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I am a undergrad student, and I am currently conducting summer research under a professor.

During our last meeting, I have revealed that I wish to go to school A for my graduate study. But my prof rather wanted me to stay at my current school for master/phd; i.e., stay and work for him.

Well, I have already spent 3 years in my current undergrad school and I know it too well it is not where I want to go.

The problem is that, this prof is the only person who can comment on my research experience/potential. (Because I have been working 2 years with him; this year is the second year).

Right now, I can sense something not right in the relationship between my prof and I. At the end, if I go ahead and ask him to write me a recommendation letter, I am sure he would write one. But the question is, there can be a chance that he writes negatively, such that I would get rejected everywhere, and have nowhere to go except staying at my current school and do graduate study with him.

What should I do?


More detail info:

There used to be a PhD student who published quality paper and taking care of things in the lab. The Prof is almost always away so he definely need someone to do this kind of lab managing job. As far as I know, none of his graduate students publish paper for 3 years in a row except for that Phd student. Currently, that PhD student is graduated this year so I guess he was looking for a candidate as a replacement.

  • 6
    the "can" part is vague for me. Can you give some detail how do you smell a rat? – Ooker Jun 16 '15 at 8:34
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    Writing a negative letter for this reason (i.e. because your prof wants to keep you, not because your work is actually bad) is outright unethical. Enough so that, if he actually does it, I'd strongly suggest that you not stay and work for him at all, because who knows what other ethical violations he would make you deal with. – David Z Jun 16 '15 at 10:48
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    The fact that your advisor wants to work with you, does not necessarily mean that he wants to destroy your career if you go somewhere else. It is like assuming that if you break up with your girlfriend / boyfriend he / she will kill your cat and burn your house. It is still possible but it is not the most common scenario. So, talk things with your advisor and see where he stands, before assuming the worst. – Alexandros Jun 16 '15 at 12:43
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    Do you have any evidence whatsoever that the professor might write a negative letter just to destroy your chances of going anywhere else? Or are you (sorry to be blunt, but it needs to be said) just being paranoid? It would reflect extremely badly on your professor if he wrote letters to people in his own field saying "This student is bad" and then took you on as his own student. – David Richerby Jun 16 '15 at 12:45
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    I've had worse: a Prof committing to writing a LOR and lying to me and telling me that she did it when she didn't send the letter on purpose in order to get me rejected from the school I tried to transfer to. Luckily I got accepted somewhere else and was out of there. – confused Jun 16 '15 at 22:00
67

Writing bad letters of recommendation because of personal disappointment about a student leaving is so disproportionately unethical that I cannot believe that it happens with any significant frequency. It is not what I would be worried about.

In the end, most professors take pride in their students growing up, going out into the world, and being successful. Students are a bit our kids too -- sure, it would be nice if the kids stayed in the neighborhood, could continue to mow the lawn, and come over for dinner twice a week; but if they move out and are successful, we're proud nonetheless and hope they stay in contact. And if there's something we can help for them to be successful (like writing letters of recommendation), then that's what we do!

  • From workplace stackexchange: What's worse then giving a reference to an employee who leaves for a better job, keeping employees who aren't capable of finding a better job. – Jack Bauer Oct 7 '17 at 14:40
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Having only worked with one research supervisor, if he/she wants to screw you over you are basically screwed and there is not much you can do. If your CV lists research experience and you do not have a letter of recommendation from the supervisor, that is essentially the same as, and possibly worse than, having a negative letter.

I find it hard to believe that a supervisor would hold an undergraduate student "hostage" since there is no upside to the supervisor. A supervisor might stop investing time in an undergraduate student that he/she knows is leaving, but that does not mean the supervisor will write a bad letter. I would suggest talking to him/her and try and figure out what is going on.

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    A friend of mine in a similar situation got a completely trashing letter, saying she was incompetent, unreliable, lazy... When she discovered it, she stop sending that letter and got accepted to every place she applied to. It is not common practice, but sadly it does happen. – Davidmh Jun 16 '15 at 10:31
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    @Davidmh while I do not doubt that it happens, I find it hard to believe that someone would write such a letter. That said, even a bad letter like that, which makes it clear that there is an issue with the supervisor, might be better than no letter. – StrongBad Jun 16 '15 at 10:38
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    @Davidmh can you tell how did she find out? – Ooker Jun 16 '15 at 12:23
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    @Ooker for one of the applications she had to send the documents herself. – Davidmh Jun 16 '15 at 13:49
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    @Davidmh: Wow, that adds ineptitude to malice on the side of the professor :-( – Wolfgang Bangerth Jun 16 '15 at 17:08
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Preamble: If you are in the US there is something that is legal and built into the system that you can use as a last recourse. It is generally frowned upon and you should certainly try the other avenues first (cf. the other answers). I'm including the option here not to advocate it, but to make sure you are fully informed of your options.


