She is saying that since she has left the University and moved to another country and working in a full time job there, she won't be able to write the letter. She maintains she is very busy and is also not under any obligation since she is not a part of the university anymore. At the most, she says she would write only for a single college application whereas I on the other hand am planning to apply to at least 4 colleges! What should I do? Would this affect my admission in a very negative manner? I am highly worried.

  • 37
    How sad. This is what we call "being a jerk". Your advisor is not obligated to write you recommendation letters in any case, but it is an academic norm that she would be willing to do so, at least if your work with her was satisfactory. This norm attaches to her taking you as a student and co-authoring a paper with you, not particularly to her being employed by the university. Unfortunately, your advisor has all the power here as far as what letters she writes and what their contents is. Happily, it appears you have some reasonable suggestions for how to proceed. Commented May 12 at 16:33
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    Never insist on a LoR from someone who isn't excited to write you one, no matter how dumb their reasons. Commented May 12 at 17:23
  • 13
    I cannot fathom what thought process or circumstance would make me agree to send one LoR but not four, as they would almost certainly be very similar.
    – Anonymous
    Commented May 12 at 19:06
  • 3
    @Anonymous exactly that is what I fail to understand.
    – Candy
    Commented May 12 at 19:26
  • 3
    @yarchik, giving Candy a phony, misleading reason for not writing recommendations would also be a jerk move, especially inasmuch as the advisor apparently says they might be willing to write just one. Of course my judgement is of the behavior as described by the OP. If that's not a reasonably accurate characterization of their actual situation then it does not reflect in any way on anyone that I describe the behavior as "being a jerk". Commented May 13 at 16:42

7 Answers 7


@EthanBolker offers a clever potential solution. Also consider, though, whether there might be someone else who can write you a stronger recommendation. Is there another academic with whom you have worked, and who you might have impressed? There are two potential issues with a recommendation from your Masters advisor, if you insist upon getting it. 1) “I’m too busy” is sometimes a polite way to avoid saying, “I don’t think you are a good candidate for a PhD and I can’t write you a strong recommendation.” 2) Even if she does genuinely think highly of you, if she is unhappy about taking the time to write a recommendation, her recommendation letter may end up being too brief or non-specific to be helpful: a recommendation letter that does not say much is usually taken as meaning that there is not much good that can be said.

  • Thankyou for the answer. My major issue is that I hope that universities abroad especially Canada and Australia don't put this obligation of getting a letter from your MS advisor.
    – Candy
    Commented May 12 at 7:00
  • 3
    Also it would be weird that her comment implies that she doesn't consider me worthy enough for a PhD, since she once specifically suggested me I should consider taking up PhD studies as I have the capability .
    – Candy
    Commented May 12 at 7:04
  • 6
    @Candy It's unlikely that not having a letter from a particular person will sink your application. Commented May 12 at 11:36
  • 7
    I’m in Australia and have accepted PhD students who were reluctant to ask their Masters advisors for letters. Peoplr sometimes do this because they don’t want their advisors to know they are applying elsewhere and want to keep their options open for a PhD with their Masters advisor. Commented May 12 at 21:59
  • 6
    As an aside, when you get a letter from someone else, it would be good for them to mention that you don't have a letter from your advisor because they have left academia, as it does bad to not have one from your advisor without an explanation.
    – Mike
    Commented May 12 at 23:09

On the face of it that is strange. Most academics I know would be willing to write the necessary letters under those circumstances. Submitting one letter to multiple places would not be much more work than writing the letter in the first place, and she has agreed to write one.

Perhaps your current department chair (or some other professor at your school) would be willing to get her letter of recommendation and do the work of submitting it to several institutions, perhaps with a cover letter explaining why it comes from them rather than directly from her.

  • Will the cover letter be sent to the Postgraduate office? Since the submission of letters in done online meaning that a single document is uploaded only.
    – Candy
    Commented May 11 at 19:51
  • 1
    @Candy Part of figuring out whether this strategy is viable means working out the mechanics with the local professor doing the submissions. Commented May 11 at 19:55
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    @Candy: They can simply upload both parts as a single document. A related approach is that they write their own letter based on what the supervisor said. "Candy's supervisor, Dr. Doe, no longer works in academia and could not spare the time to write recommendation letters. However, Dr. Doe informs me that Candy's work was excellent..." Commented May 12 at 1:43
  • 2
    this might be harmful however. A natural question to ask is: "Why didn't Dr. Doe write the letter if Candy was so excellent?". Clearly "Dr. Doe does not think Candy is worth their time" would we rather admit Candy who Dr. Doe doesn't value or take a student whose letters are coming from their direct advisors etc... It seems a little risky to try to get this letter. Better to just have a letter from the supervisor which maybe includes a sentence here and there about Dr. Doe's excellent opinion rather than a sub-in for Dr. Doe's letter. Commented May 12 at 18:42
  • 2
    @SidharthGhoshal Admission committee's are aware of the existence of jerks. I would read this as "Dr Doe had a falling out with the department and doesn't want to have anything to do with us any more", rather than a reflection on the student. Commented May 14 at 9:20

You don’t want a letter from someone less than willing to write one. Could be that she doesn’t think she can write a good one for you, or it’s possible she is totally checked out. Doesn’t matter - if she is unwilling it’s not going to be a stellar letter. You should move on.


