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My former PI (and role model and one of the most incredible people I know) wrote me a letter of recommendation for a scholarship before she passed away. I know her secretary was the one who submitted the letter (so presumably she still has it), so I'm wondering if it's ok for me to ask to see the letter.

I ended up getting the scholarship, so I'd think the letter was quite strong, and it would just mean so much to me to see what my former PI said. (I know I don't have any real reasons I need to see the letter besides sentimental ones, but still...)

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    There is a downside. You want your expectations confirmed. But what if they aren't? Ethical or not, it is probably better to let it lie.
    – Buffy
    May 14 at 12:24
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    Note that in general, any "ask" is ethical as long as no coercion is applied or assumed. Whether your request can be fulfilled or not may have ethical implications, but not the ask. Some requests can be insulting, of course.
    – Buffy
    May 14 at 17:04
  • This is more about tact than ethics. Would you ask her if she were alive? Use that to guide you.
    – DKNguyen
    May 16 at 2:34
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    @DKNguyen sky explains in the last line that this is about connecting with a mentor who has passed; what you would do when someone is alive isn't really relevant. May 16 at 3:26
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    @DKN Perhaps you're not American, but American LOR writers don't show you letters. That's just how the system works. The whole question is about asking for an exception because she died and because sky wants to connect with an important person in their life. May 17 at 5:16

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I agree that it is ethical to ask. You could have asked the professor herself when she was alive; asking the next-of-kin (whether familial or academic) now seems equally appropriate.

The converse question is much trickier though: should the next-of-kin agree to your request? On one hand, these letters are normally confidential precisely so the referee can speak candidly. So, if the decision-maker turns out to be the department head (or another academic), there is good chance they will decline. On the other hand, there is no solemn vow of secrecy; referees can and do provide letters to applicants in some cases. Therefore, there is perhaps some flexibility depending on the decedent's personality, their usual practices, the content of the letter, and of course the decision maker's personality.

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Unrelated to ethics, there is one reason why you might not want to ask to see that letter:

Suppose, in the future you want another reference letter for some application. Since it is not your fault that your former PI cannot write one, the receiver may accept a letter issued by her professional successor or institute head on the basis of existing recommendation letters (which clearly states the situation). It is not optimal since it is not as personal, cannot be tailored to the specific application, etc., but it may still be your best option.

Now, if it is on record that you have never seen the recommendation letter, whoever issues the new letter can state this (and you might ask them to). This has the following advantages:

  • The new recommendation letter is more powerful since you trust your former PI’s judgement without having seen it¹. You cannot be accused of cherry-picking your recommendation letters after seeing them; you can only cherry-pick your recommenders like everybody else.

  • While the content of the letter cannot be affected by non-confidentiality anymore, this may convince somebody that formal requirements on confidentiality are fulfilled.


¹ Even if your former PI had coordinated the contents of the letters with you, she could still have changed it to include negative aspects in theory.

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Unless these letters are normally confidential, I can't see how it would be unethical.

Email the person who submitted it, and say you greatly appreciated the letter of recommendation from advisor and that you were successful receiving your scholarship, and would you be able to have a copy of it. You could add that unfortunately you never got the opportunity to thank advisor directly and ask them for a copy.

Either they say yes and send it to you, or for whatever reason do not. Just accept no if that is the answer.

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    These letters are normally confidential in the US. May 15 at 0:44
  • @AzorAhai-him- if they are confidential I wouldn't ask. But where I am, it is quite common (but not universal) for referees to send candidates a copy of their letter. Some places also advise referees that your letter may be provided to the candidate.
    – Esme_
    May 15 at 1:55
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If your PI was alive would you ask to see the letter ? You knew them, so would they be reluctant to do so or would you be putting them in an uncomfortable position ? Just because they're dead doesn't mean you should ignore their wishes as you understand them.

I ended up getting the scholarship, so I'd think the letter was quite strong,

That's an assumption, but not necessarily true. They might have been impressed by you despite what she said. So there's one reason to not read it - you might be dissappointed.

A second reason might be that maybe she said things that were good, but not true. People do that sometimes if they have a personal bias. If you find out that happened, do you then tell the scholarship people and maybe you lose what you have.

Letters like these are for a formal purpose. Maybe you want to see something that shows a personal warmth, but it was written for a formal purpose and probably isn't going to have that context. It could leave you cold and no more informed about what your PI thought about you outside of a technical and work context. The letter was never written for your eyes or even for the eyes of your PI's friends.

This is a pandora's box situation. My view would be to leave it alone.

and it would just mean so much to me to see what my former PI said. (I know I don't have any real reasons I need to see the letter besides sentimental ones, but still...)

Another expression is "curiosity killed the cat". Just how curious are you ?

My former PI (and role model and one of the most incredible people I know) wrote me a letter of recommendation for a scholarship before she passed away. I know her secretary was the one who submitted the letter (so presumably she still has it), so I'm wondering if it's ok for me to ask to see the letter.

Ask if you wish. It may or may not be allowed depending on jurisdiction and other legal factors. If you ask it may even be something they have to do, but not necessarily something that will make you look good,

You have fond memories of your PI. Keep them. Maybe they're more important to keep intact than satisfying curiosity.

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