Suppose, you are the head of a lab, and there is a particular undergraduate in your lab that you want them to continue working in your lab while doing their graduate studies in the university you are working. You know that the student 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 write a strong recommendation letter for them, even though you know that it will increase their chances of going to another university for their graduate studies?

Note that, I've read this question.

  • Answers in comments and discussions about ethics have been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Aug 19, 2019 at 10:09

11 Answers 11


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.
    – Our
    Aug 17, 2019 at 11:35
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    @onurcanbektas They should. Not everyone does. Aug 17, 2019 at 13:21
  • 1
    In many grant applications undergraduates are still considered although usually given less weight than graduate students in the evaluation of the CV. Aug 17, 2019 at 23:38
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    The most brilliant answer ever read, thanks!
    – lovelyzlf
    Aug 19, 2019 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, 2019 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, 2019 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, 2019 at 12:43
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    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." Sep 16, 2019 at 14:25
  • @cbeleitesunhappywithSX what is the original of that quote? Apr 8, 2021 at 22:42

Because not doing so is extremely selfish. I don't own the student, and they should be free to pursue their 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, 2019 at 9:01

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. Aug 19, 2019 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, 2019 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, 2019 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, 2019 at 17:16
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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, 2019 at 22:22
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    @Kimball People don't become scientists to earn a lot of money. There are much more financially rewarding occupations that require similar skills. Those who choose science tend to be less selfish and more idealistic than average people. It is my overall impression based on my experience.
    – Sandra
    Aug 17, 2019 at 23:05
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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. Aug 19, 2019 at 8:20

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.


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.


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

It is better to help a student, as this is what you should do. Besides, if you did not help them, 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.
    – Our
    Aug 19, 2019 at 17:25

Several reasons (beyond being fair, ethical and/or a nice human being):

  • Their reputation (believe it or not, undergraduates also talk between the semesters and there are good chances that your behavior like messing up somebodies career because you consider them your slave discourages future students)

  • A good connection to one more team. Much easier to ask for a collaboration with the student as a PhD when you were constructive.

  • Maybe the student even comes back for postdoc after learning new techniques somewhere else

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