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I have found a question close to mine Reference for candidate unfit for application but not quite the same, and I have followed some of the advice already.

I'm an academic at a UK institute and a current master's student doing a project with me has asked me for a PhD application reference. I said yes when they first spoke to me about wanting to do a PhD (no specific post at that time) as I had no reason not to and they seemed enthusiastic. However, from working with them for over 4 months I don't believe they would be suitable. They have not demonstrated key skills needed, are requiring micromanaging to accomplish tasks, and generally appear quite lazy (and seem to think it's funny). I would not take them as a PhD student - especially seeing as this is their attitude knowing they have asked me for a reference.

I have had a second frank talk with them about PhDs, and that there is a good degree of autonomy in working and self-driven skill learning required for a successful PhD student. But their attitude has not changed since this chat (over a month ago). I could write a very lukewarm reference (which I have done before regarding students who are not outstanding but okay) or just say I can't write one. Although some posts on here are saying there are legal implications of the latter?

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    Your promise to write a letter cannot possibly be legally binding: There was no contract regarding this of any type between the two of you. But, if you want to be absolutely sure, talk to a lawyer. Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 15:25
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    Given you have provided frank feedback with no change observed it would seem straightforward to have a second chat and say you can no longer provide a positive referral based on their performance.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 15:51
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    Legally, in the UK: gov.uk/work-reference I think the person who wrote that "there are legal implication of the latter" is simply mistaken or misinformed. Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 15:57
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    @user2705196 Many see it as underhanded to write a negative letter, after all they are "recommendation" letters.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 0:12
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    I'd suggest the HR approach - confirm dates of employment and rough duties. Nothing else. Let the student know in advance that that is all you can supply, let them make the decision about if they want your reference.
    – lupe
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 13:41

4 Answers 4

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I am frequently in that situation, of being asked for a letter of reference by a mediocre student with good intentions (don't they all have good intentions?)

You already know your two options: (1) write a lukewarm letter or (2) renege your offer to write one. I don't like confrontations anymore than the next person, but the best approach is #2. I usually do it over email, and in a long message I explain my reasons. I give detailed feedback with specific examples, making sure it does not sound like I'm judging the person, but instead evaluating their performance. This can take longer than writing a lukewarm letter, but I find it to be the best solution for everyone. For example:

I think that you are a good student who takes your work seriously. You always keep your appointments and you have a genuine interest in the research we do here. However, there are some areas in which you need improvement, e.g. A, B, C. I think that you have a bright future ahead of you, and what I recommend is that you take another research opportunity to improve your skills in A, B, and C, then ask that supervisor/advisor for a letter. You'll then be in much better shape for grad school applications.

The tone should be firm and polite.

This gives an out to the student, because if they are smart, they should not want a letter from you anyway. But some students insist, and I then write the lukewarm letter. The letter pretty much says "this student worked at my lab from this date to that date, and they were on time", or whatever truthful positive thing I can say. Anybody who writes and reads letters should be able to read through.

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    Thank you. It seems there is a consensus of answers and I will contact them about not writing the reference. It's not so much about avoiding conflict, but avoiding having a complaint made about me for not supporting a student (which I know objectively isn't the case, but it's not unheard of and still needs to be dealt with).
    – JayBee
    Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 9:04
  • @JayBee You shouldn't be ruling out to write a letter for other (non PhD) activities/jobs. There's plenty of situations, where turning up on time is a major job requirement Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 17:30
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    @Marianne013 Turning up on time is generally considered self-evident. Writing this in a recommendation letter is often considered a polite way of saying 'this is an idiot and I don't have anything else positive to say'.
    – quarague
    Commented Apr 23, 2023 at 8:33
  • The problem with this is that you are denying the student the evidence that they did participate on that work. It's your responsibility to acknowledge they worked, and to help as much as possible without compromise on your scientific integrity. Warn the student your letter will not be flattering, but write it anyhow. Give an honest and helpful description.
    – rhermans
    Commented Apr 23, 2023 at 9:58
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    @rhermans First sentence is "this student worked at my lab...". It's expected from people who have worked with you that they have worked with you, and I think this should not be emphasized in a letter. The letter should describe the quality of the work, and given that nothing is specifically said about it, the experienced reader will get the message. Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 0:31
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...They have not demonstrated key skills needed, are requiring micromanaging to accomplish tasks and generally appear quite lazy (and seem to think it's funny). I would not take them as a PhD student - especially seeing as this is their attitude knowing they have asked me for a reference...

