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It's the time of year we lecturers get asked for references from graduating taught postgraduates who seek to move on to do a PhD. While I'm generally happy to act as a referee, I'm unsure whether there is a best / standard practice here. I'm naturally more inclined to agree to providing a reference when a) I remember the student, and b) the student's work had merit.

Is this wrong? Should I provide a reference even when I don't remember the student or their work wasn't particularly good?

  • 3
    I've said no to students who I caught cheating in my class, and also to students who just barely scraped by with the minimum passing grade. In borderline cases, I will voice my reservations, and if the student still says they really want a letter from me, I make sure to show it to them before I send it out, so they know what they're getting. – Ben Crowell Oct 5 '15 at 19:59
  • @BenCrowell Did students who you caught cheating ask you for reference letters? :O – Nick S Oct 18 '16 at 1:36
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You don't have to provide any student with a recommendation. In fact, it can actually be a detriment to the student to have a tepid recommendation. If you find yourself unable to write anything beyond what can be confirmed by a transcript (e.g., that the student did take your class or that the student got an A in the course), then that is usually a sign that you're not someone who should be writing a recommendation letter.

My personal method is if I know the student very well and s/he did good work, I write the letter. If I cannot recall who the student is, I ask for a one-on-one meeting to get a sense of why s/he is asking me for a letter. If there is a compelling reason that I (instead of someone else) should write the letter, then I usually agree with the caveat that it may not be a very strong letter because I'm not as familiar with their work. If there is no reason that I should write the letter over someone else, then I usually decline.

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    I don't know about the USA, but in Italy in the undergraduate and also graduate level is not very common to get to know a professor. There is no time to interact, ever! You can ask some questions at the end of the lecture but they won't remember you. the only time to interact would be when writing a master thesis, but for that time you probably already sent the applications! – Ant Oct 6 '15 at 14:56
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Should I provide a reference even when I don't remember the student or their work wasn't particularly good?

(tl;dr: no)

Why would you? The entire purpose of references is that you are staking your name and reputation on your declaration that you know a particular student and think their work makes them worthy of recommendation.

If their work was rubbish or, worse, you don't even have a clue who the student is, how can you possibly be in a position to write them a reference?!

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You should be honest up front about how strong a recommendation you can write.

While of course there's nothing stopping you from refusing to write it at all, that seems to me like a somewhat unhelpful thing to do. Even if you have nothing good to say about the student, why wouldn't you give your opinion of them when asked? You don't have to, but why not? So, the question you're asking shouldn't really come up.

In practice, students probably realize that a bad recommendation won't do them much good, so if you're at a point where you hesitate to write it because of how bad your relationship was, they probably wouldn't want the recommendation from you anyway. If you tell them ahead of time, "I can write it but I won't be able to write a positive one because I don't feel comfortable vouching for you to that extent", the student will put two and two together and try to look for another recommender who will write a better letter. Perhaps they had a "backup option" in mind: Someone who hasn't worked with them as much, but might have a more favorable opinion.

Often a student will have a list of possible people to ask for a recommendation, and it is helpful to know if someone at the top of the list won't write a good one, because they can just move on to the next person. Probably the student would prefer that you told them you won't write a strong recommendation instead of agreeing out of a feeling of obligation and then writing a weak letter.

I think some people also deliberately agree, and then write a negative letter (whether through outright criticism or just damning praise) to sabotage the student's career. I personally find this dishonest and mean, but the recommendation is supposed to be a confidential appraisal of the student, and I can see how some feel it is justified (for instance, perhaps you wish to stop a very careless student from becoming a heart surgeon because it will put lives in danger). So, I suppose it's your decision whether you think the student is just not good enough to help, or so bad that you should actively impede them.

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