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I am currently considering my job options:

  • I could potentially apply for Professor X's lab; however, I do not know if he will have positions available
  • I could also apply for other research positions, which may require a recommendation letter.

I have not decided which option would be better for me, yet.

I believe that Professor X will write me a good recommendation letter if necessary. However, I am concerned that if I ask him to be my reference while I apply for other positions, it may be inappropriate to also apply to his lab as well.

How do I approach this?

Dear Professor X;

I anticipate graduating in time XX, and I am looking for XYZ positions. I wonder if your lab will have any positions open during that time.

Also, since XX is relatively distant in time, I am also considering applying for other positions, in the meantime, just in case. Is it okay if I list you as a reference in my application?

Or is it unacceptable to try to do this?

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You should first have a face to face meeting in which you ask them if they would have positions available and whether they would consider you if they do. Let them know you seek a position somewhere.

Some professors, like myself, would suggest that you go elsewhere even if they have a position and like you very much as you are likely to learn more from an expanded experience. It shouldn't be a problem. Such professors will/can write you a very nice letter: "I'd love to keep this student, but have suggested they broaden their horizons and you would be a good group to work with..."

Moreover, any reasonable professor should understand that having more than one option is a good thing for you.

But such meetings should be face to face as you can get a better "feel" for their enthusiasm or lack of it. If they lack enthusiasm you may want letters to come from elsewhere in any case.

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  • Unfortunately, I cannot have a face to face meeting with this professor since he lives in a different continent. Oct 9, 2023 at 19:32
  • @Grzegorczyk You've worked with him previously though, correct?
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 9, 2023 at 19:33
  • That makes it harder, but no less necessary to try to get a "feel" for his enthusiasm for you and your future.
    – Buffy
    Oct 9, 2023 at 19:48
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It is certainly appropriate: a professor who thinks highly of you should be willing to recommend you for other positions even if they hope you'll take their own offer. I would be honest and up front about your plans; if they are reasonable, there will be no problem.

Some professors may not be able to handle emotionally this simple task; in my view, these are not people that are worth working with: if you try to keep them happy by not asking them for recommendations, they'll pay you back by making you unhappy in the future in some other way. In other words: do you trust this person? If so, you can certainly ask them. If you don't trust them, do you want to work for them?

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