After applying for a number of PhD positions I ended up with a surprisingly high rejection rate, and as little as 3 acceptances. Waiting for a positive answer from other labs (which I liked a lot better), I ended up inadvertently losing these 3 offers as well.

This seems to have been very unwise in hindsight, but at the time I did not believe I would get so many subsequent rejections (I still find it hard to believe...).

In any case, I have to apply to more labs now, and one of my referees refuses to provide further references for me because he already did it for quite a few of my applications, and is also - in his own words - "more than irritated" that I took the liberty to turn down any offers at all. I can't say I entirely disagree with him, since I actually did feel a bit guilty in the first place for asking him to be my referee for so many applications.

So, here I am, and I would be very curious whether you have any ideas:

  • If there is anything I could say to maybe change his mind (currently not responding to my emails).
  • If there is any way to make people whose labs I apply to understand why I can only provide one reference without completely ruining my chances.

Sadly, I am applying for a field a bit different from what I nominally studied (cognitive neuroscience as opposed to molecular neuroscience), and there are no other referees I can choose from with whom I have worked on cognitive topics. Also, the referee in question was my MSc. supervisor, so I would immagine people will like to hear from him anyway.

  • 3
    Wait.. You only had two letters last time? I think I know why your rejection rate was "surprisingly high".
    – JeffE
    Jun 26, 2014 at 0:33
  • In my field (neuroscience) PIs and grad schools request 2 letters - I never heard of any of my colleagues providing more.
    – TheChymera
    Jun 26, 2014 at 0:34
  • 3
    Weird. My university requests three letters for every graduate program.
    – JeffE
    Jun 26, 2014 at 0:36
  • 3
    @JeffE: I believe the applicant is in Germany, where hiring decisions are made at the research-group level, rather than being managed by the department.
    – aeismail
    Jun 26, 2014 at 8:40
  • 2
    Weird, after successfully negotiating the salary with the PI, you rejected the offer? academia.stackexchange.com/questions/18950/…
    – sean
    Jan 20, 2015 at 15:46

2 Answers 2


The letters of reference show in some way that you can be trusted for your work. They are good to have in your application, but there are other ways to show that you are knowledgeable and competent.

If I was in your position I would try to know the interesting groups and get in touch with the professors from there. If it is physically feasible, you can visit the groups and meet the people there. Maybe even a small internship? You will understand whether you fit the groups and at the same time they will know that there is someone interested working with them, in case they have an extra position or receive funding for another project. You can also try to attend a workshop or a conference (as a student volunteer) and network with the people there in search of a position. This way you will discuss your ideas be known by those that will ultimately make a decision on your cv and recommendations. The more information you provide to them on your abilities, interest, and motivation, the easier would be for them to choose you in the end.


The answers to your questions relatively:

  • No. He is currently very angry with you. Because probably he lost a lot of reputation. A letter of recommendation does not only mean "Take this guy, he's great.", but also means "I entirely trust this guy and I guarantee that he will not leave you in the lurch." By getting acceptance and not taking the offer is usually interpreted as hesitancy. Thus, people from the labs you've turned down will consider your advisor as someone who easily recommends a student. They will think that a student does this even at the beginning will easily give up on tough research duties.
  • Conspiracy theory: the subsequent rejections may be the result of grapevine. In my country, top universities' professors are usually classmates or former colleagues. If a student applies with a good background and strong recommendations, they call each other and ask about that student. You know, if that they ever heard about that guy, who is considerable. And guess what if one or two of them told: "I accepted him and he ended up not even starting."

I think, for a short period of time, you should lower your standards. Try applying a lab in your field.

Don't send consecutive mails to your advisor. Talk to him face-to-face. Ask him if you can do something to make it up. At that point, you should be prepared to take no for an answer.

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