write them letters, I tell them honestly there isn’t much I can say other than what class they took with me and what grade they got, and that a letter from me would not be worth very much, but I always say I am willing to write the letter if they insist that I do.

My suggestion is that you simply answer the reference request from the employer as honestly as you can. If there isn’t much you can say, say so, but include whatever details you can speak about that may be of interest to an employer. If you really think you can’t say anything of value, say so. That would probably hurt the student’s chances, but that’s not your problem.

Finally, I wouldn’t mention to the employer the story about the student putting your name down without your approval. It may be annoying, but I would attribute it to the student’s inexperience and just let it go, although perhaps I would privately mention to the student that such behavior is counterproductive and also somewhat rude.

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    I would go further and claim that you should expect to serve as a reference for anyone you have supervised , while it is a good idea to make sure your references are expecting to be contacted, if a job application asks you to list past employers with professional references for follow up, this is not something that generally requires "pre approval", you implicitly approved when you accepted them as your supervisee/employee. I think the main disconnect is the relative importance placed on academic recommendations vs the more procedural purpose of professional references . – crasic Aug 29 '18 at 18:30
  • But, if you feel you cannot give a good reference it is a kind thing to inform the candidate so they can make arrangements for other references if possible , but in this case the applicant did not give enough time to do this so an honest answer should be sufficient . – crasic Aug 29 '18 at 18:32
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    @crasic: In my experience it's unusual for a PhD student to give a reference; usually the PI of the group would be called on for that. Or, at an absolute push, a postdoc. PhD students, as students, do not have the standing to be a good reference. Perhaps this differs by region/subject? – Jack Aidley Aug 29 '18 at 19:42
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    @JackAidley since the question indicates that there was an explicit supervisory role, it seems appropriate to serve as a professional reference even if they are a graduate student . While a PI is more appropriate for a recommendation, and certainly for academia , if they did not supervise any work of the student, it may actually be a less appropriate professional reference and unable to answer typical background questions during a reference check. In this case it appears that OP is in the best position to speak to their work experience due to the limited time there. – crasic Aug 29 '18 at 20:00
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Use this as a teachable moment.

As you made clear, the student either was entirely unaware of or completely disregarded the etiquette around requesting references. Not everyone is born knowing these things, nor do they necessarily understand their importance. Now is a super good time to teach him how to approach this process in the future; this isn't a mistake he can continue to make.

Once you've had that conversation, I'd explain what kind of reference you're comfortable giving, which is the discussion you could have had if he gave you proper notice. Then, give him two options:

  • You'll write the letter as stated, and he'll agree to learn from the experience and not pull a stunt like this in the future. Be clear you will not penalize him in his letter for the lack of notice.
  • You'll respond to the request saying that there was a misunderstanding, and the student would like a recommendation from such-and-such instead. Whether that's acceptable to the people evaluating his application or hurts the student's chances is his problem.

If he thinks he'll have a better shot with someone else, he can take it, or he can go ahead with your letter now that he knows what will be in it, which he would have known if he asked you properly in the first place. This ensures he is not blindsided by the letter you intend to write, and allows him to make an informed decision.

All that said, I think there's an important context here. He's an undergraduate student who has worked in your lab for a couple months, applying for a volunteer position on campus. Even though you don't know the student that well, he very well may not have sufficient relationships with others on campus who could write a better letter. And since you've supervised his work in the lab, he may have concluded that you're best suited for the task as compared to, say, professors he doesn't particularly know.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't give anything more than your honest opinion, but the bar is only so high with undergraduate recommendation letters, and simply being a positive contributor as a research assistant over a period of months is, itself, not an insignificantly positive thing for you to attest to. It's worth considering whether you, perhaps in collaboration with others in your lab who have worked more closely with him, are honestly able to be sufficiently (while not overly) positive in your letter.

If you don't have much experience writing letters of recommendation, you might also discuss this with your supervisor, who likely has more experience with the kinds of knowledge of a student necessary to write varying types of letters.

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I think the best advice is to be honest. You don't need to praise the student unless he deserves it for any given attribute. On the other hand you don't need to make it negative just because of the history.