Are you based in the United States and applying to graduate schools based in the United States? The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act stipulates the applicants have the right to inspect the letters of recommendation written on their behalf, unless said right was explicitly waived by the student. During the application process you will almost always encounter a question "Do you waive your right to review the letters of reference?" while entering the list of your referees. If you feel you have a real cause for concern, you can leave that box un-ticked. If someone actually wrote you a negative letter for the reason you described, it would be highly unethical; if you have the evidence (not just the letter written, but also proof of intent behind the letter) you can get him or her in big trouble.


Typically when a writer is asked to submit reference letters for applicants to graduate programs which fall under such a disclosure/waiver rule, the writer is informed at the time of submission whether the applicant has or has not waived the the right to view the letter. Hence not waiving your rights can have the desired effect as a deterrent.

On the other hand, some people view not waiving your right as indicating your own lack of trust in the letter writer (which in your case will be true) and will hence believe that the letter writers may not have been as candid in their evaluation as they otherwise would have. So this may, in some situations, adversely affect the perception of your application.

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    Many profs won't write recs unless the right to inspect is waived. I won't, and many of my colleages won't. If I can't write a particularly strong letter, I tell the student this, and ask if they still want my letter. If I can't write anything positive at all, I won't write the letter. – Scott Seidman Jun 16 '15 at 22:17
  • @ScottSeidman: everything you say is true. But the OP is specifically worried about the case when a professor will deliberately write a negative letter, and from his or her point of view it is exactly when your comment does not apply. – Willie Wong Jun 17 '15 at 7:48
  • If the student doesn't intend to waive, don't surprise the recommended with this. A likely scenario is that the letter, even if it was going to be strong, won't be submitted. – Scott Seidman Jun 17 '15 at 9:14
  • The better action is to ask if the letter will be strong, and then just trust the prof – Scott Seidman Jun 17 '15 at 9:15
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    @Calchas, among other things, it facilitates frank communication between admissions committees and the recommender. It's simply a facilitator for ho esty. – Scott Seidman Jun 19 '15 at 1:15
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This seems a tricky situation. What you could do is try to write your motivation letter in a way that the people reading it alongside the recommendation would

  1. find it a classical (good) motivation letter if the recommendation of your professor is sincere and positive and

  2. understand that the recommendation letter is not sincere if you prof does write a bad letter for the sake of keeping you at you current place.

This is not easy, but you could explain that you prof asked you to stay and state why you think the place you apply to would be a better fit for you (but do not despise you current place openly, it would reflect bad on you).

This answer is not completely satisfactory to me, but I do not see anything best right now.

  • This is actually a brilliant chess move. If the Prof is really antagonistic (he may not like the idea of the student leaving, but he needn't be actually antagonistic) that leaves you all options open. Furthermore, if you speak well and and positively about your current place and constructively and professionally about your work (if that's justified), then a negative reference letter by the Prof may actually reflect bad on himself. However, note that, while the Prof is disappointed and shows his emotion, this does not mean that he would actually give an unprofessional reference. – Captain Emacs Dec 17 '15 at 21:41
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Do you have some other reason to want to move? eg, proximity to family, climate, wanting a change of scene? Even if your professor is scheming in the way you are suggesting, there would be no incentive for him to write a negative letter if he knows you will be leaving your current university regardless.

  • It's very rare to stay at the same place for undergrad and graduate school. Staying put would look suspicious on your CV. So moving just for grad school should be a legitimate reason in itself. – user137 Jun 16 '15 at 14:02
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    @user137 I wouldn't say it's very rare, nor would it look suspicious. If you do your PhD and postdoc at the same place, that's a bit more suspicious, but not necessarily bad. – Kimball Jun 16 '15 at 14:04
  • @Kimball We might be doing different research. In biology type work I barely hear about it. – user137 Jun 16 '15 at 14:08
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    @user137 I don't know about biology, but I know many math students (but still a minority) who went to the same grad school as undergrad for largely geographical reasons. Also, I think this practice may be more common in some countries/universities than others. – Kimball Jun 16 '15 at 14:16
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Since it sounds like you have at least a year left at your current institution, I would suggest building a few relationships with other professors who can write for you -- diversification is almost always a good strategy.

