I am a postgraduate student in mathematics (if it matters) who is now also applying for doctoral positions, some of which require three references.

It was a logical enough decision to select my academic advisor and my thesis supervisor to be my first two references, and they gladly accepted. However, attaining a third reference is proving much trickier.

There was no immediate choice, so I decided to contact a lecturer of mine whose course I am currently following with whom I have quite a good relationship (as the class size is also small). Much to my disappointment, he wrote back to me only to decline and say that he does not know me nor my academic achievements well enough to provide a serious reference for me.

Now I am at a loss, because the only people who really know of my academic achievements are the two people who already agreed to be references for me; so where do I go from here?

  • Who did you use as references to get into your current program?
    – Buzz
    Jan 5 '17 at 12:48
  • @Buzz My academic advisor and thesis supervisor from my bachelor programme. Not every programme requires three references; some are content with two.
    – Jason Born
    Jan 5 '17 at 12:51
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    Is there any reason you can't get a letter from one of them again?
    – Buzz
    Jan 5 '17 at 12:53
  • @Buzz It has been more than two years since I graduated from my bachelor programme. I don't know if they would even remember me; plus my bachelor thesis wasn't particularly outstanding and I have improved a lot since then.
    – Jason Born
    Jan 5 '17 at 12:58
  • That's okay, two years is not too much. Make sure to send an unofficial transcript to jog the person's memory. // If you have two strong letters, I wouldn't worry too much if the third is not as strong. // You might want to ask your references for advice. Jan 6 '17 at 2:30

Don't be shy. While this advice works in a million context, it is especially relevant here. The only way to know if you will get a good letter, is to interact closely with senior people in the field, gauge how much they liked your participation in their classes/your work in their lab, ask them the letter, gauge their response, choose the one that answers more enthusiastically. Your first two choices were the most obvious, now you should try with other lecturers you had. You certainly did not have just one lecturer in your studies!

I was assistant professor in a research institution in my previous job, and can see several reasons why a lecturer might decide to write or not a letter for a candidate. You will never know them, you just have to ask, and use your social skills to predict whether it will be a good one.

  • I especially liked the part about gauging for enthusiasm. Jan 6 '17 at 2:28
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    Thanks aparente001. That is the most important predictor in my opinion of how good will be the letter. There will always be someone out there that will write a letter for you. But you don't want just a letter - you want the best letter you can afford.
    – famargar
    Jan 6 '17 at 11:47
  • I think you mean, the best letter you can get/obtain. But yes, I agree completely. Jan 7 '17 at 3:38

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