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I'm currently applying for the Ph.D. programs in the United States. My academic instructor has been notified that he violated some immigration regulations (he is not U.S. resident) and he lost his affiliation. Now he's in transition and applying for his next position.

We had very good collaboration and I know that he will write a strong letter for me. However I'm now a bit concerned that whether his letter will have any negative impact to my application, since faculties from other universities don't know his situation. I got different opinions on this problem and some people suggest me to re-consider whether I can use his letter.

So how will the faculties from other universities treat this case? Personally he told me that he don't think this would be an issue for my application. But I just don't know how others would think about it.

If there are some potential issues, what should I do to decrease the negative impact?

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    when you mention your references, in the cover letter or in the cv, just write "dr. xy, whatever at dept fff in uni zzz from 1995 to 2022". If they know dr. xy, they will wonder what xy is doing now, if they do not know dr.xy they will understand the reason of the profile of dr. xy not appearing in the uni zz site.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Nov 21, 2022 at 13:50
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    I routinely write recommendations for students at an institution from which I have now retired. "Mr. Smith was in my classes at Southern College of Technology from fall, 1997 until spring, 1999..." SCT doesn't even exist any more, and I retired from its second successor institution.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Nov 21, 2022 at 19:38

2 Answers 2

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If the letter writer adds a short note to their letter explaining the lack of affiliation at the moment then it should be fine. They don't need to explain any violations, but just that visa issues required their exit.

It shouldn't be construed as reflecting on you. It is individuals, however, who make their decisions, so it is impossible to give guarantees.

It isn't outside the range of possibility that the institution won't object if they use their former affiliation, provided they were in "good standing" when they left. But they should ask. An appeal on behalf of yourself would probably help. "I'd like to use U of X as affiliation for purposes of writing a letter of recommendation for Y".

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  • To “use U of X as affiliation” is to claim that you are employed at U of X or at least have an official title without salary there. Are you suggesting that the letter writer should ask for such a title?
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Nov 21, 2022 at 16:23
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    @DanRomik, something like that, yes. The interaction between the OP and the student occurred when there was an official affiliation. The university has an interest in the future of a student. The letter writer could, of course, make that claim. "I was an instructor/professor/whatever at U of X and ...". I would be improper to claim affiliation without permission, of course.
    – Buffy
    Commented Nov 21, 2022 at 17:50
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    Right, the interaction occurred when there was an affiliation, so the letter writer can truthfully write “I was a professor at X when I worked with OP”. They cannot truthfully claim (or imply using titles, letterheads etc) an affiliation in the present, nor is this something any institution would ever give permission to do.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Nov 21, 2022 at 21:03
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A letter from a person who appears to be unemployed (and is technically unemployed) can indeed be less effective than a letter from a person with a stable academic position. Unless the researcher is so well-known that they can count on their reputation preceding them anywhere the letter is sent, the fact that they can sign the letter only with their name and no “Professor” title, and the fact that they cannot use an institutional letterhead, are all things that seem likely to limit the effectiveness of the recommendation, due to either conscious or subconscious bias. By how much exactly, it seems impossible to say.

One way to try to mitigate the harm is for the letter writer to provide a concise and clear explanation of their situation and the reason why they do not hold a position. The explanation has to come from the letter writer, not from you. (They are vouching for you, so it’d be pretty strange if you first of all had to vouch for them in order for their recommendation to appear credible...)

Moreover, the explanation has to be of a fairly innocuous nature if you want this harm-reduction approach to work. For example, the person leaving their job because of health reasons would qualify. “Violated some immigration regulations” could mean all sorts of things, and maybe some of them are innocuous (in which case the explanation should be more specific), but I wouldn’t count on everyone seeing things that way; immigration in the US is a sensitive topic on which people hold diverse views.

Basically, if there is anything about this person’s behavior that led them to lose their job that you think some people might find objectionable, then you are probably better off getting a letter of recommendation from someone else.

Good luck!

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  • Hi, thanks for your kind suggestion! I talked to my letter writer earlier and he said that he will state the employment status in his letter (he was a prof in U of X but has left), but he doesn't think it's necessary to explain the reason in my letter, which he thinks is irrelevant to my research. Should I ask him to provide another short letter as supplementary material to briefly explain that his violation was innocuous? He think using his previous affiliation in apply portal would not be a big problem, as he was in good standing when he left. I'm not sure.
    – CZ.H
    Commented Nov 22, 2022 at 8:28
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    @CZ.H I’m starting to get a sense of how this person got in immigration trouble. He seems to be lacking in common sense, otherwise he would not be proposing to state an incorrect affiliation in an official document that might have serious consequences for you, and possibly for him as well. Anyway, you have my sympathies for having this unpleasant dilemma, but I can’t say what you should do, sorry.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Nov 22, 2022 at 8:50
  • I think the apply portal is just collecting the information for statistical/ the records. If your profile is deemed interesting, they will read in detail your cover letter and you can put there the last known affiliation of your reference. Even if the affiliation in the apply portal would bear some importance, evidently your referee is not the bigStar from bigName uni, so it will not help you in any meaningful way. Do not give false informations. Do not give unnnecessary informations. The referee is not anymore affiliated with a institution X, but they were when you worked with them!!
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Nov 22, 2022 at 11:15
  • @DanRomik If the organization is a required term, can I just write "U of X (Last known affiliation)"? Would this annotated one be more legitimate? Thanks, it's very important to me as I really have to be cautious with my application....
    – CZ.H
    Commented Nov 22, 2022 at 11:49
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    Sure, it’s because it’s important that I am urging a high level of caution. If you need to fill in his affiliation, then your suggestion with “last known affiliation” makes sense. As @EarlGrey said, give correct information. Good luck!
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Nov 22, 2022 at 16:13

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