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My parents know a Professor A who knows another Professor B. Professor A has known me since I was a child. I applied for a Ph.D. position in Professor B's group and got admitted. Before admission, Professor A recommended me to Professor B orally but without writing a formal recommendation letter. I used the recommendation letters from other professors I really worked with.

Now, a Ph.D. student in our group learnt about this (my bad, I exposed this myself) and says I was cheating. And he just told everybody because of jealousy. I think I was fairly exploiting my personal network and also I don't know how much the oral recommendation was taken into account during admission. I also don't know what Professor A said to B. Whether he even really said something about me is a mystery to me. But I am totally qualified to get this position on my own.

Now many different versions of this rumor have come out. This is not the expected start of my Ph.D. life. I thought that everybody in my group might be friendly. But really, was I cheating during the admission? I might think about transferring to another group after all this.

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    Lesson learned, Ph.D students behave exactly the same as school children. – camden_kid Jul 6 at 13:36
  • How can one "fairly exploit" something? Those seem to be a contradiction in terms. – Azor Ahai -- he him Jul 7 at 19:12
  • Is it a highly competitive position? What is admission based on, other than letters of recommendation? – smcs Jul 7 at 19:40
  • @AzorAhai to exploit something is to “make full use of and derive benefit from [it]” according to the dictionary. It doesn’t imply the exploitation is automatically wrong or unfair. – Dan Romik Jul 7 at 20:44
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First, I don't think you did anything wrong. If there was improper action anywhere it was on the part of others. (See the final statements about "favors" in the answer of tbrookside for example.) But I suspect that the oral recommendation given had little weight other than at the margin. The professor wouldn't have taken you on if there was any doubt about your abilities. It would have been foolish to take someone unqualified as a "favor" to another.

The other student also has no reason to be jealous as they also got accepted.

But the social thing is something you will have to work through. Demonstrate your competence in the usual way and it should tone down over time.

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    "But I suspect that the oral recommendation given had little weight other than at the margin." I think this is under selling it. An oral recommendation like this pretty much guarantees that the application will make the first cut (and will not be rejected over some triviality). And while it will probably not be given much weight in the final decision, it helps to (subconsciously) positively frame the application. – mmeent Jul 6 at 9:06
  • A fairly natural concern (especially once one takes into account the very real danger of direct or indirect discrimination by social class, race, nationality, etc) is that "fairly exploiting my personal network" is only possible where the effects of oral recommendations are absolutely transparent. Which doesn't mean this other student is justified in making a big deal of the fact an oral recommendation happened, just that there are grounds in general to fear that the system might fail to treat the recommendation as it should. – Steve Jessop Jul 6 at 23:35
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I suspect @Buffy is right, that you did not do anything wrong. However, you did receive an advantage you did not earn because of who your parents are and who do they know. I suspect that that advantage is much more subtle and much more substantive than the oral recommendations (compare your experience with this answer Does politics and perception play a role in higher education? )

In short, you were lucky, and it is not moraly wrong to be lucky. However, it is understandable (not right, but understandable) that people who had to earn their position the hard way require extra evidence before they are willing to accept you as an equal. It is your challenge to deal with this situation gracefully. Demonstrate your competence, as Buffy suggested, but also learn how priviledged you are, and how challenging university can be for those who do not come from a middle class or higher background. A nice place to start is here: https://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/attach/journals/feb15asrfeature_0.pdf

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    True: understanding one's privilege is a moral and social obligation, I think. Not that having some privilege is a reason for anyone to get mad at you, but it does create a certain burden in other ways... for example, the obvious, proving that you are actually "worthy" of the stuff you obtained more easily than others... keeping in mind that from the other end many worthy but "not privileged" people "get" far less than they "deserve". All that. It's not bad to be lucky, but when you understand your luck, you might want to share... Pass it forward, etc. – paul garrett Jul 5 at 19:58
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    Nevermind the parents. If A and B know one another and the admission system is dependent on the advisor (rather than a committee), it would be pretty natural for B to ask A what they think of the OP. It would also be pretty natural for A to offer an unsolicited opinion if they had a high opinion. It isn't politics. It is just interpersonal relationships and the need to have some assurance about the qualities of a candidate. Graduate admissions isn't about bean counting. Even formal letters of recommendation have this quality. If I know and trust you, I will trust your recommendation. – Buffy Jul 5 at 19:58
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    @Buffy ofcourse the oral recommendation is the result of normal social interaction rather than some nefarious plot by "the elite" to keep their priviledge across generations. However, those normal social interactions did happen, and they did help the OP (somewhat) in a way that was not available to others. That is priviledge at work. Priviledge is so powerful, because the people who benefit from it are doing nothing wrong. – Maarten Buis Jul 5 at 20:15
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    We may think that it is nothing extraordinary to have a professor in our circle of acquaintances, but professors make up only about 2.5% of the US workforce (according to the 2018 GSS, which is what I had quick access to), and social networks are very clustered (which is why we would consider it normal to have one or more professors in our network). So for the fast majority of Americans, this kind of advantage is not available to them. – Maarten Buis Jul 6 at 7:37
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    @Barmar there's no implication in this answer that OP should have done anything to prevent it. It only states they should recognise they were lucky and had an advantage most people won't and have some empathy for their differing circumstances – Kat Jul 6 at 15:52
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The purpose of a letter of recommendation is to supply information about the abilities of an applicant to decision makers. The letters are only necessary because those decision makers don't possess direct knowledge about the applicant. When making a hiring or admission decision, I would have no need to receive a letter of recommendation about an applicant I already knew very well; the letter would add no information to the process that I didn't already possess.

