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... Commented Nov 22, 2015 at 23:23
  • 14
    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. Commented Nov 23, 2015 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. Commented Nov 23, 2015 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
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 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. Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 21:17

2 Answers 2


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
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 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
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 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
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 3:02
  • 1
    chat up the professors during office hours or before and after class — I think you misspelled "work with".
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 4:58
  • @JeffE...lol :) :)
    – dwoz
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 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

  • 1
    "Getting into a PhD program is easier than getting a tenure track teaching job." That's suppose to help control anxiety?!
    – Roger Fan
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 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. Commented Nov 25, 2015 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
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 3:28

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