I'm a rising senior and will be applying to PhD programs this fall. I'm wrapping up a research project I was doing this summer at another school (basically an REU-like program) and the school is at the top of my field. I learned so much this summer and was able to accomplish a lot with my project. I was mentored by staff scientists and basically worked with them the entire summer. The PI of the lab is very hands off and hard to pin down. I met with him once in the beginning of the summer and have a meeting with him this week as I finish up. I was planning on asking him to write me a letter of rec then. The staff scientists said that what will probably end up happening is they write it and he'll sign it/co-sign it, but I need to ask him myself. I'm just a bit nervous/paranoid he'll say no so if anyone has any advice/words of encouragement, I'd appreciate it.

I understand that letters should come from people who know you well and I plan on my other two to be from professors that I am close with at my school. Given that I attend a school where there are limited research opportunities, I consider it to be integral that I get a letter out of this experience that speaks to my capabilities as a researcher. Based on the advice from the career office at this visiting school and other lab members, the letter should be coming from the PI/professor. The scientists I work with will contribute to a strong recommendation - they themselves acknowledge that it just wouldn't be as valuable coming from them. I guess my nervousness has to do more with the fact that here with big labs and big name PI's everyone says this situation/procedure is the norm and coming from a smaller school I'm not as used to it.

  • See academia.stackexchange.com/help/merging-accounts
    – ff524
    Aug 20, 2019 at 14:17

2 Answers 2


I've said it before, I'll say it again: writing a letter of recommendation for a student you know well is easy, it's a treat, and the letter you write can be GOOD. Writing a letter for a student you barely know is difficult, time consuming, and ends up sounding generic and forced. As someone who reads recommendation letters, it is very clear when the writer doesn't know the student.

I don't think them saying "no" is your problem here. See, even if they say yes, if you have this person who doesn't know you write your letter of recommendation you risk it sounding like a form letter which, in turn, won't distinguish you from the pile of other applicants. Unless the underling that they have write the letter really knows you and your potential, the letter is unlikely to be great. The box will be ticked but it won't be a meaningful tick.

  • I think this is a good answer, but I'm curious as to what you would recommend the OP to do in their situation?
    – Time4Tea
    Aug 20, 2019 at 11:32
  • 1
    It sounds like the "underling" does know the OP well. "I was mentored by staff scientists and basically worked with them the entire summer... The staff scientists said that what will probably end up happening is they write it and he'll sign it/co-sign it."
    – ff524
    Aug 20, 2019 at 14:17
  • I'd recommend getting a recommendation from someone who knows them well, the staff scientist perhaps. The "underling", with the co-sign if absolutely needed. Aug 22, 2019 at 9:19

I'll contribute an answer from the point of view of the person who works with the undergrad summer research students. I write letters in a similar way (I write the letter, since I am the one who worked with the student and can write a good, detailed, letter, and the professor who heads the lab co-signs it, putting his reputation and experience behind it.) I will try to demystify this process for you:

When a student asks the professor for a letter of recommendation (usually by email), he forwards the email to me with something like:

Remind me about this student, what did he/she do?

Then I'll write back, reminding him who the student was, what the student's project was, and if the student was a strong student, and he will write back,

OK, write the letter and I will sign it too.

This is a totally routine interaction and it would never occur to him to say "no" (unless I said I couldn't recommend the student, having worked with them. And if I couldn't recommend a student, I wouldn't tell them to ask the professor for a letter of recommendation!)

I think you are worrying for nothing. If the staff scientists said to you, "Ask the PI for a letter, what will end up happening is that we will write it and he will sign it", you can expect an interaction like the one above will take place, and you have no reason to think the PI will say no.

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