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I am in the final year of my master's and the professor who supervised my bachelor's thesis is offering a PhD position that I would like to apply to (the professor even encouraged me to do so).

They ask for two letters of recommendation, but this professor is basically the only person that could write an LOR for me (since I haven't really had contact with other professors apart from going to their lectures, so they probably don't even know my name).

Ignoring the problem that I don't know a second person I could ask for a LOR for now, is it weird to ask the professor I am applying to for a recommendation? It feels kind of weird, but he is offering the position together with another professor who doesn't know me, so maybe it's okay?

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    to the random reader of the future: this question has been posed after 2 years of (mostly draconian) measures against Covid. Master students had the toughest possible time to build potential relations with unknown persons from a different age and demographic groups, as well as being on the weak side of a power relation (professors are still professors, even in 2022 in the federal democratic country of Germany).
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 15:43
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    @EarlGrey: I upvoted your comment since I think you*re making an important point. For the record, I would like to add, though, that I think your comment would have been even better without the - very subjective - qualification "mostly draconian". Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 17:55
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    Who supervised your Master's thesis? Commented Jan 19, 2023 at 13:41
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    Just an example to show you are not the only person in this situation. This professor thought it was amusing enough to tweet about, but did not seem to think it a problem: twitter.com/BarakShoshany/status/1620108712487825409 Commented Jan 31, 2023 at 1:26

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Ignoring the problem that I don't know a second person I could ask for a LOR for now, is it weird to ask the professor I am applying to for a recommendation? It feels kind of weird, but he is offering the position together with another professor who doesn't know me, so maybe it's okay?

Two major caveats to my answer:

  1. I am not familiar with the German academic system.
  2. Graduate admissions cany vary greatly by program, even within the same university.

In the US for most natural resource programs (my own background), I would view this as okay because the application process is more of a formality at many programs if a professor wants a student and the student meets the minimum program requirements.

I understand this situation seems weird to you, and it is. But, I would personally take the easy wins in life when you get them. The professor seems to know you and you know the professor. Hence, you are both known to each other.

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    Thank you for your answer. From yours and the other answers I conclude that the best thing would be just to ask the professor about this and that‘s what I wanted to do anyway but I thought it can’t hurt to ask a few experienced people about their view. So thanks again to you and the other people that answered! Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 20:09
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    At least sometimes, afaik often, applying to German phd positions is more like applying for a job.
    – DonQuiKong
    Commented Jan 18, 2023 at 22:16
  • @nanananille Not all Professors in Germany like the System. If you know the Professor just try to speak with him/her and indicate that you would be very interested to apply. See the reaction. If it's positive you can mention that you saw the requirement for the Recommendation letter and ask about it. In German,y the formalities, and requirements might differ per university, even per department. Some times the job is already planned for someone particular, other times its really open. If they know your work from before and if it was good you might have a good chance.
    – Hjan
    Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 21:03
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Ask the professor for advice rather than a rec letter.

They're going to be more familiar with the hiring/admissions process than any of us here are. The situation is rather simple to explain, as you've done here: one of the best-positioned people to write you a letter of recommendation is the very person you are applying to work with.

In cases where it would be appropriate for them to write the letter, they can offer to write it. That may make the most sense when the applications are judged by some other committee. In case the primary decision making is really up to the professor (and perhaps their colleague) and the letters are more of a formality, they can say this and you can collect some other less-than-stellar letters without worrying too much, or maybe they'd still write the letter just so it's on file and can be referred to if there is ever a question about hiring practices at the institution. Or, it may be that they ask that you have outside letters and then write their own additional letter as sort of a "friend of the committee" notice offering to fund/admit you to their supervision.

For what it's worth, when I applied to PhD programs (in the US) I also applied to my undergraduate institution (though I ended up going elsewhere). My letter writers included the chair of admissions for that graduate program, and another professor there - I can't see who else I would have asked, and this didn't raise any concerns, but also this is the sort of program where students are admitted to an overall program rather than directly to a lab. Occasionally in my field, students are sometimes admitted directly to a lab when a professor has funding for that student. In that case, I'd still expect them to write a letter, but it wouldn't necessarily be a recommendation letter per se, instead it would be addressed to the admissions committee basically saying "if you admit this student, I'll pay for them."

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I've been in the academic systems of the United States, Canada, and France, and in these systems, I would say: YES, definitely ask for this professor's recommendation.

In these systems, recommendation letters from known professors are very, very important for PhD admission. A recommendation letter from a professor who wants to supervise the student is considered extremely strong. It means that:

  • someone whom the admissions committee knows personally (and hopefully respects!) vouches for the student; and
  • the student is guaranteed to have a suitable supervisor in the program.

And to add to that, instead of the members of the admissions committee having to look for a good reason to justify admitting you (which is the typical case with random applicants), they would rather have to come up with very good reasons to be able to justify themselves to their colleague for rejecting you despite his recommendation.

This is the ideal situation for everyone involved: the professor, the admissions committee, and of course, you.

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