Suppose, you are the head of a lab, and there is a particular undergraduate in your lab that you want them to continue their studies in your lab while continuing their graduate studies in the current university. You know that the undergraduate wants to go abroad for their graduate studies, but if they can't, they will stay where they are (in your lab). And they ask you for a letter of recommendation for their graduate studies.

Why should you be willing to write a strong recommendation letter for them, even though you know that will increase their chance of going to another university for their graduate studies?

Note that, I've read this question.

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  • Answers in comments and discussions about ethics have been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. – Wrzlprmft Aug 19 at 10:09
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    I've flagged this question for removal. "Why shouldn't I do this thing that is unethical, unprofessional, dishonest, and downright mean" isn't really about academia, it sounds more like trolling. – Don Hatch Aug 20 at 9:55
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    @DonHatch: Any good social system doesn’t rely on all the participants being ethical alone, but has mechanisms in place to avoid individuals exploiting or destroying the system. The entire legal system exists just for this. It is completely valid to ask what these mechanisms are. – Wrzlprmft Aug 20 at 11:01
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    @DonHatch Don't get me wrong please, but are we really referring to the same academia ? Even I, as an undergraduate, knows that academia is not a utopia; there are lots of people who are mean, downright, dishonest, and don't care ethics, and it is quite logical to ask, even in the worst case scenario, why should someone do something; what might be their profit from doing such a thing etc. – onurcanbektas Aug 20 at 11:29
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    My mother suffered from a case of this I believe. It is a particularly severe issue if the student (like my mother) does not know any better. This is definitely a valid and valuable question to have. – dalearn Aug 20 at 15:15

10 Answers 10


When I am evaluating a research group leader, one of the most important things I examine is where their former students work. If their former undergraduates have moved to PhD programs at excellent universities, that makes the group leader look like an excellent mentor who teaches their students well. This improves the group leader's reputation and helps them recruit new students.

A savvy letter writer also knows that a letter which literally says "This student has excellent achievements x, y and z." implicitly says "I am a good supervisor for helping the student achieve x, y, and z."

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    But, the student will not be listed anywhere as his/her former undergraduate ? Do people list their former undergraduate somewhere ? I only saw that for their current undergraduates/Msc/PhD students. – onurcanbektas Aug 17 at 11:35
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    @onurcanbektas They should. Not everyone does. – Anonymous Physicist Aug 17 at 13:21
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    In many grant applications undergraduates are still considered although usually given less weight than graduate students in the evaluation of the CV. – ZeroTheHero Aug 17 at 23:38
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    The most brilliant answer ever read, thanks! – lovelyzlf Aug 19 at 0:49
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    One of the types of people that evaluate group leaders is future students. Any student interested in working with any PI should (and some actually will) ask the PI's other students how happy they are, and verify for themselves how successful the PI's current and former students are. A PI that gets a reputation for being a jerk will find it much harder to hire competent students. (You did ask your PI about their former students before you agreed to work with them, didn't you?) – JeffE Aug 19 at 2:12


There’s also some measure of self-interest in that a good student moving elsewhere will enhance the reputation of the original group with other researchers and with other students. In particular I note that students talk and if it were broadly known that a PI “torpedoes” good students then the likelihood of recruiting good students would nosedive dramatically.

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    This answer is good balance between self interest and professionalism. – user199 Aug 17 at 16:28
  • Recruiting can be a benefit as well, students (and professional peers) could recommend someone based on the perception that they value their charge's growth and career progression. – rickjr82 Aug 20 at 12:43
  • This brings to my mind a wisdom that may roughly be expressed in English as "great people (in the character/personality sense) surround themselves with others whom they help grow. Small/mean people surround themselves by others whom they keep down/small." – cbeleites Sep 16 at 14:25

Because not doing so is extremely selfish. I don't own the student, and (s)he should be free to pursue his/her own career goals. If those goals involve studying elsewhere, that's disappointing, but it's still not mine to sabotage (as not writing a strong recommendation letter would be) the student.

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    Note the question is in the "Why...?" form... – einpoklum Aug 19 at 9:01
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    @MarkBooth - The sex of the student isn't known. In such cases, in English, it's permissible to simply select a hypothetical one (as in this case), use the sometimes-overly-wordy "he or she," or use the increasingly acceptable singular, gender neutral "they." It really doesn't matter a whole lot, and one shouldn't assume anything from the choice. Other languages may work differently in this regard. I typically default to "he," probably for the mere reason that I am a he, and so, especially in vague cases, I insert myself. My girlfriend does the same, however, so her reason must differ. " – bubbleking Aug 19 at 18:08
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    @MarkBooth Did you just assume their gender based on the preferred pronoun stereotype? Really? – Ark-kun Aug 19 at 18:56
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    @Ark-kun Strictly speaking, they assumed the sex of the student, which is at best tangentially related to the pronouns said student uses... incidentally, using "they" is far better since it includes people who aren't a he or she – cat40 Aug 20 at 3:28
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    I didn't not bring this up to try to start a debate @Artelius, I did it in an attempt to improve the answer. I pointed out the bias, the answer was edited to remove the bias, so I deleted my comment - all as it should be. Remember that comments are for helping improve questions and answers, not a place for discussions, these should be taken to Academia Chat. As an aside, I agree with cat40 that the answer could be improved further by the use of they rather than the rather clumsy (s)he as it is inclusive of everyone, male female and non binary. – Mark Booth Aug 20 at 9:33

The PI should write a reference truly reflecting the skills of the student.