If you already had supplied letters of recommendation from other professors, an additional oral recommendation only makes more information available to the decision makers and therefore cannot be harmful or "unfair".

This assumes, of course, that Professor A supplied an actual recommendation. It's one thing if Professor A said, "I have known this person for 20 years and they are incredibly bright and diligent," and quite another thing if Professor A said, "This applicant's father is an old friend of mine and I will owe you a favor if you admit them."

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  • And "owe you a favor" would set up a conflict of interest on the part of the receiving professor. But not on the part of the OP unless they orchestrate it. – Buffy Jul 7 at 14:47
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Using a personal network, and more specifically your parents' network, to get ahead in academic admission / selection process is often grumbled upon. Academic admission is supposed to be done predominantly on the basis of academic achievement and potential. Some special consideration or preference may be given to under-represented categories or students from less privileged backgrounds, but it does not seem to be the case for you. On the contrary, having a personal and family relations with established professors may be seen as a privilege. In extreme situations (Prof. is a family member of a student they recommend) it is nepotism and a clear-cut conflict of interests for the Professor.

Legally, you did nothing wrong benefiting from networks and recommendations your family has. You have not done any cheating in a strict sense. But your fellow student is trying to make you recognise your privilege and consider whether using it was something you feel conflicted about. The way how you respond to this call may further distance you from your colleagues or help you gain their full respect.

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The other answers so far seem a bit confused about what a conflict of interest is. A conflict of interest occurs when you have two goals which have the potential to cause you to act in two different ways.

You do not have a conflict of interest. Your only goal is to get admission. You have done nothing wrong.

It's not clear if Prof. B has done anything at all, but let's assume he decided to admit you. He has a goal of admitting the best possible student. He might have a goal of helping his friend Prof. A. He might have a conflict of interest, but he probably does not. It is reasonable to assume that professors are capable of managing this type of conflict ethically.

Prof. A has a goal of helping you and a goal of helping his colleague. This is a conflict of interest. However, if Prof. A has no power over the person who makes the admissions decision, then Prof. A's conflict of interest is not an ethical problem. Almost all recommenders are in this situation.

Conflict of interest would be problematic if the person making the admissions decision was offered a reward for admitting a certain student. This would be serious misconduct, but your situation is nothing like that.

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  • I agree that this has nothing to do with conflict of interest. It might be worth editing the question, however. You might consider doing that yourself, since it would affect this answer. – Buffy Jul 7 at 14:32
  • Or rather, nothing to do with a conflict on the part of the OP, but the new answer of tbrookside is interesting. – Buffy Jul 7 at 14:46
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It may be that the admission process in your case is extremely regulated and only letters of recommendation are to be taken into account. Plus probably some local/country regulation about lack of discrimination or obligation of positive discrimination.

In that case - yes, you have a problem. Similar to the ones inside traders have when they are caught getting benefits in an unfair way (the "fairness" is regulated by law)

Otherwise the reality of life is that you hire/accept someone you like and that you find appropriate. This is a mix of objective facts and subjective feelings. This includes recommendations of parents, friends and their dog - which you may or not take into account.

The fact that Prof A recommended you to Prof B may have many reasons. One of them could be that he trusts you and knows you are good enough.

The other student is jealous, frustrated, whatever. This has nothing to do with academia, just human nature, including gossips about favoritism, sleeping with someone to get a promotion, using diversity programs to get in, ... You will not change that.

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    If only letters are taken into account, then an oral recommendation is not a problem, because it is not considered. – Anonymous Physicist Jul 7 at 11:03
  • @AnonymousPhysicist: I can only imagine that something is not considered when there are only fully anonymous, quantifiable information. Only marks on exams without the name of the school for instance, no names, photos or anything. Otherwise whatever identifies a candidate influences the choice because we are human. – WoJ Jul 7 at 14:07
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What the others are accusing you of is nepotism.

nepotism - the practice among those with power or influence of favouring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs: Oxford Dictionaries

If it were me, I would say to these people something like, "You know, now that you have mentioned it I'm wondering if I did get an unfair boost. Do you think I should join another group?" If they say yes, then say, "I'll think about it but first I'll speak to Professor B."

Then I would speak to Professor B and put the whole situation to them. Ask their advice on how much influence Prof A had and how you should deal with the whole situation.

From then on, you should make it a matter of your own conscience rather than the opinions of others.

I know this is a tough message but IMO it always pays to come clean about these things.

DISCLAIMER - I have only said what I would do. I take no responsibility for what actually happens if you follow my advice. However as you say, the cat is already out of the bag so nothing much worse is likely to happen than has already.

Finally, as someone has said, this is a life lesson. Learn from it and act upon what you have learned in the future. We all make mistakes.


In response to comments

@Anonymous Physicist - I disagree. The OP explicitly says "my bad, I exposed this myself". I would classify that as a mistake.

@Maarten Buis - I didn't suggest that you accused anyone of anything - I'm not sure why you make that comment. With regard to nepotism, I merely gave a dictionary definition, not my own conception of the term. I also said that this is what the other students were claiming (going by that definition). I did not ascribe guilt, I suggested the OP examine their own conscience before making a final decision.

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  • You said "We all make mistakes" but in this case the asker did not say they did anything at all. – Anonymous Physicist Jul 7 at 11:14
  • I have not accused the OP of anything. I have not accused prof A or B of anything. I would not describe this situation as nepotism. You can have priviledge without nepotism. – Maarten Buis Jul 7 at 13:35

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