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I am in the process of applying for a Ph.D. and the application process requires several reference letters. Since I only have done significant work with only one supervisor so far in my Master's, I would need to ask from previous professors during my Bachelor's.

Fortunately, the previous professors have already written me reference letters, and therefore the effort would be minimal. What would need to be done is just translate and then maybe change a few words to match the description of the ad.

Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel bad about reconnecting with previous professors with more than two years of no communication, only to ask for a reference letter and to get their permission to list them as referees in my CV.

What is your take on this? How should I approach this without being seen in a bad way?

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    If you had been a good student, I wouldn't mind writing a letter. If I have nothing to say, regardless when you were a student, I would say no.
    – VitaminE
    Nov 17, 2021 at 20:54
  • They were a grad student trying to get into PhD programs once themselves, they will understand. Nov 18, 2021 at 11:24

3 Answers 3

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You are not “reconnecting”. You are emailing someone to ask for a letter of reference. This is normal and expected. It’s not guaranteed that they’ll say yes, but no one will think any less of you for sending such an email. The people you’re emailing have themselves likely sent a number of such emails to people they don’t know very well over the years. So they will have no issues at all with such a request.

By contrast, what would be a genuine thing to feel bad about, and likely unwelcome, is if you email a professor expressing an inauthentic-sounding desire to “reconnect”, asking some inauthentic-sounding questions about how they are doing, and then emailing them again a few days later to say “Oh, I forgot to mention I’m applying for grad programs, will you write me a letter?” Such a strategy is transparently dishonest and likely to upset people, so don’t do that.

The main thing is to be straight about your intentions. Then you will be fine, and should have no reason to feel bad.

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  • I'll even amplify "this is normal and expected": this happens all the time. OP you're all good! Nov 18, 2021 at 21:47
  • and please remember to give them a copy of your current CV or some document that lets them know what you've been up to. (and also helps remind them of who you are/were). It helps them 'remember' you, also, and by placing you better in their memory, can also end up reminding them of the past interactions that they had forgotten (but are to your benefit that they recall them).
    – Carol
    Nov 19, 2021 at 1:07
  • Normal and expected is putting it mildly. This could literally be in the job description for professors Nov 19, 2021 at 13:12
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Students do sometimes ask me for references several years after I have worked with them. I have no problem with that request, even if I have heard nothing in the interim. It's particularly easy to grant if I have written for them before.

That said, I do tell them that letters about current work are more useful than letters from the past.

You might include in your request that you know current references are better but that you have too few of those for your purpose.

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    The connection itself is useful and fun if they mentored you in any way. I've reconnected just for that and it was appreciated that I thanked them for their early help. I didn't need letters, though.
    – Buffy
    Nov 16, 2021 at 20:55
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In my opinion, you lose nothing by trying. We have a saying in Spain: "El no ya lo tienes" (you already have the "no", you just have to win the "yes").

I'm applying for postdocs and last week I contacted a professor I've barely worked with. She is a great reference in the field. To my surprise, she accepted very quickly and very kindly.

Just explain the situation, make the request and take the opportunity to greet the professor and get to know their current situation.

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