See if you can find another reference. Speak to someone else in the department and see what they say. Even if you don't know them too well they can write a letter and it can remedy the situation. Getting more than one is a good idea anyway.

Also, you can in many applications only send the letter once you have got an offer, they will "request references" at some point during the process and this can regularly be after interview (check the box on application that says "ask me for prior permission to contact" the referee). So, at that point, contact your referees who agreed to in principle to write a letter, and tell them to expect something, reducing their workload to only the most necessary times.

This way the original reference who has left the department might agree to write something given its only this one time, and it means getting the job, rather than just a speculative application.


I agree with those who say that writing a recommendation letter a norm. Even if the supervisor and the co-author do not think that you are a good candidate, they can still write an letter honestly outlining your strengths and weaknesses - the academic world is big, and in some places they may still decide that you are good enough, or that you have sufficient background to learn.

One way of countering "I am too busy" claim is suggesting to write a draft yourself, and letting them simply to edit it as they wish. In fact, it is often the case that the referee would ask for a draft... although it has the obvious pitfall that students (particularly international students) have little idea of what and how things should be said to make them look as attractive candidates.

On the practical side, there is little that you can do: they are not under any formal obligation to write a recommendation, and even if they were forced to do so in some way, you may easily end up with a recommendation letter that does more damage than benefit to your applications.

On the other hand, for bachelor or master students the record in taking courses relevant to the application and being a good student often carry more weight than the actual research record. Thus, recommendation letters from your former professors, who were not involve din your research project may well be enough.

Finally, depending on the specific case, the recommendation letters may be a decisive factor or a simple formality. E.g., in many cases the candidates are are proposed informally by supervisors to their colleagues, while the requirement for a certain number of recommendation letters is imposed formally by the university. In this sense the Q.'s author seem to be already facing an uphill task.

  1. Ask her again, friendly, but with a special emphasis on the importance of her letter to your career and how helpful it would be.

  2. If she does not agree, take her offer to write one letter only, but insist that she will write it in a general form, say starting with "To whom it may concern", etc., such that you can use it for more than one opportunity or even later in life.

(You might write a draft of it yourself, and just ask her, if she can agree to the draft or might want to add/change a part of it and finally sign it. This I did myself one time, because my advisor was notoriously known for not being able to come up with such things himself, but very good and fast at reviewing/commenting.)

  1. If she does not do this either, skip any further contact with her, and go back one level up, to some formal body of the university you did your masters with, in order to let them write you some kind of recommendation. Alternatively, there might be other professor(s) who know(s) you from the time being there, then ask one of them. If your advisor is problematic, this is usually well known among the faculty peers already, and they are possible eager to help, because essentially it also draws a bad picture about them, and the whole institution, if they don't.

(Maybe there is even the possibility of filing an official complaint, although this does not really change anything about the recommendation letter itself. Things like this should nevertheless get some attention, since in the end they are an example of misconduct on behalf of your former advisor. If they take them as their students, they just have the obligation to do such minor things to help you afterwards.)


What this exercise tests, is "1) Can you cast a wide net? And 2 ) if you cast that net, will you land anyone who is in a position to help you, actually take an hour or two out or their time. If you reach out to lots of people, you would be surprised, those who would be willing to assist. Perhaps think about every academic you have interacted with in your field. Now is the time to be creative.

  • I can ask other teachers to write one ofcourse but my understanding is that one from your Master's advisor is a must (although an unspoken rule)?
    – Candy
    Commented May 12 at 11:02
  • 3
    while it might be ideal to have your degree supervisor be your strongest and most active relationship, consider that there are many reasons that might not happen. It's ok to be concerned about bad reasons, but your job now is to focus on good ones. Think about other faculty who have given you specific, meaningful ideas or motivation, through your masters or for your future work, and talk about the value of those - for the references and in other application materials. Leave the bad aspects behind.
    – Mike M
    Commented May 12 at 11:47
  • 1
    I suspect the OP was already aware of the fact that it might be possible for them to find an alternate recommender. I also suspect they already know how one would do that.
    – Sneftel
    Commented May 13 at 15:03

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