The reference should not be "dumbed down" or "over egged", both practices are incorrect both ethically and professionally.

If this means the student moves on, then so be it. There will always be other students.

It may also mean that the student comes back in the future or they end up collaborating in the future.

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    This doesn't answer the question. To me, the question asks why, not what. – Lamar Latrell Aug 19 at 22:02

The way most people are answering is based on ethical reasoning (which I don't disagree with), but some of the OP's follow up comments / questions make me wonder if OP is contemplating whether doing the "nice" thing (which supposedly have negative short-to-medium term consequences) might actually have longer term consequences, or not. I think the answer is: failure to write the LoR in this case is actually a bad idea for the professor.

By refusing to write a LoR, the professor in question believes that they are more likely to keep a potentially useful grad student / employee; writing the LoR makes this less likely. So, doing the thing that helps the student achieve their goals seems to hamper the professor's. However, I'll argue something much different: the pragmatism of niceness (or, at least, perceived niceness), which some of the answers (Zero's; Sandra's third point; Lecter's third para; and Peteris') have alluded to, but I think is worth stating straight out.

If we re-examine some of the assumptions in the professor's argument (or, at least the one I'm imposing on them), there's the notion that the lack of LoR makes it significantly harder / less likely for the student to move on.

  1. Having a LoR from a well known professor with whom you have worked is nice, but not the be-all-and-end-all. In the post linked to by the OP, answerers were arguing the the student in question should go get other LoRs. So, the professor's refusal to write one is not a deal breaker for the student's efforts to move on.
  2. Also, the professor has assumed that failing to get a LoR will not impact the effort the student puts into leaving. There are lots of folks (myself included) that would make it a TOP priority to ditch a boss that treats me like that. Lastly, even if the student doesn't leave, the professor has not (apparently) thought about how failing to write a LoR will impact the student's desire to put time and effort into the job.*
  3. Plus, let's be honest; the professor can try to attract another student, right? The loss of this one is probably only a temporary set back in that the professor needs to start the process to get another student.

So, I question how effective this lack of a LoR is for the professor's future benefit (i.e. keeping a well-motivated student to work in the lab). Then there are the potential negative consequences for the professor.

If word gets out about this attempted sabotage, the info would have to get to potential applicants, before they would choose not to apply into this program. But, this can happen; it could negatively impact the climate of rest of the lab (who, if annoyed enough by this or other bad actions, could tell potential new students). Additionally, the professor could develop a bad reputation among colleagues, who will be less likely to send new students to him. (Let alone any other consequences, such as de-prioritizing collaborating with the professor, if the reputation gets worse.)

So, I will say that it is actually in the professor's best interest to write the LoR. The benefits of trying to keep the student are probably less than the professor thinks, and the negative consequences are probably much worse.

*Just to cut off any arguments about how no-one owes a LoR to anyone else: Wanting someone to stay and work for you, but being unwilling to write a LoR for a similar position is a major red flag to me; it smacks of the employer/professor failing to see the employee/student as anything other than a means to an end for the employer/professor. It would be different if the employer was getting ready to fire the employee, of course.

  • Also, making the student stick around for their Master's/PhD may actually be counterproductive in the long run, because it likely forces the student out after their PhD. Unless the local academic culture tolerates people staying in the same group from their undergrad all the way to their independent career ("academic inbreeding"), keeping a doctoral student means sacrificing a likely much more productive postdoc or faculty. – TooTea Aug 19 at 9:11

First of all, people who choose working in science tend to be decent non-selfish people. Those who are selfish or not decent prefer other occupations. Professors will submit good recommendation letters just because it is the right thing to do.

Second, a professor's salary does not depend on whether his student leaves his lab or not. Professors usually have a permanent position and a fixed salary. There is no direct selfish interest for a professor to keep his student in the lab.

Third, connections and collaborations matter a lot in science. It is often to a professor's advantage to let his student go abroad. The professor can, for instance, indicate his former student as a suggested referee for papers submitted from the lab and can also reach other people via his former student. The more talented the former student is, the more beneficial the connection will be.

Fourth, undergraduate students are generally less valuable than they think. Professors generally encourage and praise them, but the reality is that undergraduate students know almost nothing, cannot write good articles, consume a lot of time and energy of their supervisors, make mistakes in research calculations, etc. Many professors see working with undergraduate students as a duty rather than something beneficial.

