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I am applying to graduate (doctoral) programs for this fall with the first deadlines for application materials being December 1st (as of writing this post it is November 19th).

I asked a professor, who I felt would be my strongest recommender for a letter of recommendation some months ago. The professor agreed. Overall I believed we had a good relationship throughout the time I was a student - we did many independent studies together, and had enjoyable conversations both about the subject matter we were studying, as well as unrelated chit-chat and discussions about life.

However, as deadlines approach, I sent said professor (alongside other professors I am asking for recommendations) a number of follow up emails (spaced about one week apart). I heard back from other professors, but not him. When I did not hear back, I called his office and left a message. However, I still have not heard back as to whether he was still willing to write the letter. Perhaps even more "damning", a student I am friends with emailed him about some administrative matters, and received a response within hours.

Is it time to give up and find a new recommender? I have an email prepared to send another individual, but of course I would prefer a recommendation from the original professor. Is this professor implicitly telling me he is no longer willing to write me a letter of recommendation? Is there any reason why he would not tell me outright if that is the case?

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  • Can you ask someone in the office about this? Perhaps there is a reason he isn't responding.
    – Buffy
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 17:11
  • @Buffy - thank you for your comment. Who would you suggest I contact? Some sort of departmental staff/administrators? Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 17:34
  • Yes, staff probably knows. Certainly the head would know if there were some real impediment.
    – Buffy
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 17:35
  • @Buffy - I will try to see if I can get in touch with someone. Won't start with the dept head, but will look around. As you suggested - would've been nice to go in person, but unfortunately I live far from the University now. Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 18:16

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Yes, you should look for an alternative if you don't really know what the situation is. But you should also try to determine why you aren't getting a response and someone in the office can probably give you an idea. If you haven't been in contact with them for a while, many things could have happened to break an email chain.

Another professor that you trust in the same department might be happy to serve as a backstop, even knowing you would prefer another person, though this depends on personalities. But they may also know why things aren't working out. People travel, retire, change jobs, get sick, die...

The best way to figure these things out is to visit the department office in person and talk to a few people. Hard in the age of COVID, of course.

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    +1. Correct. Definitely look for an alternative. People who persistently ignore legitimate emails should not be trusted in any case.
    – Dilworth
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 21:03
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I think the only thing we can say in general is:

Is this professor implicitly telling me he is no longer willing to write me a letter of recommendation?

That would not be professionally acceptable for a professor to do deliberately. If a student asks for a recommendation, the professor should (after discussing with the student if needed) either say yes or say no, and if they say yes they should actually write the letter. If they say yes, and then something happens such that they are no longer able or willing, they should inform the student promptly. "Ghosting" would not be a normal or appropriate way to do that.

Of course, real people are human. There are many possible explanations for the lack of response, which may or may not mean the professor is unwilling to write:

  • Your emails may not be reaching him at all (technical problems, spam filters, etc). Phone messages also may or may not work that well - since people don't use phones as much these days, they don't always keep up with updating phone numbers, setting up voice mail notifications, and so on.

  • He is replying, but for similar reasons his responses are not reaching you

  • He sees your emails as just reminders about the due date of the recommendation, for which you don't expect a response (or for which a simple response of "I'm on it, thanks for the reminder" seems unnecessary to him)

  • He intends to write the letter but is not very organized about it. For instance, the professor might see your email, and say to himself "Oh yes, that letter. I think I can write it tomorrow, so I'll just wait until then to reply, so that I can just say it is done." Then he doesn't get to it tomorrow and puts it off another day, and the cycle of non-response continues. Still, even fairly disorganized professors end up meeting hard deadlines most of the time.

  • He is genuinely hesitant about writing the letter for some reason, and knows he needs to discuss it with you, but is putting off the potentially awkward conversation. (That wouldn't be good professional behavior, but it is common human behavior.)

  • He is having some sort of personal difficulties that make it hard to keep up with work, or certain kinds of work. The fact that he was able to reply to someone else's email promptly is not proof that he is 100% able to meet every other commitment.

There is no way that we, as Internet strangers, can guess which of these is going on (or if it's something completely different). The only way you'll be able to find out is by talking to him. Visiting in person, or trying to reach him through a colleague, may help.

Of course, it is in your own self-interest to have a backup in case, for whatever reason, the letter doesn't get written. This could also be a way to prompt the professor indirectly: you contact Professor Y and say "Hey, Professor X agreed to write me a letter, but I tried to confirm it with him and can't get a reply. If for some reason he isn't able to do it, would you be able to write me one?" Besides lining up Y as an alternate recommender for you, this gives Y an incentive to follow up with X on your behalf: if Y can get X back on track, it'll save her the time of writing a letter herself. :-)

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  • Thank you professor Eldrege, I agree it is unfair to ask internet strangers why someone is acting the way they do. I will consider prompting professor Y in the manner you've said above. Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 22:21

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