Maybe they are helping and I am the one who does not know how things really work and that's why I am seeking help here.

I am about to finish my Master in Computer science (waiting for the oral exam). And this is the time to apply for as many as possible PhD programs. The problem is that many of PhD programs ask for at least two recommendation letters (sometimes three) and they do not accept general recommendation letter. Rather, they send to the referee's email and ask him/her to write. Therefore, for each of them my referees should write a separate evaluation. So far I got them to write for three applications (two got rejected already). However, I feel I am still at the beginning and there are so many programs I need to try. I am totally aware of the program suitability and I should not apply for a program that I'm not 100% sure I have good chance.

Now the problem is that I chase my referees to write one letter and sometimes I miss deadlines because they are busy or not responding. I found only this question is very useful here but the issue is I follow all steps there to help them to write my recommendation letters, but they mostly do not. I am one of top 5% students of theirs and I published three papers with them.

I feel like I am stuck between the hammer and the rock here. My question is what is the best tactic I can follow at this stage? Cut down the number of programs I apply for? Or talk to the supervisor about the issue. What advice do you have for me? I really appreciate your advice.

  • Should not be some rule that does not allow down vote without a comment ?!!
    – Hawk
    Apr 10, 2014 at 4:49
  • @hawk: As Suresh said, you might want to change your question from an apparent rant to a clear and objective question. What is your actual question?
    – user102
    Apr 10, 2014 at 7:08
  • @CharlesMorisset Thank you for both of you. I tried to update my question. I hope it is less of a rant-like question now
    – Hawk
    Apr 10, 2014 at 8:08

2 Answers 2


I don't know how many letters you're asking people to write for you. However, when there is a separate form that needs to be filled out for each letter, that is asking for a considerable expenditure of time for your advisors. You need to be aware of this, and plan accordingly. You can't ask people to fill out fifty forms for you at once, and then complain when they can't get it done!

So it's not really about applying to "as many PhD programs as possible." Your advisors should be working with you to select the schools and programs you are going to apply to, and you should be working with them to ensure that you are not placing too large a burden on them. This includes giving them a list that clearly states all the schools and programs to which you are applying, as well as the deadlines, as early as possible, so that they have time to plan accordingly. Then, if there's no response a few days beforehand, you need to send a polite email.

But to keep sending out request after request for more letters in a season is a good way to annoy your letter writers. Organize and plan in advance.

  • 2
    Whether this answer is applicable to the OP's problem depends a bit on the country. There are some where "Your advisors should be working with you to select the schools and programs you are going to apply to" would be very uncommon (e.g., Germany).
    – DCTLib
    Apr 10, 2014 at 10:58
  • I'm working in Germany. The professor might not be able to help—but the student's direct Betreuer (supervisor) should be talking with the student about this! [Of course, if it's a good student, they'll want to keep them internally, but that's a difference between "does" and "should."]
    – aeismail
    Apr 10, 2014 at 14:44
  • @aeismail Thank you for the advice. Over the past six months I asked for four recommendation letters though. I am battling to get it for the fourth application now. I missed the third one's deadline. I informed them with all details a month ahead and sent reminders 2 weeks ahead. Three days before the deadline they promised to send. I ended up to find only one has sent while the second has not. My application has been discarded as a result. Today I am only four days away from another deadline and none of the three letters has been sent. My calls, SMS and emails are not being answered.
    – Hawk
    Apr 11, 2014 at 4:20
  • @aeismail I must say that I am still working under their supervision and two papers published with them another two are pending. I have written all papers entirely with implementations and everything without even a guidance from any of them. Naturally, I do not expect them to help me in PhD application. I am fine with that but I am disappointed because I feel I need to apply for many programs (taken into account the suitability) before I get admitted to one.
    – Hawk
    Apr 11, 2014 at 4:25
  • 2
    OK—four is not an unreasonable number. I'm sorry to hear that they're entirely abrogating on their duty (it is their responsibility to write letters of recommendation for students they supervise!). This may be one of the cases where you might just have to track them down physically, sit down with them, and have them submit things while you're there. (Having everything prepared in advance, unfortunately, even though it's unethical, is still less unethical than what they're doing.)
    – aeismail
    Apr 11, 2014 at 6:25

I think that you should not worry too much; you mentioned that you have already published three papers with them, and that is the important part. For a PhD what it counts more to the admission committee is to see if you have research skills, and that number of papers it is pretty good.

Maybe you should try to approach one of your past professors directly, I mean to drop a visit and tell them about your problem. Take in consideration that most of them have a heavy duty work and that is why they are forgetting about your recommendation letters. Bottom line, approach to them directly and try not only with one, but with every professor that knows you and that have worked directly with you. I believe that they will be more than happy to help you. So relax and good luck!

  • 3
    I disagree with the first part of this answer. "Number of papers" alone is not a great indicator of research skills. A few papers co-authored with a professor mean a lot more if accompanied by a strong reference letter saying "hawk made the following essential contributions to our co-authored papers: ..."
    – ff524
    Apr 10, 2014 at 6:07

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