I am working for a research organization where a senior member, holding a coordination role, John Doe, gives reference letters to people that he does not know well. It is a large organization and John has written tens of reference letters within the last year. Everyone seems to know this and accept it, it seems to be not John's modus operandi, but something that is expected from someone in his position.

When I asked letters to professors I worked with, they got calls from people interested on me and they got asked further questions about me. This makes me think that in order for someone to write a reference letter, that person needs to be well acquainted with the work of the person for whom the letter is.

I am not sure what is going on here. Is this a dishonesty case? Do I have a lack of understanding of what a reference letter is? Should I ask a letter from John, when he does not know me, despite John might be willing to write it on my behalf? Is this acceptable everywhere else in academia?

3 Answers 3


Asking someone you do not know to write a letter is okay. Writing a letter for someone you do not know is okay. People do not do this because, in theory, you will get a better letter from someone who knows you well.


Assuming you mean a recommendation letter for graduate study or an academic job, a letter from someone who can't personally attest to your suitability for the position is just about worthless. They are easy to spot unless the writer lies in some creative way.

Letters, at least in the US, are an important way for organizations to make a confident prediction about the likelihood of success of a candidate. They are less important (and generally meaningless) in some places.

If you have access to writes who are both themselves credible witnesses (professors, say) and who has knowledge of your specific skills and capabilities then ask those people. The expectation from the reader is that the writer puts their own reputation on the line for the candidate.

It is literally OK to ask a senior person who doesn't really know your work, but it is sub-optimal if you have other options.

  • Thanks for your answer. It is a letter for an academic job. John does not know me personally, he's an important member of our organization, goes to tens of meetings a week, his inbox gets hundreds of emails a week, etc. My boss told me I could ask him a letter, because "It is his obligation" to provide it. But the fact that he does not know me, makes me think asking him a letter might even hurt my application because it will make it look like I do not have anyone else to ask a letter to. What my boss said made no sense, but I normally tend to trust him and take him seriously.
    – John
    Commented Jul 3, 2022 at 12:19

One does not have to be familiar with your (whole) body of (scientific) work to write a reference letter. This can be due to

  • you worked with the person in an interdisciplinary project (e.g. informatics - physics), but he can very well therefore judge your project management abilities and innovativeness, also the person is of different education in another branch
  • you managed together infrastructure or the acquainting of funding for it
  • you have other complementary historic common experiences with this person not appearing in the other recommendation letters (therefore often several letters for a candidate are asked for to cover this professional spectrum)

Modern research is a lot of hard management, teaching, proposal writing... innovative ideas in a field often lay on the street to be picked up first.

  • Thanks for your answer. Probably I should have been more explicit here. He cannot judge anything I did because I have never met him, talked to him or even been in the same room as him. The only interaction we have had is me listening to him talking in meetings in ZOOM with another 100 people.
    – John
    Commented Jul 3, 2022 at 12:40

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