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I asked my professor to write me a letter of recommendation for my PhD application, but his reply was "You are welcome to name me as a reference for any applications." Is it a turndown or did I get it wrong? He was my thesis supervisor and I got a good grade on it.

Update: Thank you all for your generous replies, I was worrying about bothering my professor by sending him another email. My concern has been relieved and I am now able to proceed to the next step.

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    Can someone explain how this can be interpreted as a negative response? It seems like a clear-cut positive response to me.
    – Allure
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 9:46
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    Yup! The professor is not going to give the OP the letter. Instead the other parties who are considering hiring the OP will request the letter from him directly. I am not sure what is not clear about that reply. It is definitely a yes as in a positive response. Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 13:34
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    The possible issue is this scenario: "Student: I am applying for something at institution/agency Y. Will you write and send a letter of reference to Y to support my application? Advisor: Y can contact me if they're interested but I will not send something to Y unless they contact me." Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 13:44
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    This creates a problem if Y categorically will not contact the advisor in which case the supervisor's literal response given in the question effectively wrecks the student's application. I am not saying that is what happened / was intended! But I am explaining how the response is not 'definitely a yes' and everything is good to go. Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 13:48
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    Not really a downside. He wants to avoid to write a general letter of recommendation.
    – Wuestenfux
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 16:27

4 Answers 4

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I believe there simply is a confusion of what exactly you asked for. In Germany, I believe it's less common to write letters of recommendation in the US style. Instead, what one typically does is list 2-3 contact persons in the application, and if the application is seriously considered some or all of these references may be directly contacted by the future employer (by phone, email, etc.).

Usually, this is seen as more of a sanity check than a deep evaluation - i.e., the referee will mostly be asked if the stuff that you list in your application is factually correct. Some people will also ask for a subjective evaluation, but most employers are rather unwilling to go there since you are by law not allowed to give a bad reference, so most people will stick to the facts.

That is to say, if what you want your professor to do is to write a detailed letter of recommendation you maybe should check if that's also ok (since that's a lot more work than what would be expected if one is listed as a reference in the German style).

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    Correct answer as far as the "employment in Germany" perspective is concerned. That said, academics in Germany are often aware that hiring practices differ between countries, and that a purely factual reference might be interpreted as a lack of enthusiasm, which might work against the candidate's chances to get the job. Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 12:35
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    In the UK this is often the truth too for academia at least. Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 15:45
  • Same in Netherlands and many western institutions, although I did once require and got an actual letter with evaluation for an academic internship abroad (in Switzerland).
    – Mast
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 9:19
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If this was the UK, you might interpret this slight deflection of the answer as a roundabout way of giving a negative response. Germans tend to be a bit more direct than that. Given the context (thesis advisor, good grade), I would simply interpret this a positive response. They are happy to provide you with a reference. They are simply phrasing this in the way they expect references are given. (In some part of the application, the applicant gives contact details for one or more references, which are to be contacted.)

It may be that you need a letter send directly to place you are applying. If that is the case, you should simply ask them for that specifically. I see no reason that interpret their given response as a refusal to do so.

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    I agree in principle about the Bri'ish being substantially less direct in their communication than, e.g. Germans, but considering that references in the UK are also most commonly provided as a list of people, to be contacted during the interview process (usually some later stage), even from a UK academic I would just interpret this as a simple "yes".
    – penelope
    Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 11:13
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I agree with @xLeitix mostly.

However, I see yet another possibility: What is common in Germany are Arbeitszeugnisse (a particular type of letter to the employee certifying what they did, and usually also how well they did), which is again somewhat different from an LoR. This is written by the employer (it's their duty to provide one if asked). It may be that the professor said they'd be willing to act as reference because they are not in a position to provide an Arbeitszeugnis (e.g. the PhD was not accompanied by an employment contract or despite being supervisor, this professor was not the manager in an employment sense).

It may also be that the professor is reluctant to write the Arbeitszeugnis even though they must. Arbeitszeugnisse are far less used in academia (though public service research institutions in Germany have administrations that are more than likely to ask for them in my experience) than in industry, so they may think OP doesn't really need it and that they can get away skipping this duty.

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It could be yes or no as it is dependent on the nature of your application. If you apply to a university that requires you to provide the contact information of the referees for them, so they can directly get information about you (recommendation letter) from the referees, then NO, he did not refuse to do it, but if you asked him for a recommendation letter for a program that requires direct recommendation letters, then it could be true that he was reluctant. But it could also be the case that he will help you and he allows you to name him as a referee as he will write the letter later.

If he does not want to write a recommendation letter for some reasons (e.g. he is busy, he misread your email), you should try to get to your goal (i.e. having a reference letter from him) in some smart way. For example, you can send him an email along the line "Dear Professor, I am ... and I already name you as referee at this university. However, for the other university they require a direct letter from you. Can you please..."

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  • Thanks! I haven't specified any positions that I am going to apply for yet Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 6:17
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    @Veeeemtaeee So there is also a chance that he did not know what you wanted
    – Neuchâtel
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 7:05
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    As usual, communication is key in any relationship! Make sure to communicate clearly and frequently about your plans and needs with your advisor. Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 13:50

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