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It has happened to me the second time that I was turned down by a referee (different one) not taking his responsibility seriously. Of course, I let each of them know about my application and the reference request well ahead of time.

The first time I requested the reference letter I was told that everything would be sent on time, etc. But one week before the application deadline the reference was still not sent (even despite my reminders) and so I quickly found another referee who rescued me. I never told the first referee that I found somebody else and the referee never got back to me over the email again...

The second time I had the "advantage" (or rather a deception) of being able to meet the referee everyday in person and so the day before the deadline I reminded that professor in person concerning the reference, also sent emails, etc. He promised into my eyes he would send it on that very day, but the deadline passed and the reference was never sent... No, the referee did not die, did not have an accident or a bomb in his office. They just could not be bothered.

I think it is very sad to know of the existence of such people and their behaviours, especially considering the fact that they used to be (some of them still are, probably should not be) my close collaborators with whom I spent many hours together. I believed them. I thought I knew them, but only afterwards I realized that whatever smooth words they may have told me in the past, they did not mean them.

How do I ensure that the reference gets sent on time, how can I determine that I can trust somebody who I test the first time?

Usually more than one reference is required and I know that on some people I can rely 100%. Their yes means yes and their no means no. But what about the new referees? I was thinking of telling them of a deadline that is e.g. 15 days earlier than the actual deadline and in case no reference gets sent by my deadline, then I would contact an emergency referee to send the reference by the actual deadline. But sometimes, an electronic application tells the referees of the actual deadline and therefore I cannot make my own deadline.

Also note that many referees do not want to give you their reference that you may read it, but rather want to send it directly to the application committee. Thus something like having a backup letter, I am afraid, is not an option, especially in cases when the reference needs to be signed electronically by the referee oneself.

  • 1
    This is not really specific to Academia. You may have more success at Workplace, or even Personal Productivity. If you don't get good answers here, you may want to consider flagging your question for a moderator's attention and requesting that it be migrated to one of those sites (possibly after editing it). – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Oct 3 '15 at 8:59
  • @StephanKolassa I would disagree. Academics aren't very like the rest of the world, especially in maths. – Jessica B Oct 3 '15 at 9:00
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    If your referee doesn't send a reference when you've reminded them just before the deadline, they don't think it matters enough for their time, and there's little you can do to change that. It's worth noting that many mathematicians assume all deadlines for references are flexible (ie that if the rest of the application is in on time then the reference being a few days late won't matter). I've seen job adverts that are explicit about this not being the case, which suggests that normally it's close enough to true. – Jessica B Oct 3 '15 at 19:51
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    Whenever possible, I ask more people. If I need 3, I ask 4 professors :) – Fábio Dias Oct 4 '15 at 23:45
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    They didn't miss any letters yet, but one more is not that big of a deal. And sometimes they are on vacation or just overwhelmingly busy... stuff happens – Fábio Dias Oct 6 '15 at 20:59
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But one week before the application deadline the reference was still not sent (even despite my reminders)

This strikes me as entirely normal. I try to write most letters a few weeks before they are due, but I end up writing some letters during the last week, and I believe this is pretty typical. I don't have any statistics handy, but I'd bet that a substantial fraction of all letters of recommendation are written in the last week (or later!). It may be stressful for applicants, but it's not unusual or particularly worrisome.

It's also worth noting that many deadlines for letters are actually flexible, and experienced faculty often know which ones are. For example, NSF graduate research fellowship deadlines are absolutely inflexible (if you miss the deadline by one minute then you can't submit at all), while graduate programs in mathematics at U.S. universities are almost always flexible about letters (if you submit a letter a few days past the stated deadline, it won't do any harm). Someone who doesn't seem to care about a deadline may just know that it doesn't actually matter. It's not nice to do this without explaining the situation to the student, but it's not necessarily as terrible as it looks to someone who thinks the deadline matters.

Unfortunately, a few people really are irresponsible, and I don't know of any ideal solution to this problem. One strategy is to propose frequent reminders, along the lines of "I know you are juggling a lot of things this semester, so I wonder whether you'd like increasingly frequent reminders to minimize the chances of a last-minute rush. I could send you a reminder e-mail once a week for the last four weeks before the deadline, and once a day for the last four days (of course stopping once you tell me it's submitted). Would that be helpful? Or what sort of reminders would you prefer?" I doubt anyone would be offended to be asked, since they could always ask for fewer reminders. This can't guarantee that someone will make the deadline, but it minimizes the role of forgetfulness or poor planning.

I was thinking of telling them of a deadline that is e.g. 15 days earlier than the actual deadline and in case no reference gets sent by my deadline

I would feel a little offended if an applicant deliberately misstated the deadline in this way. As an alternative, you could explain that you feel very nervous about deadlines and ask whether your recommender could please submit their letter two weeks before the actual deadline. They might not agree, but the worst case scenario is that they say that's not convenient. (I would agree if someone asked me, assuming they gave me plenty of time to write the letter, but not if they asked too close to their proposed deadline.) I wouldn't generally recommend asking this, since it would come across as eccentric, but eccentricity is better than dishonesty.

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As a practical matter, you can't ensure that the person will actually send the letter.

However, there are some things you can do to increase the chances. First, consider how reliable the person has been in other interactions with you. If somebody has a history of being unreliable, then either avoid them or make backup plans. (And if this is somebody you have not had any interactions with before, then why would you be asking them for a letter of recommendation? Even if they did send one in on time, it would almost certainly be a weak letter -- not out of malice, but out of lack of history from which to build a strong letter.) Sometimes, if you have reason to believe that the person has written a letter of recommendation for a third party in the past, you can ask that third party what the experience was like.

Second, make it as easy as possible for them to write the letter. Provide them with at least your CV and an informal reminder list of previous interactions you have had with them and other pertinent details. Do not just assume that they will remember all the details you hope that they will talk about.

In extreme cases, you can even provide them a draft of the letter you hope they will write. However, some people may be offended by this, so I wouldn't go this far unless you have okayed it with the person first, and I wouldn't even bring it up unless you have strong reason to believe it would be welcome.

  • Providing a draft is against my morals. That has already been discussed at academia.stackexchange.com/questions/16529/… – Dávid Natingga Oct 7 '15 at 12:36
  • @anonymous_mathematician: Sure. I don't like it either. But in certain groups, it seems to be very common, and in those groups, it could make the difference between getting a letter on time and not. The tricky part is that some people might be offended at the very idea, so it's hard to know whether it's even safe to ask. – Chris Okasaki Oct 7 '15 at 13:19
  • If something is against your principles, then you know that you are not going to do it, and so you do not need to even worry whether to ask that question. – Dávid Natingga Oct 7 '15 at 13:31

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