I want to apply for a PhD position in country X. My supervisor lives in country Y and wants me to apply only in Y. He is the corresponding author of my 4-5 publications. He said if I want to apply for any other country apart from Y, he would not write a LOR for me. In this case, what should I do?

Also, can a co-author of my 2/3 publication can recommend me? (She's a post doc.)

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    I am In country Y. He will write only for Y. Oct 9, 2021 at 16:13
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    For the latter question, yes, others can write for you, but probably with less impact under the circumstances.
    – Buffy
    Oct 9, 2021 at 16:14
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    [...] (2) What confuses me is that, according to your profile, you're currently located in Germany. But in my experience, letters of reccomendation are very uncommon inside German academia - so your supervisor position that he'll only write you a letter of recommendation if you apply in Germany is (on top of being unethical) somehow pointless - it's not very likely (though not impossible) that you would actually need such a letter for an application in Germany. (Obviously, this does not solve your problem since you want to apply outside Germany - but I find it confusing anyway.) Oct 10, 2021 at 16:53
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    I am not in Germany anymore Oct 11, 2021 at 14:58

2 Answers 2


Ask someone else. Anyone you ask to write an LOR is free to decide whether or not to do it for any reason of their choosing or even for no reason at all. But if they don't want to do it, somehow pressuring them into doing it anyway is unlikely to result in a really positive letter that's going to be of any help. Asking someone to write an LOR for you is pretty quick way to find out what someone thinks of you. If they decline, you got your answer and you need to move on.

Realistically, not all that many people get along all that great with their supervisors or want to share their plans with them, especially if that's why they're leaving. (In industry, the popular adage is that no one leaves a bad job, they leave a bad manager.) It's a common experience everyone has sooner or later, so it's unlikely anyone will ever think it's odd if your LORs come from other people.

Unless the person writing your LOR is exceptionally well-known, it's usually far more important what the letter says, e.g., the nature and detail in the observations being reported in support of the recommendation, than who signed it. Best to find people who are unreserved in their willingness to help you -- then help them with whatever info they might find helpful, e.g., your transcripts, CV, any essays you'll submit, etc., so they can write a really good letter.

  • I think you’re skirting the issue that there can be misguided, and/or unethical, reasons for not agreeing to write a letter. In the “misguided” scenario, it’s possible that a bit of discussion, and gentle pressure from colleagues, might make the person see the error of their ways, leading to a positive letter-writing outcome. I wouldn’t just give up as a default action in that situation. And in the case of blatantly unethical (e.g., racist or sexist) reasons, while I agree that it’s unwise to insist on a letter, one can still complain, hopefully leading to misconduct charges against the prof.
    – Dan Romik
    Oct 9, 2021 at 17:33
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    @DanRomik If you can convince them on your own without a lot of pushing, I guess that could work. It's hard for me to imagine most faculty would appreciate other faculty being drawn into a disagreement with a student over whether to write an LOR. When someone declines to write an LOR for any reason or no reason, I stand by my advice: You need to move on and ask someone else. But that's just my opinion. Anyone is free to differ, make their own choices and see what happens. Oct 9, 2021 at 17:42
  • The only concern I have is it should not raise a red flag to the admission committee/the graduate school in my application. Oct 9, 2021 at 18:13
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    I don't think that's a big risk. I think most people are aware that people sometimes decline to write LORs for all kinds of reasons that may have nothing to do with the quality of the candidate and that candidates sometimes don't ask for LORs from certain people for personal reasons. Best to find people who are unreserved in their willingness to help you -- then help them with whatever info they might find helpful, e.g., your transcripts, CV, any essays you'll submit, etc., so they can write a really good letter. Oct 9, 2021 at 18:20
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    @BlackSheep It may be country-dependent. In some countries LORs are a formality, you have to have them but they are not too important, in such countries the letter from other co-authors or other professors is fine. It worked for me. If your country X takes them more seriously, you may need to explain it at the interview but I would not draw attention to it in my application. Also, try to get a LOR from a professor or collaborator with ties to country X instead.
    – Aolon
    Oct 10, 2021 at 6:06

Ask him to explain himself, and try to reason with him. His behavior sounds unethical and abusive. It is not for him to decide which country you should live in and get your PhD in. Consider getting one of his colleagues or the department chair to talk to him and advocate for you in a diplomatic way, without applying too much pressure. They may be in a better position to explain to him how wrong such behavior is. Perhaps he is a decent person who simply has some misguided ideas, and following such a conversation will change his mind and all will be well.

But, sadly, if he persists in his refusal, there isn’t much point in trying to force his hand. In that case, you can consider explaining the reason why you are not including a letter from him in your applications to programs in other countries. It is a strange enough reason that I’m guessing people will accept it at face value and not question your sincerity. Of course, you’ll still need to have good letters from other people; get the best ones that you can. If they are good and written by people who have worked with you, you will be fine. Good luck!

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    @Buffy can you give an example of a valid reason? I try to keep an open mind, but in this case I cannot imagine an ethical reason to deny someone a letter of reference based on the country where they want to apply.
    – Dan Romik
    Oct 9, 2021 at 16:23
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    The one that first came to mind was a worry that the student would find it hard to be accepted in a different country/culture for some reason. Another, less valid, would be that the prof really thinks the person would be an asset in the future to the academic culture of their own country. The conversation you suggest would be valuable to have.
    – Buffy
    Oct 9, 2021 at 16:29
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    @Buffy ok, thanks. I disagree that any of those are valid reasons to deny the letter. It’s not the professor’s life, and not his decision where the student should apply.
    – Dan Romik
    Oct 9, 2021 at 16:34
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    I'll also note that having them write a letter "under duress" could result in a terrible outcome. There are a lot of ways to sabotage a student. Someone sensible and with authority might need to approve any such letter. I once got "sabotaged" inadvertently and unintentionally by a poor choice of wording. It led to a deep misunderstanding of my potential. I only learned of it many years later.
    – Buffy
    Oct 9, 2021 at 16:49
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    It really, really depends. IMHO it'd be prudent to gather some info about whether it's an isolated case or is the entire department like that. You seem to operate under assumptions that 1) It's widely considered unethical and 2) Something this blatant won't be tolerated and one could get outside help. I've seen both of them violated more than once - thankfully, it's quite niche. In general, I'd say your advice is probably solid but it can backfire really badly if one misses a few cues...
    – Lodinn
    Oct 9, 2021 at 23:59

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