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I am currently a fourth-year Electrical Engineering student. I have been a top-ranked student in our department. I have passed 3 courses with a professor in our department and have received a full mark in all three. I did participate a lot in all classes and had many discussions about the courses in his office hours. He knows me very well. I have also been the teaching assistant of this professor twice, for two distinct courses. I believe that I have also done a decent job as a TA for him. I also have worked in his research lab for a year now.

Recently I have asked this professor for a recommendation letter for graduate school and he refuses, arguing he has decided to only give a recommendation letter to people who have written a research paper with him. By the way, he is willing to accept me as a master student, in his group but I prefer moving to another university.

My professor is new to the field I am currently working on and I believe it is hard for an undergraduate student to write a scientific paper in this situation.

I wanted to ask whether his refusal for recommendation letters is reasonable and also ask for some advice on how to handle this situation.

PS: Maybe "reasonable" is not the best choice of word. I mean whether only giving recommendation letters to co-authors is something "common".

I am applying to a direct PhD in the US. But I am from a different country. Direct PhDs are not possible in our country.

I Professor obtained his bachelor degree in our university and his PhD in the US. He has also worked as a professor in the US and in Europe before joining our department.

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    Has the professor refused to submit a letter or just to write one. Some professors ask students to write the recommendation letter for them, and then they will sign it if they agree with the contents. It's one way for professors to cut down on the amount of work without leaving students like you in a bind. – David K Sep 4 at 18:17
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    If it helps, during my Ph.D, I had a professor who'd only write recommendation letters if you got an A in his course. The rules "seem" unreasonable/arbitrary but when asked he said that it brought the amount of time needed for answering such requests. The ones who really wanted his recommendation would do well in his class and made his life easier. That was "his" POV - could be unreasonable for the student but then they'd usually go to another professor. However he'd be willing to bend the rules for exceptional cases - yours isn't. Best answer? Bad luck :( – PhD Sep 4 at 23:28
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    No matter what someone's policy is, if they liked you enough they would want to support your career and recommend you. After all you would be a future colleague and collaborator. Therefore the true underling reason is always that they don't want to recommend you (i.e. they view you negatively for some reason), and are giving a white lie about it, This question presupposes you are perfect and therefore automatically deserving of a recommendation. But this is a silly thing to postulate, since no one is perfect, making this question kind of useless. – A Simple Algorithm Sep 5 at 14:32
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    @ASimpleAlgorithm That's a terribly flawed premise. Professors (especially those teaching multiple upper-level courses) are likely asked for recommendations quite often. If they are writing these recommendations personally, it would stand to reason that they want some kind of policy to help limit the number of requests they receive. While it might seem simple enough to suggest that they would bend their own policies in order to help a student they like, that may not be the case. – Brian R Sep 5 at 15:19
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    @BrianR : The conclusion that ASimpleAlgorithm makes is indeed false, but his statement is correct nonetheless. The professor could write a letter if he wanted to -- he isn't legally bound to follow some rule he made up. – MPW Sep 5 at 16:08

10 Answers 10

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I wanted to ask whether his refusal for recommendation letters is reasonable

My personal opinion is that if you worked in his lab for a year (satisfactorily), it is unreasonable to refuse a letter. All the more so if you had other good interactions (TAing, etc.) with him.

and also ask for some advice on how to handle this situation!

Unfortunately, my opinion counts for absolutely nothing. You cannot force this professor to write you a letter, and would be unwise to try. All you can do is find someone else. Preferably someone who can comment on your research, or at least someone who can confirm that your advisor almost never writes letters for undergrads (i.e., vouching that the lack of a letter from your advisor should not reflect poorly on you).

