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I am currently a M.Sc. student and I was planning to apply for PhD programs. I asked my adviser to write me a letter of recommendation two months ago, and he agreed to do that. However, now that the deadlines are approaching (in 2 days) he has refused to write a letter, and basically he says that he wants me to stay in his research group and do a PhD under his supervision. In other words, he is forcing me to stay in my current school. I have been rejected from one of the PhD programs that I had previously applied, because he did not submit the letter of recommendation.

My first question is: what should I do? I do not want to create conflict, because he is my adviser and I need to defend my thesis in peace in the next two months.

My second question: If I do not send a letter of recommendation from my adviser, will it affect the decision of admission committee?

This is a time-sensitive manner and I really appreciate it if you could give me some insights, I am absolutely stuck here.

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    Gee, no wonder you don't want to stay in his group next year. – Ben Bitdiddle Jan 14 '15 at 5:05
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    This is unacceptable behavior. I would escalate to the department chair or director of graduate studies. – RoboKaren Jan 14 '15 at 5:17
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    That goes beyond unacceptable, to professional misconduct. I would report the situation to the Dean of Graduate Studies as well as the Department Head, and consider forwarding a transcript of the conversation you had with him to the institutions you have applied to, in place of his recommendation letter. Being publicly seen as a unprofessional buffoon by his peers may get him to smarten up, as that affects his research grant applications. – Pieter Geerkens Jan 14 '15 at 6:22
  • He says in his emails that he writes a letter, but I dont have any written document of him stating that he does not do it. He just did not submit the first letter and kept saying me that he wont write a letter. He is smart, never wrote an email saying that he wants me to work with him... – MayT Jan 15 '15 at 5:15
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First point: what your professor is doing is absolutely not OK. There are valid reasons to back out of writing a recommendation letter late (illness, family emergency to name a few), but what he is doing is intentionally sabotaging your PhD applications.

Second: ask for a meeting with your advisor, where you can have some uninterrupted time to explain your motivation for wanting to go elsewhere for your PhD. Focus on things like wanting to diversify your interests, work with a large variety of people, maybe work on a research project that is not available at your school. Feel free to add in things like how working with him has helped you realise how many opportunities are out there and prepared you to undertake studies at insert name of university you are applying to. Ask him if he could write you the recommendation letter and tell him that when you have your acceptances you will make a choice of where to go, and you will not rule out your current institution until you have all the answers. Explain that you feel that he is limiting your options, and feeling shut in is not a good place to be when you are trying to make serious decisions about your future. In short, flatter him and the current programme, explain your motivation in a way that doesn't come off as "this place sucks" and hope for the best. Keep the tone of this conversation calm and non-confrontational. You don't want to destroy your last few months there, and even if he says no, thank him for his time and explain calmly that you hope he understands why you will still go on with the application with another recommender, and that you hope there will be no hard feelings between you.

If this doesn't work I would go to the professor that knows you the second best in your master's program, or maybe even from your undergrad, and explain the situation to them (confidentially) and ask if you can get a letter of recommendation from them instead on short notice. It will probably be seen as a little strange that your advisor isn't writing you a letter of recommendation, but at that point it's your best option.

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    Thank you very much for your support. I actually asked a post-doc to write me one, since I did not have any time. deadlines are tomorrow. The worst part is that all the schools that I am applying for know him and I was hopeful of an admission with his support...He ruined all of my dreams...I wish he could have told me from the beginning. I spent a lot of time and money for the application process... – MayT Jan 15 '15 at 5:08
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While this is unacceptable behaviour, it it not uncommon at all. Many of my friends doing Master in Korea were in exactly the same situations as yours when they wanted to apply for a PhD in the US. Even worse, their advisers wrote for them bad LoRs, so that they could be rejected. Somehow they were all accepted, because doing Master in Korea often results in lots of publications.

  • Your first question: there is nothing you can do with your adviser. Your LoR should come from a prof. who really wants you to be accepted, and writes a LoR with his best effort. A bad LoR is much worse than no LoR at all.

  • Your second question: do not worry about what you can't control. Instead, try to make the best application with all you have.

When I wrote my Master thesis, I was having a family problem and couldn't focus. As a result, my adviser didn't satisfy about my work. Of course, he didn't want to keep me for a PhD, and was willing to write a LoR for me. But I thought his LoR would not be strong, so I chose not to get a LoR from him. This is not really a problem for me when applying for a PhD in EU, because most of positions required a Skype interview (and some followed by on-site interview).

  • Thank you very much for your support. I actually asked a post-doc to write me one, since I did not have any time. deadlines are tomorrow. The worst part is that all the schools that I am applying for know him and I was hopeful of an admission with his support...He ruined all of my dreams...I wish he could have told me from the beginning. I spent a lot of time and money for the application process...also Im scared of him now, what if he makes trouble for me in defending my thesis. He can easily do that I guess since he is the dean...Thanks again – MayT Jan 15 '15 at 5:10

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