I just want to find out if this is normal, and see if anyone has any advice.

I recently decided to apply for a PhD program, and have been trying to get letters of recommendation. I first went with the professors I thought could give me the best recommendations because they knew me best, but when a week went by with no answer to my emails I did some research and found both were on leave (one with no estimated date of return). I decided to go through all the courses I'd taken, and organize the contact information for each professor. I found that, out of 12 different professors, only five are still active at the university. And wouldn't you know it, but none of the professors who gave me A's are active! (I know that grades aren't the most important thing in a letter of recommendation, I just thought it was an extra weird bit that all my B and B+ professors were still teaching).

I worked full-time while getting my MA, and so I didn't go to office hours or schmooze with the professors before or after class (because I was coming straight from work with no time to spare, and after class I was either going right back to work or tired because it was late). I participated in classes, but I don't think any professor would say they know me well. Am I screwed as far as getting into a PhD program, even if I get recommendations about my excellent academic potential or whatever, if the letters aren't personal?

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    In short, if no faculty are directly acquainted with you, what could they say apart from echoing your grade? Your transcript already shows that... – paul garrett Nov 22 '15 at 23:23
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    If they are not dead, it does not matter they are inactive. Ask them for letters anyway. Busy people need to be asked more than once. – Anonymous Physicist Nov 23 '15 at 1:07
  • Often it greatly helps if you offer to provide them with a draft reference letter that they can adjust. It reduces the amount of work (changing a letter vs writing one from scratch), and therefore increases the chances that they would provide you with a recommendation letter. – Danny Ruijters Nov 23 '15 at 14:37
  • @paulgarrett Well, I expect they could probably say "this student's coursework and particpation in discussion shows facility with analysis and abstract thinking," something like that. – Lalaroo Nov 23 '15 at 20:16
  • Ah, if there was memorable participation in discussion, that might go beyond what the transcript shows, but "not knowing you well" is exactly the problem: to get into a competitive program you'll be competing with people who do have faculty who can say more. – paul garrett Nov 23 '15 at 21:17

The most common and most valuable letters come from the professor(s) that were your academic advisor(s), or that otherwise directed or participated in your thesis work.

Not to be acerbic, but you made the mistake of treating your master's program as a place where you went to sit and look at powerpoint slides, and made use of your professors as if they were just there to read from powerpoint slides. A typical response to a recommendation query from such a professor is likely to be "I don't think I'm a good person to write you a recommendation, because I will not be able to speak to your strengths and abilities."

They say this to you because there is a well-established unwritten and unspoken protocol in PhD admissions, that of the "damning with faint praise" letter. The committee reads that letter as "this professor either had nothing to say about the candidate, or chose not to say bad things about the candidate. In either case, the professor had nothing GOOD to say about the candidate."

Beyond that...It is quite acceptable to ask an inactive professor (retired, on leave, etc.) to pen a recommendation. It's entirely their prerogative whether to accommodate you though. Only your direct thesis advisor feels a burden of responsibility to write anything at all.

  • I take issue with the inference that I treating my professors as if they "were just there to read from powerpoint slides." I mentioned that I participated in classes, and I turned in work that showed consideration of the topics and class discussions. What I didn't do, which is something I've seen mentioned over and over again, is chat up the professors during office hours or before and after class. I don't think you have to do that to not be "treating [the] master's program as a place where you [go] to look at powerpoint slides." – Lalaroo Nov 23 '15 at 20:15
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    @Lalaroo, I am just taking what you put in your post at face value. If your Profs don't know you further than a name in their grade book, then that's your situation, and no matter what the reasons it came out that way, that's where you are. Professors don't want to be "chatted up," what they want is to encounter engaged students who engage and access them. That typically involves putting in a bit more than just classtime. Be that as it may, it's tangential to your current conundrum. – dwoz Nov 23 '15 at 21:22
  • @Lalaroo One of my better recommendation letters was written by a professor that I only had classes with and only went to his office hours a couple of times. There's a difference between the expected participation in class and participating in a meaningful and memorable way, and the latter is the only way to get a decent recommendation letter from just class. – Roger Fan Nov 25 '15 at 3:02
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    chat up the professors during office hours or before and after class — I think you misspelled "work with". – JeffE Nov 25 '15 at 4:58
  • @JeffE...lol :) :) – dwoz Nov 25 '15 at 18:23

The high turnover is unusual, and is bad luck for you.

