I am not from the US and my field is in the social sciences. A while back, I started collaborating with a foreign professor on a research project which is now under review and another one which is halfway through. however, I did not find these topics very fulfilling and I want to move to another area closer to my original interests (I already have two other published papers relevant to this new area). The complicating issue is that the professor has told me several times he would be very interested in having me as a PhD student. So, I guess, he may not appreciate the fact that I have decided to pursue another area with another supervisor. Therefore, it may not be very fair or wise to ask him for letters of recommendation. What worries me, however, is that if I list these papers in my CV (which I eventually have to when they get published), it may raise questions/suspicions about why I have not asked him to recommend me. I cannot preemptively tell my prospective supervisor or the admissions committee the real reason for my reluctance to ask this professor. So, I am concerned that if such questions arise in their minds, it may lead them to mistakenly assume that I have something to hide, motivating me to exclude this professor as a potential recommender.

Is this a legitimate concern?

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    This idea that professors are offended if you decline a PhD offer with them occurs often on this site. You can read those answers. They boil down to: don’t be concerned about this, unless that professor is a real jerk.
    – Dawn
    Commented Nov 22, 2020 at 18:00
  • 1
    Has this professor said or done anything that would indicate to you that you have upset them in any way? What evidence has led you to suspect that this supervisor may hold a negative view of your abilities or your actions? Is there evidence of this professor acting in a vengeful, domineering, or adversarial way with other students of theirs?
    – J...
    Commented Nov 23, 2020 at 15:07
  • Being in a rather obscure department which may not get enough applications may be enough for a professor to get out of his way to try to recruit new and promising individuals. Usually, it is the student that tries to convince the professor, not the other way around. I do not want to go into the specifics but it does seem a bit out of the ordinary. Regarding why someone would choose to cooperate with this person in the first place, it could be a combination of lack of experience in making such decisions, deceptive initial appearances and small number of connections due to country of residence.
    – DIanon
    Commented Nov 24, 2020 at 8:04

2 Answers 2


the professor has told me several times he would be very interested in having me as a PhD student. So, I guess, he may not appreciate the fact that I have decided to pursue another area with another supervisor

Could be, if this person is vindictive and unethical. But if they are a decent human being they would write a gushing letter about how they would love to have you as a student, and other professors would take this as a good sign.

Unless you have a stronger reason to think this person falls into that bad category, I think they are probably one of your best potential letter writers. Someone who wants you as a PhD student is someone who has confidence in your research potential - that's exactly what you want from your letter writers.

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    Bottom line is that only OP understands the relationship they have with this professor. We, across the vast gulf of the internet, cannot provide a psychological profile of their professor to decide whether or not their concerns are justified. They have really provided little information that would shed any light whatsoever on the quality of that relationship.
    – J...
    Commented Nov 23, 2020 at 15:05
  • 3
    @J... That's why I suggested they consider evidence they have that suggests this person might be in the vindictive category. However, OP like others asking questions on this Stack seems to have a common misconception that this sort of sabotage is common. It's not. What's the best case for the professor here? They prevent a promising student from going to grad school and then...profit how? Would the student become their student instead as a backup, and now the professor's colleagues see they have taken the student they just trashed in a letter to them?
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Nov 23, 2020 at 15:12
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    Instead what is very common is: "It would be great to have you as a student." "Thanks! I've enjoyed working with you but was hoping to pursue (another institution/another topic/move closer to family/explore a different part of the world)" "That sounds like a great plan, let me know if you need a letter or any advice." Because most professors aren't evil overlords, they are mentors with a shared interest in academia.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Nov 23, 2020 at 15:15
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    @DIanon If you have any reasons to believe the professor may have some reasons to seek a personal vendetta against you, please include them in the question (or just acknowledge their existence). As it stands, your question doesn't explain what would the professor stand to gain by sabotaging you. It's not a matter of being well known or ethical, just: Why bother stopping you from getting a PhD just out of spite? If the professor isn't interested in helping you, why wouldn't they simply refuse to write a letter, instead of writing a negative one? Just to be happy they made you go flip burgers?
    – TooTea
    Commented Nov 24, 2020 at 9:56
  • 2
    @DIanon Also, what exactly do you mean by "Especially, given my situation.". I don't see anything really special in that regard in the question. Would you mind explaining that in a bit more detail?
    – TooTea
    Commented Nov 24, 2020 at 9:59

I don't understand why you are concerned unless you happen to be in a place where it is common for an admissions committee to reach out for comment to others not mentioned in an application. I think and hope that such a thing is considered improper almost everywhere. And, therefore, rare.

Your application materials contain certain required items, probably including some number of recommendations. Supply those. If someone goes out to others who might speak negatively of you it would be a problem, but one unlikely to occur. If it does, then just speak to the issue.

But people are busy enough without going on fishing expeditions to see what dirt might be found on applicants. And the recipient of such a request would also be acting unethically if they give a bad "review" for such a reason.

I can't guarantee that it can't happen. But it should be rare enough that you can ignore it as an issue.

  • 2
    The problem is not necessarily a person on the committee who may reach out to the professor. This, as mentioned, is probably rare. The problem could be a question or suspicion that might form in the back of a committee member's mind regarding why the applicant has not asked a rather well-known professor, who knows his research strengths, for recommendation, opting instead for a less-known professor. The question actually is that if this happens, how would such a suspicion be dealt with responsibly? Although, something like this may rarely happen as well.
    – DIanon
    Commented Nov 22, 2020 at 20:03
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    I doubt it will be an issue. "The other people are more aligned with your current interests" is all you need to say, I think.
    – Buffy
    Commented Nov 22, 2020 at 20:30
  • I should say, for instance, that the other letter writers are more aligned with my current interests, you mean?
    – DIanon
    Commented Nov 24, 2020 at 8:22

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