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Do professors who are in a position to write a recommendation letter for me "have to" write a recommendation letter? For example, my PhD advisor, can he suddenly (without any reason) say that he won't write a letter? I mean does it depend on their will? More specifically, if some professor has promised me a recommendation letter earlier, can he suddenly change his opinion without any reason?

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    Yes, anybody can go back on their promise. Even a faculty member. It is not good form if done for no reason and might not get them the best reputation, but any person can, and many do, change their opinions. It is often frustrating. A verbal agreement is worth the paper it's written on. Such is life. – penelope Nov 6 '19 at 10:45
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    If someone suddenly reneges on a recommendation letter, then I expect: either there is some emergency which got out of control and they have no time left to write one (in my experience, recommendation letters usually get amongst the highest priority with responsible academics, once they agreed to write one), or there must have happened something that deters them from recommending you. More rarely, they are upset that you do not stay with them (but that's seriously unethical). – Captain Emacs Nov 6 '19 at 11:30
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    You don't want a letter of recommendation from someone who is unwilling to write that letter- it will probably be negative or at least not positive. – Brian Borchers Nov 6 '19 at 15:01
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    I had an informal policy of not writing letters for undergraduate students who earned grades less than B in my classes, based on "if you can't say something nice..." One student insisted, and after discussing the matter with him, I wrote, "Perhaps he will do better at your institution than he's done here." That is what happens when you insist. – Bob Brown Nov 6 '19 at 23:35
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As stated in the other answer, no professor has to write a recommendation letters for a specific student. The most common reason is that it would be a letter the student wouldn't want anyway, ie a bad recommendation.

On the other hand, it is part of the job of a professor to write recommendation letters for students in general. So if a professor states that he/she categorically refuses to writes recommendation letters for anyone that would be a reason for complaint to their dean or head of department.

  • Just out of curiosity (I absolutely agree that it is expected of a faculty member to write recommendation letters), is this really codified somewhere up to the point where it could be taken up with the dean? I taught the consequences would be more informal, i.e. word of mouth that you won't get any career opportunities from working with the prof as he doesn't write letters, so he would eventually lack (good) students to work with. – penelope Nov 6 '19 at 10:43
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    @penelope I don't think it is written down specifically but I would expect that there are some general statements in the contract that can be interpreted as containing writing recommendation letters. – quarague Nov 6 '19 at 10:46
  • Unfortunately, I just looked through mine and it seems a very far stretch from anything written in the contract. Says that my duties will periodically be specifically defined by my Line Manager or something along those lines, so there is room to include it officially in my duties, but it is not in the contract. So it seems like it is down to the head of department to "enforce this" -- and if the department culture is bad, there might not be anything to do about a faculty member like that. Sad :/ – penelope Nov 6 '19 at 10:55
  • @quarague I could easily imagine an academic who makes it known that they will only write recommendations for a handful of rare and truly exceptional supervisees and will say no in all other circumstances. – GrotesqueSI Nov 6 '19 at 11:01
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Short answer, no they don't have to write your a letter; yes it depends on their will.

No one has to write you a recommendation letter. It is poor form not to write one for a supervisee, but nothing compels letter writing and there is no requirement that you be given a reason.

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    +1 if you compel anyone to warmly recommend you, expect bad recommendations... – Spark Nov 6 '19 at 8:09
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    @RIchardWilliams Of course. It's bad form, sure, but nothing forces anyone to ever write you a recommendation. They can even tell you that they will write one and just never do it if they feel like it. Seriously, what do you think would force them to write one for you? – GrotesqueSI Nov 6 '19 at 10:58
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    It is poor form not to write one for a supervisee — Well, that depends. If the professor cannot honestly write a strong letter for a supervisee, refusing to write a letter is arguably better than either writing an honest weak letter or writing a dishonest strong letter. But even in that scenario, the professor should be honest with the student about their reasons for not writing a letter. – JeffE Nov 6 '19 at 14:04
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    @GrotesqueSI I don't think the OP is asking if they're literally going to be forced to write a letter of rec, but rather how strong/codified the expectations around LoRs are. For example, would a prof who failed to write a LoR get in as much trouble as one who stopped showing up to teach a class? – Azor Ahai Nov 6 '19 at 15:06
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    I would nuance this answer a bit. When as a postdoc I taught in the US, I was specifically told that there was an expectation that I would write LOR to students who asked for it. Imo, unless there is a reason not to recommend the student and if the student asked sufficiently in advance, it is more or less a moral obligation of the professor to write the LOR – glougloubarbaki Nov 6 '19 at 16:17
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Writing a reference letter is a courtesy, never an obligation.

It is possible for a thesis director to decline supporting a student for a job. It is usually a bad sign when a director is not writing a reference letter - either because the director has declined or because the student did not ask - and indeed in many cases employers expect a letter from the thesis director.

On the other hand, if the professor promised a letter, he or she is morally bound to provide this letter. Basically, the time to decline is passed and reneging on such a promise is extremely bad form.

There’s nothing to be done if the professor no longer wants to support the student except ask someone else. If things have gotten that far, one can rightly wonder how strong would be the letter of support, and a letter from someone else might be a good way for the student to cut his or her losses.

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