I am a Msc student planning to apply to a Phd program and need reference letters for that. But when I applied to Phd programmes and asked my supervisor to give me reference letters, after the 4th reference he told me (in front of my colleagues) that it is a shame that he gave me so many reference letters and I still wasn't able to go anywhere.
I am trying to avoid this situation. Apart from not asking this person again for a reference letter, what can I do? (I am now having another supervisor, so at least he can help me out.) How many reference letter is okay to ask? Should I also ask my teachers or a reference from a supervisor is the absolute best?

// edit: some people commented that my supervisor might not have a bad intention and he meant it a good way. English is my second language, so I couldn't translate it well. What he said was rather something like 'you weren't accepted despite my efforts, shame on you'

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    Are you by any chance not a native English speaker? Cause it seems like you've misinterpreted the comment. "It's a shame" doesn't mean that it's something shameful for you, it's more like "I wish there weren't all these obstacles in your way! Someone should have the good sense to take you in!". It's an expression of support. Your supervisor would probably be happy to write another reference for you. And another, and another, if need be. – Filip Milovanović Jun 16 at 11:13
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    Another piece of advice; you seem to be a bit self-conscious ("in front of my colleagues"). I used to be like that, and I know there are other people like that in intellectual fields as well - we tend to assume that other people observe us all the time, and remember things about us for a long time. I assure you, your colleagues don't give a damn what your supervisor said, and almost all of them will not remember it within a week - everyone's too preoccupied with their own lives and their own problems. I know you can't just stop worrying, but you can train yourself out of this over time. – Filip Milovanović Jun 16 at 11:13
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    @FilipMilovanović thanks for the comment, I see that others have this feeling too, that this wasn't that 'shaming'. It is true that I am not a native English speaker and in my mother language it was a more harsh comment. (and in that lab, the atmosphere is also a bit harsh/bullying type, but I don't want to go into details) You might be right in that my colleagues won't remember it. – AN_ Jun 16 at 11:54
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    @FilipMilovanović, as a native English speaker (from Australia), I agree more with AN_ − the supervisor seemed to be sick of writing references and was casting some blame on AN_. – kokociel Jun 16 at 14:41
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    @kokociel OK, but based on AN_'s previous comment, it's not entirely clear to me if the original exchange was in English or not. @ AN_: In any case, I guess I could reexpress my point as: don't operate on unchecked assumptions, and don't let all of your future interactions be colored by this one experience. – Filip Milovanović Jun 16 at 14:55

Actually, I think you may have misinterpreted the comment. It might have just been a reflection on the sad state of the job market.

I wouldn't try to avoid the situation, but to talk it over with the supervisor, especially if they are supportive.

He may already well understand the situation and may be almost as frustrated with it as you are.

It doesn't hurt to have backups, of course, but four letters is essentially nothing. A hundred (more) might be needed in this market. He may need a way to manage that, potentially using staff, but don't give up.

However, if you aren't being accepted into doctoral programs, perhaps you have an ineffective search. The most common one seems to be applying to only the "top" institutions in the field, which makes admission hard (to impossible) since there are relatively few positions in those few places. Another would be applying to places or in fields for which you aren't really prepared. Widen the search. But a discussion with the supervisor can help here.

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    Yes. I've submitted literally hundreds of job applications in the course of my career, most of them to institutions that take up references immediately on receiving an application. There's one of my former line managers in particular who must have written at least fifty references for me, and he's always taken it with good cheer. – Daniel Hatton Jun 15 at 17:36
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    @Daniel Hatton (and Buffy): Hundreds of applications for job applications after one's Ph.D. is certainly not especially unusual (at least not in some fields where this many jobs exist), but the OP is describing applications to Ph.D. programs, which is an entirely different situation. – Dave L Renfro Jun 15 at 19:04
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    @DaveLRenfro, unlike the US, in some places a position in a PhD program is just like a job and obtained in the same way. Parts of EU, are like that. – Buffy Jun 15 at 19:14
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    I realize that (I never realized this until a few years ago, on this site by the way), but "hundreds of applications"? – Dave L Renfro Jun 15 at 19:34
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    I second this - "it is a shame that ..." does not mean that the professor is ashamed of the OP. I think this bears saying explicitly since the OP may have understood it that way. – muru Jun 16 at 6:17

Apart from not asking this person again for a reference letter

If you are worried about bothering people, then you should definitely ask references to people you have already asked them from. They already have a document ready with your information & life story to which minor changes need to be made as you have more experiences. It would more "bothering" for someone else to start from scratch with a reference letter for you.

I don't even ask my old referees if they are willing to provide a reference anymore. I used to for the first 3-4 applications. Now I just e-mail them saying that I put their name down. Just because I know they have a letter ready and it's just a matter of changing the date.

What you may want to start thinking about is the following though: the stuff your referee is saying about you - is that helpful to your applications? Have they known you when you did a piece of exceptional work that they can write about? Have they supervised a project that was brought to completion? Or are they just writing a "standard" letter with no personal touches and examples about your exceptional abilities?

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