I am finding the following moral problem, and possibly people with more experience could help me.

One of my Master students (who recently finished his master studies) is applying for PhD positions. Despite my good scientific opinion about him (and his master thesis research), my personal opinion is starting to change. He is a good student, but not an exceptional student. This means that he can of course prepare a good PhD. The problem comes when I start suggesting places he could apply (and you know, getting PhD funding is not straightforward), he has many obstructions: things like 'I do not like this country', 'in this country phd's are of 3 years and with teaching', 'The subject of this phd is the same area of my master, but not directly related', and things like these.

I am happy to help, but this is becoming tiring. As a master thesis advisor I am the one who is expected to write the recommendation letter. After having these encounters I do not feel I should write a very positive letter.

How should I manage this situation?

  • 31
    You did your job suggesting places. It is his responsibility to find one. If you agree to write a recommendation letter, you need to be honest, but if you think you need to "shoot down" the student to be honest, you'd rather not write one. Or you focus on the positive aspects of the student - after all, when he has made a decision, his indecisiveness is not PhD-relevant, I do not see why that should be in the reference, unless it affects his work. Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 14:03
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    A little OT, but tbh I fail to see why the student being picky about where he wants to do his PhD is a problem... Even more enough to change the view on LoRs... Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 19:03
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    I don't see that the student's "obstructions" are at all out of line.
    – SAH
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 20:01
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    Like SAH, I don't see that the objections you listed are at all unreasonable. Basically you think he's not exceptional so he shouldn't be picky in where he applies. I wish I had put more careful thought myself into where to apply. This may be tiring for you, but it is a major life decision for the student with repercussions that will last for some time. Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 21:48
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    @BobRodes Because I really think what the OP is saying is incredibly unfair to the student. The OP's complaint is that the student doesn't want to take the OP's advice about applying to grad school (with, as other people people have pointed out, reasons that don't sound totally insane), and the OP's response is to write a bad letter for someone of whom they have a "good scientific opinion," at a point when they have incredible power over this person's career. Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 4:34

4 Answers 4


This answer is really more a comment, but way too long for one. I still think it speaks to the spirit of your question, which, through the lines and in several comments you later added, appears to also include: Should I write a letter if my colleagues don't agree that my student should pursue a Ph.D.? Should a letter only address academic merit? What is a reasonable limit to the number of letters I am expected to write, including those that end up not being used? Can I take back that I will write letters? Here are some thoughts about the above, and your question proper.

  1. Other answers have addressed if a letter should be positive. I agree that, by and large, it should be. I know of a professor who, when he felt he couldn't write a good letter, wrote a few informal lines of what he felt he could write (which wasn't good), and showed them to the asking student. It's unconventional, but maybe one way of convincing a student to go elsewhere (this doesn't address your special responsibility as a Masters supervisor)

  2. Your colleagues' opinion. Your two comments present the situation a bit differently - one saying that they seem to have given excuses (too busy and such), the other that they feel your student shouldn't do a Ph.D. (no reason shared here). A letter addresses almost exclusively if you feel someone is academically qualified to do a Ph.D., and to a lesser extent obviously also a student's personality as it influences likely success in their studies. For both, and as long as your colleagues don't share facts that could change your academically very positive opinion, what they say and do should not matter. It sounds as if this is one of your first times to write letters. One of the amazing side-effects of being an (assistant) professor is a large degree of independence, and I think you should cherish it. It's understandable that your colleagues' reaction makes you question your own judgement; but in that case I suggest being more upfront and inquisitive: ask them directly, off the record, "Are you really only too busy, or am I missing something? If you have reasons that escaped my attention, I would value your feedback." And when you have all the facts, make your own decision

  3. Should a letter address only address academic merit? Are non-academic factors legitimate reasons for a student to consider? Relevant non-academic reasons can certainly influence your decision to write a letter (e.g., lack of maturity or persistence, poor team-worker); and if you write a letter, you are free to allude to them (which I would tell the student though). However, in this case, allow me to say that as a mentor, you should have ensured that what happened, wouldn't have happened. When you discuss letters in the future, bring up what else matters to the student - before writing any letters. I find it quite understandable that a student prefers not to study in country X, or, in a short program of only 3 years, to be on a fellowship as opposed to having to also teach. If you disagree, present your reasons in this initial discussion, and see if you can convince the student; and if you can't, such universities should not be in the application pool. When I applied, one of my letter-writers tried hard to convince me to remove Princeton from my pool (he had taught there, and found the location dreadful), while making other universities in far-off places (Twin Cities, say) palatable underlining he loved the people there (among others). He failed in the first, and succeeded in the second; so both ended up in my pool. Don't take this (too) personal: it's your student's life

  4. Number of letters. As others have said, on the order of 10 seems certainly normal. I had 15-ish, 20 years back, as I lacked a sense of the strength of my background, and we discussed this too - I was told it was excessive, but people still helped me at this large number when I asked them to please agree. So discuss a number of letters you are willing to write in advance as well. This number will vary (how busy are you? How strongly do you believe in the candidate?), but don't later adjust it down except for very good reasons. Withdrawing an application at a good school is unfortunate and disappointing, but see (3), and it happened for a reason at least some understand. Don't take it personal; just deduct one from the agreed-upon number

  5. Can you take back writing letters? Only for better reasons than i see here, if I understood what happened correctly. Factual information by your colleagues (which shouldn't usually include performance in their classes, but, say, aspects of the student's personality that didn't manifest with you) could lead to legitimate reasons to renege, but they should be very convincing

These were just some thoughts, which I hope weren't too off-base, and I also hope you maybe find of some use.