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    It's the professor's recommendations. He is free to decide to whom he should give them. If every student got a recommendation, then they would become worthless – David Sep 4 at 16:13
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    You also absolutely do not want any "recommendation" letter that is won through coercion. – Alex Reinking Sep 4 at 19:01
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    @AlexReinking That's what this answer already says. – Bryan Krause Sep 4 at 19:46
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    @Bryan Krause It hints at it with "it would be unwise to try" but nowhere else. I am adding emphasis to this important point. – Alex Reinking Sep 4 at 19:48
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    @MikeBrockington: I believe Alex's point was that, if the professor feels they are being coerced to write the letter against their will, they can easily — and without overtly saying anything negative about you! — phrase it in such a way as to all but guarantee that you won't be accepted anywhere based on it. – Ilmari Karonen Sep 6 at 8:45
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We cannot say if they are reasonable. We only know the details you provide and, moreover, we are not judges.

But this is the wrong question. Why should it matter for you if we say the prof is reasonable or not? There are many unreasonable people in the world. Among those there are professors, students, astronauts, beggars, social workers, farmers,.. with one word: everyone. So don't ask whether they are reasonable. The answer does not help you.

How to handle this: Ask another prof if available.

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    But, yes, it is ungenerous and unhelpful, in any case. – paul garrett Sep 3 at 19:55
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    It is not helpful to the OP, but it is helpful to some other students: his PhD students will get a letter that will be more appreciated than other prof's letters apparently, because this professor takes his letters very seriously. – Dilworth Sep 3 at 23:44
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    @Dilworth: Either very seriously or he just avoids work whenever possible. – user112604 Sep 4 at 7:25
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    @Dilworth, the professor--and his policy--would both need to be very well known for that to have any appreciable effect. – Matt Sep 4 at 14:19
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    If this policy is well-known, it's likely this professor will have trouble attracting undergraduates to TA or do lab work for him in the future. This guy should also be up front about his policy so students can choose whether they should do extra work for him, or for somebody who will be willing to give them a minor assist in their grad school applications. – The Photon Sep 4 at 17:13
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The policy to write recommendation letters only for undergraduate students you co-authored with is not reasonable (or common).

Suppose for a moment that all professors adopted this policy. A typical grad school application requires three recommendation letters. If professors provided reference letters only to co-authors, this essentially means that an undergraduate would need to have written three papers to obtain the required three recommendation letters. I know of no fields in which that would not be an extremely rare occurence.

Of course, everybody has the right to decide who they write recommendation letters for. However, as a professor you also have the responsibility to do your part in the recommendation letter writing process. By adopting such a restrictive policy, you are essentially off-loading this responsibility on other professors. This makes such a policy very selfish and egocentrical.

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    i think writing a recommendation letter is not off-loading but on-loading of responsibility to oneself (the professor) that makes them scared to write a recommendation letter particularly if the student is suffering invisible disability. Because they think on new institute the referred student will take time to adapt and the new professors will then blame or defame the referee professor. Referral system is such a drastic way to prune out students so that if a student earns so much trust that referee take a huge risk omly then application could be done. – Always Confused Sep 4 at 18:57
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    The student is not from the US and you seem to assume erroneously that he is. – Dilworth Sep 4 at 21:45
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    Technically, it would be possible for the student to have written one paper, co-authored with three professors. – Allure Sep 5 at 0:55
  • "Suppose for a moment that all professors adopted this policy." --- Then the system would have to change! Better for all!! – Dilworth Sep 5 at 11:58
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Yes, the refusal seems reasonable in general. The professor is the one who should decide who he writes reference letters to, and if he has a policy of providing letters only to collaborators that is his right. Though unfriendly to undergraduate, it does have some merit: his letters can be trusted to a very high degree.

It is also possible that the professor does not think he can provide you with a strong letter. He already saw you in his lab, and may have not formed a positive view of your achievements at this stage. He may try politely to avoid the need to say this to you hiding behind other excuses. He may have suggested you become his master's student since he believes you are about to decline, or since he genuinely wishes to give you a second chance to prove yourself.

More importantly: any kind of hesitation from a potential reference letter writer should be an immediate warning sign that the person may not give you a good letter.

Conclusion: find another professor.

