I am having a problem that is beyond my control and I do not know how to address: having enough strong letters of reference to support my PhD candidature.


I have pursued a MSc later in my adulthood, on distance learning during the covid: I have not developed a "personal relationship" with professors.

The only thing I could do, was to put afford on my studies and pursued a thesis in a field that attracts me, clearly stating to my supervisor I wanted to pursue a PhD after.

The relationship with my supervisor felt sometimes antagonising and not supportive. In the beginning I was told "I don't know anything about this and cannot help". When I asked for feedback to polish my work because I wanted to pursue top marks, I was commented that top-quality works finish on time and do not waste resources.

Eventually my thesis was top-graded. I also receive comments from the main author I based my research on, that my work is worthy of a publication. So I conclude I demonstrated to be able to carry out a quality work.

Nevertheless, when I asked the supervisor if he could write a reference letter for me, he told me to write it myself, but the letter must be strictly fit in one letterhead page, indicating no more than 20 lines of text, and only reporting what I have done in the thesis, instead of "how" or elaborating on my personal qualities.

I do not have access to other reference letters relevant to research or affine working opportunity, if not a temporary collaboration I had with a research institute.

I am reading that a letter of reference is really, really important: Role/importance of letters of recommendation for PhD-applications in Europe?

  • Some competitive PhD schools strongly encourage the candidate to pursue letters that elaborate well on their strength
  • they encourage them to write not merely formal letters, but personal one, and indicate maximum length of 1.600 words (way more than approximately 200 words that my supervisor offered availability to sign).
  • they provide a template of how a reference letter should be, or guidelines, but my supervisor refused that and required strictly one page of letterhead length (20 lines of text)
  • Some competitive PhD schools required at least 2 letters, but in practice I am reading that they must be 3, otherwise it will lead to exclusion. Apply for PhD positions with only one (or no) reference (letter of recommendation)


  • Since the supervisor asked me to write a letter of reference myself, and he would sign it only if it fit in one page disregarding from the guidelines of the PhD schools I indicated, must I accept that the strength of that letter will not be adequate to support my candidature and I will likely be excluded ?
  • Or shall I dare to upload a longer letter myself ?
  • How can I convince a person to merely put a sign on a letter that I was asked to write on their behalf, and that reflected the work I have done with them and the discussions of research interests that I had with them ?

Main question

If letter of references are fundamentals for PhD schools, and I cannot have access to them, must I accept that there is no chances for being accepted and look for else ?

1 Answer 1


The situation you are in is what it is. You can't change the past or pretend that things are different than they are. Perhaps you made a mistake in the past by taking an independent route, and if so you need to recover.

First, though, don't make assumptions. The generalities about the importance and needed statements in letters aren't rigid laws. Some places such letters have lesser importance (unlike the US). If your intended field of study is different from those of the professors you studied with then your situation can be inferred.

Second, you have been given an out. Take it. Write a good one page LoR for the professor. State the obvious that "my field" is different from the candidate's but their work has been judged excellent and I have very confidence in their ability to excel in that field. If the professor "writer" agrees with that then you have a good letter. Note that professors writing their own letters will often enough diverge from the required length.

Third, cast a wider net for a position. If you apply to only top schools then you are likely to be disappointed. But that is true also even if you have excellent recommendations all 'round. In the US there are more than 50 excellent doctoral institutions, only a few of which war called "top" in the popular sense. There are excellent advisors in all of them in most (larger) fields.

One of your links is specific to Europe. I don't know if that is your emphasis or not. In the US, however, while letters are very important, admissions is broad based, so don't give up. You can't win a game that you don't play. Do your best. See what happens.

  • Thanks Buffy, "You can't win a game that you don't play" very true :) My emphasis in Europe is because I am European, and concerned with extremely high costs of housing in the US with respect to PhD compensations. No more in my 20s: I fear I cannot build a life. Aside of personal doubts, what kind of options would you suggest to develop a wider net to engage potential supevisors ? Internships do not seems a thing with professors, research assistants may happen but very unusual. Email exchange, usually very brief. Other options or communication tips to network? Shall I share list of ideas ?
    – user305883
    Nov 30, 2023 at 9:38
  • P.s. I read on your bio you were CS professor - can you explain, from the point of view of a professor, "Perhaps you made a mistake in the past by taking an independent route" ? I would like to understand when an independent route is perceived as negative, instead of a positive, and address that point for the future.
    – user305883
    Nov 30, 2023 at 9:44

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