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I am a European master student and recently accepted a PhD position (Computer Science/Machine Learning) in a German speaking country. I did multiple research internships in Europe during my master's, and I would argue, they define me more than my actual degree. To "onboard" with my university, the HR wants to know if I have relevant work experience (to determine my salary) and to back them up with e.g. what in German is called an "Arbeitszeugnis" and translates to a recommendation letter or reference by the employer. It was then that I realized that except for my signed contracts, I do not have any certificates or "open" reference letters from my research internships and also that in more non-academic or not so highly competitive settings, reference letters could be asked to be sent with the application by the applicant. Therefore, if for any reason I would drop out of my PhD, I think having an unaddressed reference letter by hand could come in favourable.

All my internship supervisors agreed to act as references for me and I have listed them in my reference sheet. I have no problem asking them to quickly write an official document certifying that I worked as an intern within their group, which will be enough for my university. Asking for an unaddressed recommendation letter, however, conflicts with my strong perception that in the academic world showing / giving recommendation letters to the applicant themselves is regarded as highly non-professional (the reference may not be honest!). At least, this is what I gathered from the attitudes of the professors in the research institutions I worked in and hence, did not at all think of the possibility and necessity of ever asking for such a letter.

Therefore, my question is, do you think it will hurt my reputation if I would approach my supervising professors and ask if they could send me an unaddressed letter of recommendation for later usage? Or, do you think it won't be necessary to have such letters of recommendation if I acquire a certificate of my employment, because I can always refer to the contact details of the professors in my reference sheet. As I am the first in my family to obtain university level education, I am unsure if I maybe misinterpret the "business world" (particularly in Europe, but also the US) and employers at the master or phd level will never ask for direct letters of recommendation?

One could argue that it is premature to ask for such "open" reference letters and I may only ask if I really need them. However, I am talking about research internships one and three years ago and hence, think I should ask rather now than later, before all my work will be "forgotten".

I would very much welcome any kind of feedback / opinions from any knowledgeable person :)

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I would have no problem providing a generic open letter of recommendation. Other academics might. If you ask respectfully a "no" answer should not have any negative impact on future requests for particular letters.

I regularly share letters of recommendation for students with the students. They have usually waived their right to see them, but I have not waived mine to show them (unasked).

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    Make sure to clearly date any open letter. If someone turns to the dark side you'd like to have a way to disavow earlier support going forward.
    – Buffy
    Jul 6 at 16:02
  • Do students usually argue why they need a generic open letter of recommendation? I do not have a particular reason except for possible later usage and I feel that this is a bad reason to bother a professor with. (In the countries I did my research internships in, employees actually have the right for such a recommendation, so I am considering if it is really necessary to give any reasons and if the reasons are self-evident anyway.) Jul 7 at 10:31
  • @TheOtherStudent I've rarely been asked for such a letter. I am sometimes asked for letters after students have graduated. Soon after is better - letters become stale. Writing letters of recommendation is part of my job - I never feek bothered by a request for one (though sometimes I can't write a good one and it's painful to have to say so). Jul 7 at 10:42
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I think you are complicating the situation by conflating two things.

  1. You would like to be able to provide evidence to support the entries in your CV.

  2. You want references attesting to your capability.

For the first, I think it would be reasonable to ask your boss/supervisor to provide a 'To whom it may concern' letter on headed notepaper recording the facts ("TheOtherStudent was engaged as an intern within the ABC team of XYZ corporation from ... to ... "). I am not sure whether anyone will ever care much about seeing this, but I don't see any problem with requesting or providing it.

For the second: in reality, references need to be recent and verifiable. As such, I don't think employers will be that interested in the sort of letter that you envisage. If you need a reference in the next couple of years, there will almost certainly be someone at the company that remembers you, and can help you contact your original supervisor. If so much time has passed that everyone has moved on, you probably need a more recent reference anyway.

One thing you could do is 'connect' with your intership colleagues on a professional social networking site such as LinkedIn. This might be useful if you need to track them down in future.

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An alternative to an open letter, that has its own advantages is as follows.

First, tell people that the time will come in the future that you will want/need their support in the form of letters. It is best if you do this when actually requesting a letter so that they have an opportunity to archive it for future reference.

More important, however, is to keep in contact with such people over time, even to the extent of collaborating if the opportunity presents itself. A circle of contacts (especially collaborators) is one of the most valuable assets of a researcher. It is a place to share ideas and get feedback. It is a way to get invited in to valuable discussions. And then, you don't need to worry about finding people to support you.

An unaddressed, but dated letter is only valid up to the point it was written. If time has passed then is says little or nothing about your current abilities.

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  • Thank you very much for the advice of staying in contact! Jul 7 at 9:44

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