Important note: The OP has clarified that "Direct PhDs are not possible in my country." This means the OP is not from the US. Therefore, the Professor may not be accustomed to providing undergrads letters, only master's students, making the case even stronger for the professor to refuse a letter.

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Am I alone in thinking this sounds like a not-so-subtle suggestion to write a research paper with your professor?

You've been working in his research lab for a year, do you have any results? You could write them up and show him. If you don't have any results, maybe discuss with him what he might want to write about with you.

He may not need your paper to be published, submitted, or even fully completed in order to write your letter. An "in preparation" paper may be good enough. It demonstrates that you're a self-starter in the research sphere, which is necessary for a PhD. Also, if it looks like the paper has a good trajectory and he will be getting a publication out of it, then there's something in it for him to support you.

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You could ask for a letter of evaluation, i.e. a one-page description of what you have done during your collaboration, instead of a letter of recommendation.

Although your professor's stand is legit, quirky and strict as it may sound, it puts you in a position of disadvantage by deviating from expected standards: for example, in those situations where a certain number of letters of recommendations are required to move forward. You run the risk of not being short-listed, if the first pass is done bureaucratically, or of attracting more questions if you pass the first round. The latter is not bad in and of itself, once you are able to pitch and detail what you have been able to do during your previous study: this is a valuable skill to train at any rate.

The curious thing is that, if I had cast an interested eye on non-standard application and had still been hesitating about your storytelling, I would be inclined to make contact with your professor to ask for more information. Then, should your professor not change his position in the meantime, another option is to ask him if you can share his contact details in your future applications for giving his feedback orally as the need arises. In lieu of the said letter, you can attach a sheet with "Professor X of institution Y ... prefers to be contacted directly at ...". At least you work around positions of principle and personal quirks proactively and reduce the risk of being short-listed in the name of raw numbers.

In the end, the important thing is that people get to know, and recognize themselves, that you are a fine candidate for what's at stake next.

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I recommend not limiting your options. Since as you said, you are the top ranked student in your department, finding another teacher who's willing to write you a good recommendation letter shouldn't be that hard. If course it only makes sense to seek someone who you know can write you a good letter that helps your cause.

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You can't make someone recommend you, and even if you could, a letter that says "I acknowledge that BBBB was present in my lab..." is not going to do you any favors.

Someone's passion and aptitude for research can be judged in many ways: class projects, in-class and informal discussions, and teaching/mentoring others can all speak to your prospects as a researcher. So, this policy is crazy, especially for undergrads who cannot reasonably be expected to produce three papers in three different labs in three years. Nevertheless, you're stuck with it.

Several people have suggested that this attitude is not uncommon in certain parts of the world. If you are in such a place—and haven't already—you may want to remind the professor that US institutions request more letters of recommendation and, consequently, expect the letter writers to have a somewhat less established relationship with the applicant. For example, I eventually published something with one of my letter-writers, but the other two mostly knew me from coursework, TAing, and general interactions in the department. Not being the only recommender might also make him feel less responsible for any future outcome. I would honestly expect a prof to know this already--or at least, know that they need to look into it more, but you never know…

As an alternative, I suggest finding a replacement and asking them, or one of your other letter writers to

  • mention your work with the recalcitrant prof and
  • explain the recalcirant prof's policy.

This avoids a conspicuous absence of a letter from someone with whom you've worked closely, and might apply some much-needed peer-pressure to the prof too.

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It is uncommon but not necessarily unreasonable as we do not know the core reason not to do so.

It could well be that this person wants to avoid a deluge of such requests and having a high bar is an easy way out.

It could be that this person feels he/she has done his/her share of writing reference letters in the past and it’s for others to step up.

It could be this person has been known to write a certain style of letter (either overly positive or overly negative) and wants to reset his/her reputation.

Writing reference letters is not an obligation, and at least this person was sufficiently honest to say no rather than write something negative or watery, both of which would not be terribly useful to the student. Else: who really knows why except the professor himself/herself?