I suspect that your letter will, if honest, say some positive and some negative things, or just that you don't have the experience with him to comment more than a bit.

You can describe what he has done in the lab in a non-judgmental way, of course. The potential employer wants an honest assessment. Do your best to provide one. It can be neutral and descriptive.

Be sure that whatever you say you would be willing to share with the candidate. They might learn of it from the employer even if you don't share it yourself.

Since you are a student yourself, you can say that, and say that you have little experience with letters of recommendation. This will help the employer make a proper decision.

Your unhappiness with the behavior of the student should be largely kept between you, unless he also has a history of taking advantage of people and situations.


The same advice should apply to any recommendation, even one more politely arranged. But in that situation, you would have the opportunity to warn the candidate that you might have little positive to say.

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My take is that you should write the recommendation letter, but highlight that you really haven't known them very long. This will let you give a cursory recommendation, since you haven't had any real issues other than this event. Plus, by focusing on this aspect, your letter won't have as much weight as someone else who has known the student for longer.

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I don't think there is an established best practice for this situation. Ethically, you're not obliged to do anything, since you never agreed that you would do anything. So it comes down to how you feel. What I would probably do is fill out the form honestly, without putting in as much optimization effort as I usually do, but not writing a bad recommendation. I'd also make it clear to the student that I won't do any more such favors without X weeks of prior notice. But if instead, you opted to ignore the form and let the employer decide what to do, I wouldn't view that as out of line.

  • While I agree in general, I think that ignoring it is the worst option for the OP. It could be interpreted by others as dereliction. But yes, honest in all respects. – Buffy Aug 28 '18 at 19:49
  • @Buffy I am assuming that the non-research volunteer position has nothing to do with OP's academic field, and so there's no reason to care about making a bad impression on this employer. But if it's something in OP's field, naturally I agree with you. – user37208 Aug 28 '18 at 19:57
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    Since OP agreed to act as the student’s supervisor, I think one can reasonably argue that they did implicitly agree to do things that supervisors are commonly asked to do, including serving as a reference, and therefore does have an ethical duty to fill the form. Of course, the ethical duty is to answer honestly. – Dan Romik Aug 28 '18 at 20:06
  • Actually, I meant that the OP has a supervisor and, as a student, has little independent authority. So others with an opinion might be involved here. – Buffy Aug 28 '18 at 20:13
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    If you refuse to serve as a reference, you effectively nullify the students ability to claim your lab experience, no matter how brief, on any resume, which is the same as saying they never worked for you. An extreme action reserved for the worst possible cases and liars. As such I strongly believe there is an ethical obligation to serve as a reference , it is up to the employer to determine if the experience is relevant or sufficient, your role is basically verify that the this person worked for you and a few adjacent details. Not all references have a form, most are just phone calls – crasic Aug 29 '18 at 18:56
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If I'm getting it right, up to this point, your name in the form has not implied that you give a recommendation or a positive review on him.

So what is wrong with that? Why would he need a permission from you? Isn't it part of your "job" as a PhD student to rate students? He is an undergraduate, what kind of references and connections can he have at this point, other than researchers he has cooperated with?

I've done lots of chores for my supervisor without being asked first (paper reviews, presentations, lectures, rate exam papers etc) and I'm guessing the same applies for you. I simply did not deny (even if I would like to) because he was my supervisor and "that's how academia works."

Let him know that his move was not very appropriate (because "academia status"), fill in the ratings honestly and that's all.

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What follows is my opinion. This is not at all specific to academia, because this is far from an academic issue.

I would mark it as unwise to give people as references that you haven't discussed this with, but as far as I know, it is not "not done" as your question seems to imply.

I also don't see any mention of you having to do anything. A request made by the hiring party to fill out the form you are free to decline for whatever reason you see fit. Your failure to respond reflects badly on the person who gave you as reference, and that's completely his fault.

If you feel this needs to be communicated to the employer, go ahead. Everyone will have valuable lessons learnt. But if you don't want to take the time, equally fine.

I never would give someone as a reference if I didn't trust them to be honest and at least slightly positive about me. But as the person in question was not so careful, he should live with the consequences of his rash actions.

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