I'm considering applying into an (individual) PHD program, after graduating from a top Russian university (computer science) with moderately high grades in 2013 and 3 years of professional experience.

However, I didn't notice whether mentioning recommendation isan necessary case for applying within the official and semi-official sources, I suppose it would be useful. But I'm not entirely sure how it is technically done.

I have a supervisor at the university, whom I have not stayed in contact with since 2013. Is it appropriate to email him with "Hello, I've decided to apply into a PHD program, could you provide a recommendation letter"? Do I get it correctly: if his answer is "yes, sure", then I will include his email in my cover letter (or CV?) and my potential PHD supervisor will send him an email, if interested in my case? Is it true that I will not see the recommendation, at all?

I also have a job, which is (somehow) relevant to my potential field of study. Getting a recommendation from my employer would be possible, but is it worth it? In one hand, our company is small and not widely known. On the other hand, it is pretty innovative and lead by a professor of the same University, at which I got an undergraduate degree. He personally didn't teach me, but I think he can confirm my research skills, as research is what I mostly do as my job. The output were not academic papers, but improving stuff within our developing tasks.

If the target country does matter: I am interested in German-speaking European countries, primarily Germany.

  • By "(individual) PHD program", do you mean an "unstructured" doctorate as discussed in some other questions on this site? Jan 6, 2016 at 21:13
  • 3
    Since you want to apply in Germany: If they don't explicitly ask for LOR, they don't expect them although submitting them won't harm your application. We don't have that system here.
    – user9482
    Jan 6, 2016 at 21:14
  • @O.R.Mapper Yes, individual means the traditional approach when one is working mostly independently under the supervision of an advisor. Another approach is a structured doctorate, when researchers are rather working in groups and attending seminars. Jan 6, 2016 at 22:47
  • @Roland Is it also true for Austria and Switzerland? Jan 6, 2016 at 22:51
  • @SergeiTikhomirov I don't really know. I have written a LOR for someone applying for a master program at ETH Zürich, so they might expect one (but I believe they had asked for LOR explicitly).
    – user9482
    Jan 7, 2016 at 7:57

2 Answers 2


I have no experience applying to German institutions, but I have applied to programs in the US, Norway, Netherlands. My answer is based of those experiences.

If the program you are applying to does not specify that you provide recommendations, don't put them in your application. If the committee thinks you are a strong candidate, and they want a recommendation, they will ask for it. It is entirely expected however, that you should be able to present at least two strong recommendations upon request, in which case you provide their email and phone number in the application.

Since you have both academic and industry experience, it would be valuable to represent both. Email your supervisor from the University you attended and ask them if he/she can provide a strong recommendation for you. Briefly summarize what your research included just to help refresh their memory. It never hurts to mention why you enjoyed your research and why you are inspired to get a PhD.

Good luck!


Is it appropriate to email him with "Hello, I decided to get a PHD, could you provide a recommendation"? Do I get it correctly: if his answer is "yes, sure", then I include his email in my cover letter (or CV?)

You need to contact him, anyway, and he will decide to act as a recommender for you or not. He even might be have more documents and evidences about you; as an instance, if you had passed any course under his supervision, he may ask you to send him his transcript to recall your grade of that course.

Will my potential PHD supervisor emails him if interested in actually getting the recommendation?

If the admission process is supposed to be handled by the department, in a centralized manner, your recommender will upload his LoR, electronically. Then both admission committee and your potential supervisor will be able review the document, deservedly.

Is it true that I don't see the recommendation at any point?

Yes, as a rule of thumb...

Getting a recommendation from my employer would be no problem, but does it worth it?

As a matter of fact, you can declare any one as your reference, could who declare your capabilities, as well as possible. An employer would be a wise option, as (s)he could illustrate many effective points about you, such as your innovation in the professional job, your good job to use the theoretical points in the real projects, your great sense teamwork, and so on...

But... Some programs just accept the academic LoRs, not the professional type... So, before, providing that, you better check the credibility with the target department.


  • Thanks! Didn't get the "you better check the credibility with the target department" part: as I see it now, I first get in touch with a potential supervisor, provide him with CV, LoR etc, and if he is convinced, I send a pack of documents to the department -- but that's more of a bureaucratic side. Is it supposed to be written smwhr on department's website: "We do (not) accept professional LoRs"? Jan 6, 2016 at 16:06
  • Yes, in some considerable cases... For example, some Canadian universities do assert, explicitly, within their webpages about the essence of the academic LoRs. If your case has not declared the case, frankly, just contact with the department and ask about it... You must notice that the department would apply some checking about your documents and then the supervisors can browse your case...
    – user41207
    Jan 6, 2016 at 16:13
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    "If the admission process is supposed to be handled by the department" - note that this is often not the case in Germany. Getting into a position to pursue a PhD is often an individual agreement between a professor and a prospective PhD candidate, and only after they have agreed about everything, any bureaucratic steps via the department are triggered. Jan 6, 2016 at 21:14
  • Supplement to my above comment: This is especially likely when looking at "unstructured" doctorates, as the OP has clarified in a comment. Jan 6, 2016 at 22:59

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