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I am reconsidering whether I want a professor's (call him X) letter of recommendation for a PhD program. The basic facts are these:

  • I took Dr. X's class and did well. He encouraged me to apply to a PhD program in his field, and I took his advice. At that time, he offered to write me a strong letter of recommendation.

  • More recently, I requested via email a letter of recommendation from X. I'm certain that he expected this request, and we are on good terms.

  • He did not respond to my request. I managed to find him in person to ask; he said that he's already responded to my email and agreed to write it, and brushed me off in a somewhat impatient manner.

    I found this interaction off putting and certainly unexpected.

This is my rationalization for what happened:

  • X is very busy and does not want to write me a letter. But he promised in the past and I remained in contact with him since.

  • Moreover, I already have stronger recommendation letters that I can use.

Here is my current plan:

  • I will see professor X at least one more time to give him materials for the recommendation. I plan to see his reaction then, and how to proceed.

Question: Is there a polite way for me to ask whether he wants to write the letter, and possibly "let him off the hook"? (I don't even know whether this is the right question to ask, because honestly I don't what the right thing to do is.)

The problem is that I don't want to second-guess him, but I don't want a negative letter either. Additionally, if he's already written a letter, I don't want to waste his time.

I am based in the US, if that matters.

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    Your other interactions with X have been positive, and then one time he says something a little brusque? I wouldn't read too much into that. Maybe he was just having a bad day, or in a hurry to get somewhere. He agreed to write you a strong letter, and more such letters can't be a bad thing. – Nate Eldredge Oct 1 '14 at 1:12
  • Hmm, maybe I am overreacting. But technically he didn't agree to write me a "strong" letter; I phrased my question that way, but his answer was "I can write you a letter". – Kevin Oct 1 '14 at 2:53
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    If you already have stronger recommendation letters that you would like to use, then don't waste his time by giving materials to him to write a letter that you dont need. – user-2147482637 Oct 1 '14 at 4:19
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The key thing here is that you say that you have stronger letters already. If you no longer need him to write a letter, just reply to your own email to him saying you don't need one anymore. Something like this should do:

"Thank you so much for agreeing to the write the letter. Another professor just got back to me about writing a letter so I should be all set for letters in this round of applications. I really appreciate your offer and I will be in touch in the future if I need one though. Thanks again!"

Keep in mind that most people won't write a letter until they have a deadline in front of them. That said, it is certainly more polite to let any potential letter writer know as soon as you know you won't need it just as it is polite to let them know well advance of when you will.

You frame this question as about "rescinding" a request and seem to be worried that the professor is going to be upset. You should understand that for professors, writing letters of recommendations is a thankless chore. Although this is generally the case, it is particularly the case for undergraduates that we only know through a single class.

Writing these letters takes hours on aggregate. Worst of all, because we also sit on the committees that read these applications, we are also all deeply aware that the letters will be read by a few people on a graduate admission committee if we are lucky.

Seriously though, he is not going to hold it against you. By agreeing to write a letter in the first place, he was offering to do you a favor. By letting him off the hook, you are doing him one.

Although it's not part of your question, I think you are spending too much time trying to unpack and interpret what really happened. Maybe he was busy or in a bad mood? Maybe he was emailing with somebody else and was confused? You say that you don't want to second guess him but that is exactly what you're doing. If he encouraged you to apply for a PhD program and said he will write a letter, it seems extremely unlikely that he's trying to sabotage you.

  • "You ... seem to be worried that the professor is going to be upset." Yes that is exactly how I feel. Thank you for the advice. – Kevin Oct 1 '14 at 21:17
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Remind him that he's busy.

I'd do it like this

  1. Greeting
  2. Appropriate amount of pleasantries.
  3. I know you're busy, so thanks for taking the time to see me/read this.
  4. A few weeks back We spoke about a letter for my application to program x.
  5. Do you expect to have time in your schedule to fit it in in the next few weeks? I understand if you're going to be busy. I think you know me well, so it'd be great if you could manage it. (1/2-1 second silence) but if you cant it's really no big deal, I can manage.

Something like that.

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