For the above reasons, almost any professor is highly unlikely to submit a weak recommendation letter if he is able to write a strong one.

If you are worried that this might nevertheless happen, you can make the following steps to reduce the risk:

  1. Prepare a draft of the recommendation letter and say something like, "I have prepared a draft, and you can modify it in any way you wish." Professors are generally very busy and have neither time nor energy to carefully write strong recommendation letters, but, given a draft, will usually just make stylistic corrections and sign/send.

  2. Carefully choose people whom you ask to write a recommendation letter. If you work in a lab, you may have a few people to choose from. Choose decent people who have neither envy nor strong interest to keep you in the lab. The usual situation is that you have a head of the lab and a mentor, who is subordinate to the head of the lab. Make a wise choice between the two. Consider their human qualities, possible selfish interest, etc. If you make a few different applications, ask different people to write recommendation letters for different applications so that no one will be able to spoil all applications of yours.

  3. Promise to collaborate in the future. Tell them that you plan to build a great career and will always be helpful and thankful. Tell them that after you move abroad, they can indicate you as a suggested referee for papers submitted by them. Promise to be a very friendly reviewer. Say and do everything to ensure that people see your departure positively.

  4. If the recommendation letter has to be sent by email, consider asking to include you in BCC. Just say that you want to be sure that the letter is sent. It will be hard to refuse such a request, and if it is refused, consider asking another person to write a recommendation letter. Analogously, if the recommendation letter has to or can be sent by ordinary mail, consider asking to give you the signed letter. You can then just put it in an envelope, write the professor's address as the sender's address, and send the letter by mail. If the letter can be sent by fax, just get a signed letter and send it by fax. The idea is that if the professor knows you will see the letter, he is unlikely to deliberately weaken it.

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    Pre-preparing a reference and giving it to my supervisor would have got short shrift... So, that is obviously very much location specific advice. – Solar Mike Aug 17 at 15:40
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    @SolarMike I worked in Germany, Australia, and Russia. In all these countries, preparing a draft is a standard practice. The Russians even have a special slang for a recommendation letter draft prepared by a student: рыба (fish). A typical dialogue: Student: Мне нужна рекомендация (I need a recommendation letter). Supervisor: Без проблем, только дай рыбу. (Okay, just give me a fish). – Sandra Aug 17 at 17:16
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    German and Australian professors tend to not ask for a draft themselves, but are generally happy to get it from the student if he politely gives it and says that it is just a draft that the professor can completely discard or modify as he wants. I myself never faced a negative reaction when I gave recommendation letter drafts written by me. – Sandra Aug 17 at 17:39
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    First of all, people who choose working in science tend to be decent non-selfish people. Those who are selfish or not decent prefer other occupations. - I'm not convinced that scientists tend to be more decent than people in other professions, though I agree that most scientist (as well as most people) are more or less decent. – Kimball Aug 17 at 22:22
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    @Sandra They don't become scientists to earn a lot of money - but they may become scientists to gain glory or some other potentially selfish aim. As Kimball says, most people are decent; scientists or not. Are you saying that you notice scientists of your acquaintance as being noticeably more decent than non-scientists? That is not my experience. – Martin Bonner Aug 19 at 8:20

You are describing one of the many conflicts of interests which can occur in academia.

While in reality, most of the people might be selfish and not professional at this stage, the majority will still be and won't sabotage your future. Worse case they usually don't help you like in the other post you have outlined. I have outlined the possible reasons I have observed why a PI would support you independently of the conflict of interest:

Why? Because it shows that you are a good mentor who can not only support his/her own interests but also of the people around you. It is a sign of both personal and professional growth.

Depending in which country and at which stage of you career as a PI, some people will be interested to know if you have achieved this step personally. One way to show this is that you push these people to continue to work in the academic system and that your mentoring help these people to achieve even greater results.

Alternatively, there is another explanation which occurs in people who are already reached tremendous success. It also personally rewarding in terms of your ego when you see all the people you have mentored working in supporting all the ideas and work you have invested your life in to be carry on in the future. It shows that this topic or area of research is interesting and important. It increases your own importance and relevance for posterity.


Your peers will read them

The audience for your letters of recommendation are your peers who are leading other labs in your field. If the letters they get from you indicate that you're sabotaging your students (and they'll know, they're as experienced as you or more and they know all of the nuances of this process), well, then you'll gain a reputation in your field for sabotaging your students.


Because if you did not write the recommendation letter to the student, the student will become upset and most probably you will lose him/her anyway.

It is better to help a student, as this is what you should do.

beside if you did not help her/him, you will end up losing them anyway, but with bad-terms.


The student's welfare is the only thing that matters. No mentor should put his or her interest before doing what is best for a student. There is nothing to weigh. First do no harm applies to this situation.

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    Well, in the real world, the sentences using "should" and the ones using "does" generally not agree with each other, so what you are saying is not an answer; but I'm still thankful for the effort and time. – onurcanbektas Aug 19 at 17:25

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