One could say that you didn't go out of your way to make personal connections. On the other hand one could say that you worked efficiently. It's a matter of point of view.

Just follow basic best practice with your applications -- apply to a safety school, a bit of a reach school that makes you drool when you imagine studying there, and something solid, i.e. in between. What will help you control your anxiety is to remind yourself that

  • getting into a PhD program is easier than getting a tenure track teaching job

  • a good admissions committee will look at the whole person, and the whole application; some candidates are stronger in some aspects, some in others

  • as long as the committee is convinced you can do a good job in their program, they will want to admit you, because they are in business to accept and educated students

In your case, if it continues to prove difficult to get the desired types of letters, you may want to consider:

  • contacting the dean or chair of your department to request a letter explaining that the key faculty members are not available, but describing your strengths on the department's behalf

  • including an explanatory note in your application

  • including a reference from an employer

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    "Getting into a PhD program is easier than getting a tenure track teaching job." That's suppose to help control anxiety?! – Roger Fan Nov 25 '15 at 3:00
  • @RogerFan - For one thing, by the time the OP is ready to apply for a tenure track teaching job, he or she will be in a better position to get a strong letter of recommendation. For another, we don't know whether that's the direction the OP wants to go in. – aparente001 Nov 25 '15 at 3:05
  • That was more of a tongue-in-cheek comment. Currently glad that I'm far away from the job market though. – Roger Fan Nov 25 '15 at 3:28

Although it's missing from your title, I think your question is:

Am I screwed as far as getting into a PhD program, even if I get recommendations about my excellent academic potential or whatever, if the letters aren't personal?

I mean, it's not really a "yes" or "no" because there are many other factors other than letter that will impact the admission decision. However, you might want to consider the rhetorical function of the admission letter genre. Like an rhetorical activity, think about your audience (busy academic who doesn't really care about you) and your purpose (getting said academic to write a good letter).

Are you screwed if you cold email someone who has no idea who you are asking them to take time from their career/family to write you an email? Probably. Is there a better, more strategic way? Of course!

Here's a useful strategy everyone should use for recommendation letters:

  1. Email person to ask if they'll do it, but have a draft prepared in advance.
  2. Send the draft to the referee and say,

"I took the liberty of preparing a draft."

You write the draft yourself because they may not recall your interactions with them the same way you do. The letter creates the narrative: your grade, any special assignments, other highlights. They're busy and this really makes it easy for them. The chances are good they will simply print, sign and return.

  1. Our of respect, offer to pay for postage if originals need to be sent by the referee themselves. It's just common courtesy IMHO.

So to answer your question, you're not screwed if you use this strategic approach to the reference letters.

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    Is it really kosher to draft your own recommendation letter? I advise a few students from outside of the US / Western Europe and I know it's not uncommon there, but I still find that a bit icky. If somebody is willing to write you a recommendation letter, they should be willing to actually write it! Of course, you do always offer your personal statement and CV and answer any questions to facilitate that process as much as possible. – Shane Nov 23 '15 at 15:40
  • I believe this approach reduces a number of steps for the referee--especially in this case, where the faculty have moved on and the student is unable to meet them in person. The referee can make any changes they wish. If they with the practice they can ignore the draft. – AllanM Nov 23 '15 at 15:44
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    -1 Writing your own recommendation letter is a no-no. I know its common in some places, but a recommendation letter should be written by the person who will sign at the bottom, not the applicate. – sevensevens Nov 23 '15 at 21:14
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    @Lalaroo, I see where you're coming from. Work within your comfort zone. Whatever the end result, good luck! :-) – AllanM Nov 24 '15 at 0:19
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    @Shane: The question of drafting your own letter is addressed here. It doesn't resolve the issue, but at least it makes it clear that it's controversial. – Nate Eldredge Nov 26 '15 at 1:20

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