  • 3
    Beware that in Europe the culture of recommendation letters is quite different from the US: I've never seen anyone around here writing ten different recommendation letters for a candidate. Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 21:09
  • @Massimo: Yes, I agree. I am from central Europe, and so familiar with this. What I write about the number applies mostly to the US (all but one of my applicators were there); and 15 is pretty stupid in hindsight even for the U.S. :) Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 21:12
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    Out of curiosity, why would you write 15 different letters? Can't you just send the same one 15 times? Why would you modify your letter if it's about the same student but a different school?
    – terdon
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 10:00
  • @terdon: When I applied, I assumed that was more or less the case. I read several allusions on ASE to people heavily tailoring their letters to schools, so I'm probably not the best person to answer this...As to the work involved, more letters are still more work (e.g., as/if the recommender mails them directly to the departments). Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 16:02

The general answer is yes, a reference letter should always be positive. If one cannot write a positive letter for a student, one should decline to write a reference.

In this case, the student is having difficulty, perhaps even internal conflict, in choosing programs to which to apply. Captain Emacs has it right in the comments; that's not relevant to his ability to complete a Ph.D. program. If repeated requests to suggest programs are becoming tiring for you, say, "Repeated requests to suggest programs are becoming tiring for me. You are an adult. Find and select the program that you believe will suit you best. I've already suggested those I believe will best suit you."

While you are having that discussion, set a limit, perhaps three to five, on the number of recommendation letters you will write. Applications are usually kept to a reasonable number by the fact of application fees, but sometimes students get carried away anyway.

  • 24
    Five is a pretty small number of schools to apply to, and three is a huge risk. Out of all the people I know who applied to graduate school, I don't think a single person applied to less than eight, with the mode being around 10-12. Putting a limit sounds fine, but putting an unrealistically small limit can be harmful.
    – Roger Fan
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 15:50
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    The graduate school admission committee may require one specifically from the previous supervisor. — This requirement is the student's problem, though, not the advisor's. @user8001
    – Mad Jack
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 16:08
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    @RogerFan It really depends on the country or region: those I know who applied within Europe made no more than 3-5 applications (when I was a student, I applied to 4). Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 17:01
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    @RogerFan I suspect some of this in the US is that the mentality of applying for a lot of undergraduate programs is bleeding over into graduate admissions as well. That said, I agree that 3 is unrealistically low. There's just a bit too much randomness in the process for me to feel comfortable making a recommendation like that. But probably the 10th place you apply isn't adding very much. I also wouldn't put an upper limit on the number of applications I'll write for (OK, maybe an implicit one of 20 or something); it's the student's business if they want to expend the application fees. Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 23:57
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    In Europe things work completely different. I am Professor in Germany and no one applies to more of 5 graduate programs. At least in my field... Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 7:33

Your recommendation letter is supposed to be about how good you think he'd be at studying for a PhD, not how good you think he was(n't) at selecting a programme. Unless you think his uncertainty/awkwardness about where he wants to study will affect his actual study once he gets wherever he goes, it really isn't relevant to his letter of recommendation.

I appreciate that giving advice to this student about where to apply has become tedious but punishing them by writing a bad letter of recommendation isn't an appropriate way to deal with that. Rather, you should deal with it by better managing the amount of time you spend giving this advice, which may well boil down to saying that you've already made lots of suggestion and you don't have any more advice to give.

  • Seems to me that the OP has a concern about being honest, and doesn't feel that it's appropriate to slam the student in a letter of recommendation any more than anyone else does. That's why he's asking for advice, I would think. But it's a good point that the student's finding problems with all of the advisor's recommendations doesn't have much to do with his ability to complete a PhD program.
    – BobRodes
    Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 2:41
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    @BobRodes: it is a fine line to discern, but it seems to me that a student who is borderline in aptitude, and who also has challenges taking advice from this professor, may have challenges taking advice from other professors, including a future advisor. If that is the case, then the issue here does have something to do with the student's ability to complete a PhD program. Aptitude in a subject is not the only thing required to complete a PhD, as we all know. Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 14:26
  • @OswaldVeblen I agree that, if the asker feels that the student's behaviour directly affects their ability to complete a PhD then that is relevant to a LoR. But that wasn't the impression I got from the question. Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 17:16
  • 1
    Possibly I didn't express myself correctly, but this is definitely the point. I am measuring the personal capabilities (and not only the scientific ones) to deal with a phd. This include a lot of skills as all you you know. Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 17:22
  • @OswaldVeblen That's certainly a valid concern as well.
    – BobRodes
    Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 23:48

It sounds like your objections are less about the content of the letters, but in wasting your time writing the letters for programs that you think are a poor fit, or aren't the places where you think your student should be applying.

You should have a frank and honest conversation with your student about that - it's reasonable for you to ask for such a conversation given your role. If they continue to persist, you need to decide whether or not you'll continue to write letters for them given they're headed down a path you don't necessarily support.

  • Definitely I have no problems on writing letters, that is part of the work. The problem is that I am suppossed to write it (I am the master thesis supervisor) and other senior professors didn't want to write letters. All of them gave some excuses not to write them (too busy, too long ago to have an opinion, ...) but it is me who has to deal with to talk with him and say 'look, possibly it is not a good idea for you to apply for a phd position' Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 11:48

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