The other thing to remember is that although recommendations help, graduate schools are most interested in your ability to add value to their program through tuition and/or your skills as a researcher/scholar.

So, if you are in interested in g-school, I would think about your overall CV and demonstrating you can add value to a given program. One way to get a head start is to contact programs and professors you are interested in working with and ask about their plans and how you can help push their research agenda forward.

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My advice: 'run....'. A professor who only cares about him/herself is a bad sign. If I know a student of mine can get into a top school, I'll do all my best to help him/her get in. Then before he/she leaves, I'll say, do remember me when you're famous!

Hopefully in a few years time he/she will give me his/her first born :)

2

Just bring things out into the open. Here's an example of how to do this.

Over coffee, tell the prof something about your motivation to spread your wings and seek a challenge at another university (it should be something true, but it could be exaggerated -- for example, I want to go to New Orleans because it's the birthplace of jazz, or I want to go to the U of Mich because that's where my parents met, or I want to go to Cornell because I love waterfalls).

Next, say that you have really appreciated the opportunity he has given you to get involved in research; you realize that not all undergrads get an opportunity like what you had.

Let him sing your praises at this point, if he is so inclined.

Interrupt when he's mostly done and say that you realize that when a professor spends a lot of time mentoring a student, it's generally an investment in the future, and you feel bad about leaving him high and dry.

Let him talk about his regrets about you leaving if he wants to.

Remind him about the waterfalls or the jazz or whatever from step one.

See if he shows some understanding and support. If not, confess your fear that he will want you to stay so badly that his feelings might color his letter of recommendation.

Then listen.

(By the way, I would leave alcohol out of it.)

0

In my opinion, so far in here there is no satisfied answer for this situation. As StrongBad says, "if he/she wants to screw you over you are basically screwed and there is not much you can do". I think if you really want to actively do something, so that you can have the feeling of controlling the situation, you will need a plan...

People tend to react with an event with the emotion they are carrying. For example, if a person just have a meeting and you can't ask them directly because it's confidential, you can offer them a cup of coffee right after they has a meet. If they answers in a positive way, you can conclude that the meeting has positive results. If they answers in a negative way, the results might be negative.

> Make a good plan before applying this in your situation. I propose this: try to know the time he is free, and the drink he likes. After he finishes writing your LOR, meet him in person, invite him to have a drink in his free time. Or you can bring the drink to him directly as thank. Don't focus on the word he answers, focus on how comfortable he is when answering you.

There are higher techniques to figure out what others are hiding. If you want to know more, I recommend you the book You Can Read Anyone, but you can also google them easily. Note that when you trying to figure out what his altitude is, your plan is also what you hide to him. If he has some experience in psychology, be careful but at the same time be natural.


But, don't get me wrong. I really try to avoid using these techniques as best as I can. If he doesn't know the plan, good for you, but if he finds something unnatural in your action, the least bad thing is now he sees you as a problem, to the worst thing that you have a cold war to your advisor. Learning martial arts isn't for using, but for avoiding to be hurt.

While there's life, there's hope. Try to reconcile to your advisor if you can. Try to ask, with honestly (and with some techniques if you need), why he needs you to stay with him. Propose other candidate that can meet his expectation. This will be the best for both world.

As others have said, the best for you is the best for him. So the best for him, is the best for you.

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    Wow, there is some solid pseudo-science hard at work in this answer :-) – Wolfgang Bangerth Jun 16 '15 at 17:10
  • you mean the plan? I'm not an expert in this field, but so far it works to me... – Ooker Jun 17 '15 at 2:36
  • Come on, subliminally manipulating others to tell the truth without them knowing it? I'm sure the CIA would love to know about your technique. – Wolfgang Bangerth Jun 17 '15 at 17:16
  • It's not about knowing the truth, it's about extract as much information as you can. You won't (and maybe never) know the truth with this. I don't think this is called "manipulation", although it can also be hard to refuse it completely. – Ooker Jun 18 '15 at 4:11

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