If this is half-true, you simply cannot provide the student with an LoR.

Whatever about legalities, the reality of the situation is that your initial willingness to write an LoR for a then unproven student was predicated upon that student showing the requisite qualities in the intervening period.

The student plainly has not done this by your own careful assessment.

You cannot give even a lukewarm LoR to a student you adjudge unworthy for a number of reasons:

  • The PhD supervisor at the other institution will be enraged and will make no secret of their displeasure about you to friendly academics in other universities.

  • The PhD offering department will never again take your recommendations seriously after being disappointed in the calibre of this single candidate.

  • The PhD offering institution may also never again rate any graduate from your Department. (This can occur if the postgraduate admissions dean keeps mental or physical records of good and bad PhD students and their almae matres. I had a personal experience of this effect.)

  • The postgraduate under current supervision by you seems to regard research - and perhaps academia in general - as something that they can laugh their way through. Getting an LoR towards a PhD program will only serve to demotivate them even more!

  • The behaviour of this student will impact on the morale of the others in that research group, possibly even on other postgrads in the department. Maintaining the professional respect of your group members is vital to your career. You really can't let this sloppiness and jokery persist. Pretty soon this student will be making a joke of other students' efforts - if they haven't started to already.

It's time for a very frank conversation in your office.

I hope you haven't given this student the impression, e.g. by allowing him/her to firstname you, exchanging gossip, non-work related conversations, etc, that they enjoy a good personal relationship with you and that this will allow them to "take it past you". It's always easier to say no to someone who is just a work colleague and no more.

But either way it has to be a no.

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    People who read reference letters should know that many writers are reluctant to write something negative, so I'd be surprised if anyone would be so deluded to take on a PhD candidate based on a lukewarm reference; if they do so, they only have themselves to blame. The responsibility for admissions lies with the admissions tutor/committee, not with the reference writer. Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 23:16
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    A letter of recommendation is not required to be positive (frequently, the language is of "evaluation" or "reference" letters). Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 23:39
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    Your first point is certainly true, in my experience. I had several former colleagues who were mightily annoyed, to put it mildly, that they had gotten stuck with students having much better recommendations than were deserved. Once burned, twice shy: they did not trust any future recommendations from the letter writers who played fast and loose with the obligation to write an accurate LoR.
    – Ed V
    Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 0:02
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    Thank you @Trunk and (Ed V) - I have actually been on the opposite side of this scenario in the past and received a PhD student with glowing references who was not good (interviewed via a central university funding scholarship, else I would have spotted it at interview). They did not pass their transfer in the end but it was very time consuming in the meantime and I was pretty annoyed at the referee (not someone I work with at all).
    – JayBee
    Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 9:17
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    @JayBee I learned early on to tell students, including students in classes I taught, this: “Never ask a professor to write you a letter of recommendation. Always ask if they could write you a strong letter of recommendation.” If the prof says no or equivocates, then it is best for all concerned to find someone else who may be able to write a strong LoR. Every once in awhile, I had to tell a student no and suggest they find someone else. I never had to write the proverbial “you would be lucky if this student worked for you” LoR.
    – Ed V
    Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 12:02
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This is going to get downvoted to hell, but I'm going to say it anyway...

Your first duty in this is to your student. It's not your job to gatekeep admissions to a PhD programme at an institution you don't work for. Therefore, write the most favourable reference you can without actually lying.

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Your university will have a policy on references, including what can and can't be included. It will certainly handle with references for students that don't do well. You should follow that guidance and ask a more experienced colleague if in doubt. Often this includes clarification of what you will be able to do to the student.

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    Can you show us a link to your most recent university's policy on references? Mine doesn't have one.
    – Nik
    Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 22:40
  • Mine neither. Have asked more experienced collages - they have said write a very non-descript letter stating bare facts and it's self evident.
    – JayBee
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 10:32
  • You can find the policy here: intranetsp.bournemouth.ac.uk/pandptest/… Commented May 20, 2023 at 15:58

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