I am at the final semester of my Master's. I am trying to apply for a PhD in various universities. However mostly I fail to provide letters of recommendations. My academic history and experience are adequate for pursuing a PhD. I don't want to nudge professors for every application. It's kind of deciding my future single-handedly.

Why is it so necessary to provide a letter of recommendation? Is it possible to get accepted into a PhD program without letters of recommendation?

  • 7
    I don't totally understand what question you're asking. Are you asking whether it's possible to get accepted to PhD programs without recommendations? Or are you asking why many departments require letters of recommendation for PhD applicants in the first place?
    – user176372
    Commented May 1 at 20:38
  • 3
    References will be desired for many jobs in the future as well... Where do you plan on applying (US, Europe, China, ...) and to start when?
    – Jon Custer
    Commented May 1 at 21:12
  • 4
    It's an important question... when my successive postdoc contracts were coming to an end, I must have applied cumulatively for over 250 jobs, each asking for two or three references. That's a pretty serious chunk of work my former PIs were having to do. Commented May 2 at 10:01
  • 1
    Thank you for taking the time to put your suggestions. My question is both why it is necessary and if it's possible to get accepted with out recommendation. Reading all the comments made me realize the importance of the recommendation and that it's normal to request professors to write recommendations.
    – The Future
    Commented May 2 at 13:11
  • At good programs, there are a lot more applicants with "adequate academic history and experience" than there are seats in the incoming class. So that alone isn't enough for admission. Commented May 2 at 21:21

3 Answers 3


Nudge Your Professors

First, I'm answering the question you need answered: Nudge your professors. Writing letters of recommendation is part of your professors' jobs.

Don't misunderstand me: They're not obligated to write letters for any one particular student. But it is, in general, their job to write appropriate letters for students they think are deserving.

But they will not do this-- and will have no way of knowing you want them to do this-- until you ask. And I am sorry to say, it may take some effort on your part, because professors have a lot of other things to do, and can be easily distracted. You may need to do more than nudge them, you may need to herd them like cats.

Because Grades Aren't Everything

Now, here's the answer to the question you did ask: Grades aren't everything. I knew a kid when I was getting my undergrad who came from a wealthy family and was systematically gaming the rules to get himself a perfect transcript. He found some loophole in the system whereby he would withdraw from a class if he thought he wasn't going to get an A, and his family was willing to eat the tuition, sometimes multiple times.

That is an extreme outlying example, but I strongly suspect he would not be able to get a good letter of recommendation, even thought he looked great on paper.

Letters of recommendation cover the intangibles of a student's profile-- work ethic, character, honesty, etc. Since you, as a prospective PhD student are applying for something like a job, and are going to be asking people to make large investments of time in training you, they are interested in those intangibles

That's the way it is. Same for industry jobs and government jobs.

  • (My God, it's been thirty years and I still remember that kid's name. Not the details of the scheme, but I definitely remember him. The faculty saw through him like glass.)
    – Anonymous
    Commented May 1 at 23:35
  • 1
    So you can check that kid career. I am quite sure the kid had a wonderful career (you know, locked social elevator and the closer to the apex of managment position in big western companies the easier are the tasks you have to do, merge-save-fire-sell-cash your big bonus). Life is unfair ... and this tells us that career is not everything ;)
    – EarlGrey
    Commented May 2 at 11:00
  • I could, but I won't. Feels a little stalker-like.
    – Anonymous
    Commented May 2 at 16:08

"I don't want to nudge professors for every application"

I would recommend you to reverse your attitude towards this. Please don't be shy to ask your professors for reference letters — because writing such letters is an important part of their work.

When I taught at a university, it was a normal routine for me to compose, every year, reference letters for a bunch of students, and send these letters to wherever they say. Now a research scientist, I write reference letters for young colleagues. This is a part of our life in science. This is normal. I assure you that your professors take it the same way.

  • 1
    It can also help to keep in mind that your professors had to have many people write letters for them, to get them where they are.
    – user187020
    Commented May 8 at 13:26
  • @user1149748 Yes. Well said. +1 Commented May 8 at 15:11

I kindly advise you to have 3 -4 professors from your department whom you've interacted with in regular classes or lab projects. Explain yourself to them and let them know that you'll be trying out different universities. Ask for their commitment to see you through the admission process by sending letters on time at all times. When you get such a commitment, then you'll be free to try as many university admissions as you can afford.

I clearly understand your side of the story, the reason being; that I applied in as many universities as I could and I sent as many cold emails as I could to different professors. Sometimes our department professors were so engaged with different works, conferences, paper publications, and their Lab students. Getting him/her to write a recommendation letter for you and send it in time, is hard. If you're not from his/her lab, this is even harder. You find yourself in a position to constantly remind and keep asking whether they sent the letter or not yet. This is nudging, given the fact that we always accord Maximum respect to our professors. We can't frequent their offices for such reasons (it sounds ok to frequent but he/she will be fed up with these frequent visits and at the end he/she might throw in some attitudes). Now, extend this situation to a student who has applied to various universities and the same 'HARD Professor' has to send in a letter to each of the universities where you applied. If it was hard for him/her to send to One, what about these many universities to which you're applying? In most cases, most PhD students are not admitted in their first admission attempt, which means that we are likely to submit more than one admission, which means more letters from these "Hard Professors". In my case, I had easier Professors that I could approach but they declined to help me out, saying that they did not have a closer working relationship with me so their letters could not be a good reflection of me. This is frustrating that's why I can fully understand your situation. Therefore, getting your 3-4 professors by your side seems a better solution. It helped me out, it has helped some of my friends in a similar situation, this is why I hope that it will help you too.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .