I am in the last year of my Master in Physics, I am writing the Master Thesis and I am looking around for some PhD positions. It is something totally new for me. I have seen that people in general require 2 reference letters.

The problem is that the only person who knows me well is my supervisor of the Master Thesis. I got good grades in general in the courses but I do not think the other professors know, or remember, who I am. I do not think I can ask also my professors of the Bachelor (I did it in another University), with whom I had anyway a good relationship, because I finished it three years ago.

So my idea was to contact a professor of my university, or of other universities, and maybe ask if I can do a "mini master thesis" or a project or something, so that he/she can understand that I am motivated and so on, and eventually can write for me a recommendation letter. What do you think?

  • 1
    Which country are you in, which are you applying to?
    – user151413
    Jan 30 '21 at 20:04

For the second letter find someone who knows you well enough and has a high enough opinion of your work that they can recommend you without qualification. They need to make a prediction about your future success. Someone recent is better but absent that, an older relationship should work, generally. And someone in academia is better than someone else.

But there is probably no reason to delay your application to do another project. At worst, you could apply in parallel with starting another project as a backup.

Note, however, that my perspective is US, not Germany.

  • 4
    "find someone who knows you well enough and has a high enough opinion of your work that they can recommend you" - I feel this somewhat ignores the core aspect of the question, that the OP does not have such a contact. Jan 30 '21 at 17:41
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    @O.R.Mapper When reading this, I was actually thinking of all the colleagues at the institute, more senior people in the same research group, who have seen some of the work that a student has done. This doesn't need to be a professor
    – Mark
    Jan 30 '21 at 19:10
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    @O.R.Mapper, the OP may not have "perfect" contacts, so needs to fall back to the best possible alternatives. It is unlikely that the person has no contacts at all.
    – Buffy
    Jan 30 '21 at 19:14
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    @Buffy Why Germany?
    – user151413
    Jan 30 '21 at 20:04
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    @Mark and Buffy: I don't know, it doesn't sound all that far-fetched to me that quite some students happen to attend only lectures where they sit among a hundred or more other students, and for the few small-group-projects they do during their studies happen to end up with advisors of the type "here's your task, hand in your results in 6 months, bye". Add to that that any kind of grading may well be done by people who have never seen the student, and the result can easily be having "no contacts"/only contacts that are very far from "perfect" in terms of judging the student's expertise. Jan 30 '21 at 20:13

When in doubt, try to find someone who is not a professor, but (ideally) with a PhD, who can judge your work. It is good to have one letter from a professor, but it is not necessary that both are professors.

The point is that a letter from a professor who just had you in their course will not say much: Basically, if you had an excellent grade they will be saying that you had an excellent grade (which people can just as well see from your transcript). If you got them involved in lots of discussions, maybe they can say more. But a key point is that success in coursework is correlated with successs in the PhD, but by no means the same. Indeed, there are people who are great at courses but mediocre researchers, and (somewhat less frequent) the other way round. So in the end, you preferably want letters from people who can assess your abilities in research.

There are some caveats, in the sense that postdocs have less experience in writing letters. But it they are smart, they should still be able to write a strong letter. And, what is more, they might be more dedicated to it that a professor who has to write lots of letters, so they might be more meaningful ones.

So I'd recommend trying to ask someone who you interacted with on your master's project beyond your professor.

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