I am in the process of changing PhD programs, and my previous supervisor cannot write a letter that is purely positive. The main difficulty is that she wants to include details about what happened at my previous university; however, we do not agree on all these details, and she seems to be unwilling to debate the past. She believes that I should (or I may have to) explain myself and that I can't justify everything I have done in my previous institution.

Other faculty members I have talked to are of the opinion that if I have to explain myself like this then it is not a recommendation letter anymore and recommend not asking her for a reference. This is difficult because I can get other letters, but the strongest letter that I got was from my first supervisor, and I expect the other ones to be good but not stellar.

  • 5
    If you have to "explain" a LoR, it does indeed not sound good to me.
    – xLeitix
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 9:22

3 Answers 3


Not all cases are equivalent. Unfortunately, switching PhD programs is something that is not often done. This is such an exceptional case, that I think it's one of the few instances in which a purely positive letter from a supervisor is not called for.

The basic issue here is that the people reviewing your application need to understand why you left the previous program, and be able to judge whether the issues were environmental (over which you had no control, and therefore would be unlikely to be repeated) or structural (likely to reoccur, and thus reducing the likelihood you'll finish the new program).

Consequently, I would find a recommendation letter from the previous advisor that is only positive highly suspicious. If everything is positive, why are you leaving? Someone needs to explain the situation clearly, and we need to hear from both you and the advisor what each of you believes happened, and why a "fresh start" is needed. If somebody was applying for admission to my PhD program after having started one elsewhere, and if I were at all interested in the candidate, the first thing I would be doing is contact the old advisor to understand why she wrote such a strong letter. Because otherwise the pieces wouldn't "add up" correctly.

Moreover, I don't think you can submit an application for admission to a new PhD program without a statement of support from your old supervisor. If you don't provide a statement from her, it will again look suspicious, and damage your chances of admission. (The person reviewing your application will think: what is this candidate trying to hide?)

  • What kind of issues that are not likely to repeat would make a letter of recommendation less strong if mentioned?
    – JiK
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 11:29
  • I can't really think of anything that would weaken a letter if it was out of the student's control. My point was that problems that can reoccur would weaken the recommendation; factors that wouldn't arise again can explain why it was necessary to stop and therefore help reduce the anxiety that the student will leave again.
    – aeismail
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 12:58

Without knowing the details of this situation, I think its best to assume that any admissions committee might well seek out information from your previous adviser or head of graduate studies before you're offered admission, whether you list those folks as recommenders or not. It would be irresponsible not to do so.

If there have been some problems with your previous situation, and you don't think that your previous adviser can provide a fair letter, my recommendation would be to seek out the chair of graduate studies in your previous program and solicit a letter from that person. Have the conversation about what will go in the letter in advance. You should show that person that you've learned something about yourself from your previous experiences, and that you can look at the experience introspectively and use it to launch a better next experience.

You will be an "atypical" applicant. You need to convince a new program with your application package that you can finish what you start.

My advice is that you might have better luck getting into a large program that typically loses students in the qualification stage. If a program accepts students with the idea that they will lose a third of them at some stage, they may me more willing to take a risk on accepting them if you're willing to take the risk that you might not pass qualifiers.

  • I have mostly considered European PhD opportunities. They usually don't have qualifying exams. Commented May 26, 2015 at 17:38

This "answer" isn't an answer, because Scott already gave a great answer. But I have some additional explanation to offer.

If a letter contains a lot of highly positive material, but also some negative material -- it's better not to submit it. The positives will be diluted (trumped) by the negatives.

Let the new people know that you have not included her in your references because it wasn't a good fit. If they push you for details, you might say she has a strong character. Leave it at that, without getting into any details of any disagreements you may have had with her, i.e. take the moral high ground.

By the way, a recommendation letter is the wrong place for her to be continuing her conflict with you. If she has any doubts about the suitability of the match between you and the new program, she should simply tell you that she would not be the best person to write a recommendation letter for that situation. This is code language for "But I would not be able to write a strongly supportive letter, and you would be better off not submitting what I would write."

She should be supporting your decision to look for a better fit elsewhere, and sending you on your way with a letter that speaks only to the positives, and wishes you well in your future endeavors. This would be analogous to an amicable divorce.

  • "strong character" is unambiguously positive, and wouldn't justify not using someone as a reference unless you are trying to hide something. Perhaps you meant strong (or domineering) personality?
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 19:14
  • @BenVoigt, if "strong character" doesn't convey a sweet and sour feeling to you, then just leave it by the wayside. For many people, it does, but it's okay if it doesn't have that connotation for you. I was only including it as an example. Commented May 31, 2015 at 3:20

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