I have just finished applying to 8 graduate programs this Fall, all of which had deadlines on Dec. 15th (today is Dec. 23rd). It has been pretty smooth except for one thing I'm concerned about.

I asked three people to write letters of recommendation (LoRs) for me. One of them submitted all letters on time; one completed the set a day late because an email from one of the universities went to spam; the third letter writer, however, has yet to submit the full set letters.

At the start of November, I asked this professor whether they'd be willing to write a positive LoR for me - they said yes. They mentioned they'd require 2 weeks to do so - a comfortable time-frame for me since the deadline was 6 weeks away.

The deadline passed and I sent them a follow-up email mentioning that no letters had been submitted. They responded by mentioning that they'd been very busy and now require an additional 3 weeks. So, they initially mentioned that they require 2 weeks, I gave them 6 and now they required 9. I'm already thinking something has changed and this is their coded way of saying they don't want to write the letter anymore.

Nonetheless, the day after that reminder (Dec. 17th), they surprisingly submitted letters for 6/8 of the programs. I assumed that that they were now working on the final 2; nowadays, some Ph.D. programs require referees to complete questionnaires, create accounts, etc. before uploading the letter. So perhaps these minor tasks were introducing delays. And so rather than send more inbox noise their way, I let them work on the final 2.

Six days have now passed and the remaining letters are yet to be submitted. I've sent the professor an email reminder, only to receive an automated reply mentioning that they're away until the new year.

Now, first, perhaps the professor thinks they've submitted all the required letters, but they didn't even send me an email to verify whether this is indeed the case. Second, they only tell me that they require an additional 3 weeks once the deadline has passed.

Q1: Is this sort of poor communication common in academia? And if so, why?

Strangely enough, this professor of mine initially seemed very keen on supporting my application. I was one of the top 5 students in this professor's class (of 30+ students) and they were my primary master's thesis advisor. On mentioning that I was applying to Ph.D. programs, they even encouraged me to consider their research group.

But now they just disappear for the holidays leaving me in the wind? Knowing full well how critical LoRs are to successful applications? I mean, it's almost Kafkaesque.

I doubt I'll be able to find a back-up writer that could write a strong and detailed letter on such short notice - especially at this time of year when everyone is on holiday.

Q2: In your experience as members of admissions committees, what should I say to Admissions to help mitigate this situation?

  • 2
    Practices and policies differ, but you probably don't need to say anything. If everything in front of them predicts your success then a missing letter is unlikely to harm you. Especially if they already know who should be providing them. It might be different if your application is otherwise weak.
    – Buffy
    Dec 23 '21 at 17:02
  • @Karl I'm not sure how common it is among applicants to ask for multiple letters. This was my first time applying for a Ph.D. and I didn't think getting LoRs submitted on time was such a huge risk - especially given the 6-week notice period and the fact that a reasonable letter may be <600 words. Nonetheless, this experience has taught me otherwise. Dec 23 '21 at 17:08
  • 3
    "I'm already thinking something has changed and this is their coded way of saying they don't want to write the letter anymore." Compared to any other possible explanation, this one is very unlikely. Most likely explanations: (a) busy, (b) disorganized. Or if you want, (c) inconsiderate. Yes, poor communication is not uncommon in academia. Are you sure that reading other people's speculation about why this is the case is what you actually want to achieve with this question?
    – Pilcrow
    Dec 23 '21 at 20:19

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