Is it OK to still ask for references, if I know I may not use some of them in my PhD applications?

I wanted to ask the potential referees if they're willing first - but I might not necessarily use some of them, because - for example a stronger prospective referee agrees to write letters for me later on; or that I decide to apply for fewer programmes than I originally intended to.

More specifically:

  1. Is it appropriate to approach all (or more than enough) potential referees, in the first place, in one go?
  2. Should I keep them (those whose letters I did not use) updated? And if needed, how does one politely do so?

You can ask several people whether they'd be willing to write recommendations for you. Do not ask them to do any actual work until you need it and intend to use it. Recommendations will generally go directly to the institution to which you are applying, so "keeping them updated" doesn't really apply. You'll never see the letters that get written.

When you are ready to ask for the actual recommendation, be sure you provide all the information the referee needs. Substitute "research" or "lab work" for "classes" below as appropriate.Here is what I tell students:

  1. Tell me what the deadline is!
  2. Include your student number.
  3. Remind me which of my classes you have taken, and when.
  4. How did you distinguish yourself in those classes?
  5. How would you describe yourself? What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? I am going to have to answer those questions when I write your reference, so the more details the better, but these have to be things I've observed myself.
  6. What are some of your academic and nonacademic accomplishments that I may not remember?
  7. What makes me particularly qualified to write a letter for you? That is, why should the recipient of the letter value it over a letter from someone else?

Be sure to tell how and where to submit the recommendation: online link, address for paper letter, etc.

  • Thanks. I think my other concern is also - if I have asked them whether they'd be willing, and received positive responses, then how do I tell them that "I don't need their references anymore". Or maybe I have overthought this, or not ... – Sophia Nov 5 '16 at 18:32
  • @Sophia See my comment below, where I say, "Don't worry about it." It is most unlikely that any of your potential referees will ask later, but if they do, just say, "I'm so grateful to you for being willing, but it looks like I will not have to impose on you because I've been accepted into the program at Oxbridge." – Bob Brown Nov 5 '16 at 18:36
  • Thanks for this, you put it far more eloquently than what I had in mind, as I want to respect their time, as @Penguin_Knight said, while leaving enough time for them to respond and write, and not leave the requests 'hanging'. Also, it'd be great if I'm accepted into Oxbridge or other similar places thanks :) – Sophia Nov 5 '16 at 18:45

I would say be respectful of people's time. Rank your reference people from the most desirable to least, then ask from the top. If you need 3, ask the top 3, and if any of them declines, ask the next best one. If you don't have all 3 by a certain time, also start asking the next best one. If you are in a time crunch and very risk-adverse, asking 1 more than what you need is also understandable.

Is it appropriate to approach all (or more than enough) potential referees, in the first place, in one go?

Don't do that in one go. Most of your reference people probably know each other and if they found out you're using a flooding approach they may decide not to write one because they may think someone else will be writing one.

Should I keep them (those whose letters I did not use) updated? And if needed, how does one politely do so?

Not necessary. That kind of update will only bring bad flavor, as you're telling them that i) I consider someone else's words a lot more valuable than yours and ii) I just wasted your time.

Most application processes (at least in the US) are online now. If you have gathered more than what you need, you can check with the school if you can submit them all or have to drop some. My belief is that the schools do not follow up with the writers of the reference letter. I have never received any follow up on my letters after I submitted them through the system.

So, some safety measures is fine but don't overdo it. And remember to thank everyone who wrote a letter for you. And if you do get accepted, inform and thank them all as if you have used all their letters.

  • Thanks for your answer. As a followup question, if I happen to apply for fewer programmes than I intended later on, how do I politely inform them of my decision that I don't need their references anymore? – Sophia Nov 5 '16 at 18:24
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    @Sophia Don't worry about it. When students ask whether I'll write a reference, but then never send the specifics, I'm more likely to be relieved than offended. – Bob Brown Nov 5 '16 at 18:33

There is certainly nothing wrong in asking an employer for a reference and then not using it. It is part of the employee/employer contract that a reference, if desired, will be provided - much like it is part of the contract that you will work on things from time-to-time that benefit the company/institute/lab/boss more than yourself and your work. It's just a given, and it helps the world go around.

However, any reference should be tailored for the time and application it is needed. If i ask for a reference in 2015, act inappropriately during all of 2016, then use that 2015 reference in a 2017 job application, i am misleading my future employer. So a reference should be timely. Regarding the application of the reference, this is more to do with the referee writing relatively. For example, you may be the best in the lab with computers, and your PI might write that in a reference, but would they have written that if they'd known you were applying for a job as a programmer in a tech company? Perhaps not. Many adjectives are relative, and so it obviously helps to know what the application will be used for before overstating how "good" or "proficient" you really are.

So bottom line it's absolutely within your right to ask for a reference and then not use it - but it's probably not OK to hoard references to pick and choose for them at some point in the future.

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    If asking for letters causes those letters to be written, one will have wasted peoples' time. If we're talking about letters from profs for grad school, you should be aware that short, non-descript letters would be fatal in the U.S., and there has been inflation of praise. Letter writers know this, so do need to spend a bit of time crafting the right language. Even with practice, it takes time to write such a letter. I'd be very annoyed if someone asked me for a letter, I wrote it, and then "it wasn't needed". – paul garrett Dec 5 '16 at 21:47
  • Yes, well, lucky for the student then that wasting your time isn't unethical. I see your point, and i'd be frustrated too, but at the end of the day it's a small price to pay for the free menial labour. The student has a right to put themselves in the best possible light. – Wetlab Walter Dec 6 '16 at 0:07
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    Ah, but in math there is no menial labo[u]r. The food-chain is very different from the experimental sciences. Polya's quip is mostly ridiculous, but not without content: (in mathematics) "a PhD thesis is a paper of the advisor written under conditions of extreme adversity". I must say that interactions with my own PhD students greatly help my understanding of things, but/and ... in effect... I do my own laundry, wash my own dishes, mow my own yard, make my own coffee... No "menials". – paul garrett Dec 6 '16 at 0:11
  • Ah, that's a fair point - I sometimes feel I am totally unaware of what the PhD lifestyle is like outside biology... we are worlds apart. I doubt in Biosciences even 50% of the students are there because the PI cares about their opinion. Just a pair of programmable hands. I suppose as a PI in a more theoretical science, you put time and effort in to your student's development throughout their studies, so it would be unfair for a student to use more unnecessarily. I was thinking from a point of view of the PI enjoying the benefits of a students work without putting time in. – Wetlab Walter Dec 6 '16 at 12:38
  • Now i'm sorry for wasting your time having to defend a valid point :-| haha – Wetlab Walter Dec 6 '16 at 12:39

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