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I had very similar experiences when multiple professors refused to provide me recommendation letters. Including those who provided various good words about me. They gave a lot of excuses, such as they think i was a good student but since i did very bad score in masters degree and certain research entrance competitive exams so the evidence do not reflect that goodness. (But in fact the purpose of recommendation letter is originally opposite, it is to measure the research qualities that do not reflect in an exam).

Unfortunately the recommendation letter system is often not used as it was intended for. Instead it is misused or abused. I must not generalise, but yes it is seemingly misused sometimes. Recommendation letters or forms should be used to convey the psychological insight. But unfortunately it sometimes become a battlefield of authoritative power-play, where the academia suppresses the student to be blindly obedient to the teacher to get a dazzling recommendation letter, and to a more freethinking student, the career can often be down on a "blink of eye" of professors, guides, seniors etc. So sometimes the recommendation letters tend to contain false or unknowingly wrong informations.

Also presumably many recommendation letters are not read in details. Because in an advertisement for Ph.D. admission a lot of (50, 100, 500, 1000 or more) applications arrive and a very little number of people having a versatile mentality checks those applications, and most of the applications are speedily rejected since they will fund for a very little number (usually 1 to 25) of positions. Sometimes recommendation letters written in a very mean way such as "candidate X worked in our lab for Y years, (s)he is honest, hardworking, sincere, intelligent, blah blah" as used to be in schoolday character certificate. They seemingly look for a signature and an institutional stamp. They often check for reputation and influence of the referee, and the interpersonal or inter-institutional rapport with the referee. Also the recommendation letter has the minimal role in the weightage to select the candidate, most of the recommendation process done through phone calls, in-person meetings, pannelling systems and bargaining. This is unfair, but this is real and unavoidable, it cannot yet be officially prevented, given the authority bears huge power and ego.

Also, another factor that prevents a professor from write a recommendation letter is; to writing a recommendation letter poses a risk or threat of responsibility to oneself (the referee professor) that makes them scared to write a recommendation letter say for example a the student is suffering invisible disability. Because they might think on new institute the referred student will take time to adapt and the new professors will then blame or defame the referee professor. Referral system is such a drastic way to prune out students so that if a student earns so much trust that referee take a huge risk on oneself; omly then application could be done.

..............................

In conditions your guide refuse to write the recommendation letter, ask other professors, ask more open minded teachers to give recommendation letter. even go to your earlier academia such as college and school. Make the issue open up. Explain why a recommendation letter is necessary for you. Carefully read brochure of your target institute that if they specifically mentions who can be your referee. If they does not specifically mention it, I think it is technically okay to take recommendation from your older academia such as your college teachers.

At the same time, you need to personally meet Ph. D. supervisors if it is legally allowed (in some academia it leads to disqualification as they call it "canvassing" whereas in some other places it is legal to just take an appointment and having a conversation). However it is difficult or impossible if the target institute is on another country, but still you may communicate using E-mails and video chat sessions. Explain them your specific problem with collecting recommendation letter and whether they can select you based on other available information about you.

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    You make a lot of claims, and in my experience some of them are false, at least in North America. For example: "Also the recommendation letter has the minimal role [...] most of the recommendation process done through phone calls [...]". In my institution (and other big universities in the US and Canada) recommendations over the phone are not a thing, and the recommendation letters are one of the most important and most carefully read parts of an application. Also profs that I know are not particularly scared to write letters, they just don't like to write bad letters. – Sasho Nikolov Sep 4 at 23:02
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    No, it is not about North America. But these things happen in some places. I am sorry if the language looks like generalisation. I will edit specific portion to make them less generalised. – Always Confused Sep 5 at 3:56
  • I may delete this answer if it seems lack the quality. – Always Confused Sep 5 at 3:58
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    I did not made fraud claims, i shared few of my own experiences and several of claims other people shared me. – Always Confused Sep 5 at 4:01
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    Thus is really a rant. Some observations applicable to worse cases but thankfully most referees are professional, even if it means being frank with the expected recipient of the letter. – ZeroTheHero Sep 6 at 2:05

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