Currently I am finishing my masters (one year) in economics at a Canadian university and am intending to apply to Canadian universities to do a PhD.

The issue I have is that in the courses I had taken last semester the professors were closed to student contact making it near impossible to build relationships.

For my applications I intended to rely upon professors from my undergraduate university that know me quite well and who I know will write high-quality letters.

A colleague of mine mentioned that when applying for a PhD program, it is expected that my references will come from my masters university and it is generally not acceptable practice to have references from the undergraduate one.

Is this actually the case? If so, what is the best course of action?

  • 1
    "near impossible to build relationships" does not necessarily imply that he would not write recommendation letter for you. Have you asked him yet?
    – Nobody
    Jan 9, 2013 at 5:12
  • @scaaahu I had already made meetings with several of my professors to talk about references. Before asking this question I had checked the other questions on this site, and I read a response that a neutral letter may do more harm then good which has me a bit concerned as well.
    – user4383
    Jan 9, 2013 at 5:26
  • @D.W. posted an excellent answer; however, if your M.S. studies did not end well due to "circumstances beyond your control," then you have to get creative and find non-M.S. references that can speak to your research capabilities/potential. Getting into a great Ph.D. program without references from your M.S. institution can be done.
    – Mad Jack
    May 8, 2014 at 0:33

2 Answers 2


A Ph.D. program is about research. Have you done research? If not, how do you know you want to study for a Ph.D.?

It is your responsibility to seek out opportunities for research. Protestations that your professors were not open to communication are not likely to be viewed positively by an admissions committee. If you've had some research experiences, have you considered asking those you worked with for a recommendation letter? If you haven't had any research experience, that will make it significantly harder to be admitted into a Ph.D. program, no matter who writes your letters.

And if you haven't been inspired to seek out opportunities to get involved in research, that would make me wonder whether you will truly enjoy a Ph.D. program. Going to a Ph.D. program "by default" or because "that's what everyone is doing" is a terrible idea; you should only join a Ph.D. program if you are passionate and excited about doing research, because that's what you are going to be spending most of your time doing in a Ph.D. program, and that is what Ph.D. programs are designed to prepare you for. So, you might also want to do a little bit of soul-searching to figure out whether a Ph.D. program truly is the right direction for you. If it's not, it's much better to find out now rather than after spending several years in a Ph.D. program.

It is acceptable to have letters of reference from a mixture of your undergraduate and your masters university. People would probably ask questions if all of your letters were from your undergraduate university and none were from your masters university. That might make the admissions committee wonder: What were you doing with your time at the M.S. program? Why didn't you seek out opportunities to get involved in research and other activities beyond coursework? Is there some hidden story? (For instance, did you completely alienate all the professors in your M.S. program? Or, do you have little self-drive to do research? Or, maybe you have little experience with research, and thus no idea whether you are good at and enjoy research, and thus little basis to judge whether a Ph.D. program is a good fit for you.)

That said, the most important thing is to have letters from people who know you well, and who know well how to evaluate candidates for Ph.D. programs. So, which professors (or other established researchers) know you well and can best comment on your research ability or research potential?

  • 2
    As you mentioned, though, the instructors who can best comment on research are the ones you want to get letters from. . . .
    – aeismail
    Jan 9, 2013 at 12:30
  • That makes sense. I have four previous RAships and a publication I co-authored with a former professor - all from undergraduate. Since the professors I worked with here would better be able to attest to me research capabilities they may be my more appropriate choice.
    – user4383
    Jan 9, 2013 at 21:21
  • 2
    @Jordan, yup, sounds like asking those professors (who you've done past research with) might make the most sense with. Certainly do ask the former professor who you co-authored a paper with and who you've done four RAships with -- based upon what you've told us, that sounds like a perfect person to have as one of your letter-writers.
    – D.W.
    Jan 9, 2013 at 22:11
  • 1
    +1 for needing at least one letter from your MS faculty.
    – JeffE
    Jan 10, 2013 at 5:12

Not really. It is assumed that if you are a good student you would be able to get good reference letters from your masters courses. It would have to be from your undergraduate thesis advisor or some sort of exceptional activity you did during undergrad, not just a regular class with a good grade, if at all.

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