I've graduated from my previous grad school (psychology) for 2 years and now seriously considering to apply for another graduate school (or professional school at master's level), computer science in particular, for next year's entry. That was also the major of my college degree. I will be applying several Canadian schools now and hope I will be able to start a new life there.

I was extremely uncomfortable when I just got into the psychology graduate school four years ago that I didn't do well at first. Not only due to English being my second language, but also I had absolutely no background in psychology, plus the massive amount of reading filled with weird words drove me absolutely crazy. For this reason, my major advisor had me finish with a master's degree instead of PhD, which I was originally enrolled in. However, he was extremely helpful when I was doing my master's graduation project and thesis. He was helping me day and night with my work that I believe nobody else could ever help his student this much. I ended up finishing my master's level of psychology very well and left with that degree.

When I got in touch with him recently and asked him to write a letter for my next school, he said

"I will mention that at first you didn't turn out to work very quickly that you had trouble to get what I was asking done. So I had you finish with a master's degree instead of PhD. However, later you learned to work much harder and your final project and program worked very well. If you think the above contents suit you, let me know where I should send the letter."

I don't know for sure if my feeling is correct, but I feel like I will get 100% rejection even from mediocre schools I'm going to apply, if those words appear on the LOR.

Question: should I switch letter?

Concern: I didn't ever think one day in the future I will need to go back to school when I was still doing the psychology program. Thus I was't enthusiastic at all about building my connection with professors so that two other members of my thesis defense committee really don't know me very well.

This is probably the last chance for me to change my fate, I don't want to lose it.

Suggestions please, and any help is much appreciated.

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    It's not an ideal letter - some may take it as you being able to learn and turn things around, but, to be honest, supervisors have a lot on their plate and may choose a more straightforward ready-to-go candidate. Your prof is very honest and lets you know what they will write - that's fair of them. But if you can possible get better LOR, you probably should. Jun 6, 2017 at 22:44
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    What does ROC mean?
    – Mad Jack
    Jun 7, 2017 at 1:02

1 Answer 1


As I see it, the adviser's reply is in order. He openly stated what the contents would be and emphasized the option to choose another letter, if it suits you more, without any implication that that act could be taken in a negative connotation.

Further, the contents seem to align with the story you told here, i.e. you started a PhD, but finished with a master's degree. He states you strengths and weaknesses, which is to be expected. What is more important, he intends to accentuate you growth during your studies. This is a powerful statement from his side. As I see it, his response is objective.

Additionally, given the fact that your adviser was extremely helpful during your graduation ("day and night"), which I understand him to have taken on extra effort to see you graduate, I see no evidence that he would sabotage your attempts.

My opinion is that you should use this adviser as reference, as I seriously doubt that you could get a stronger letter from someone else (unless you neglected to mention that you had other collaborations where you fared better). Although other persons may not say anything bad about you, they can probably say also nothing positive, and luke-warm letters are not good. I would always opt for a strong letter, from someone who knows you and can attest to your journey through grad school. It is nothing unusual to have a bad start, but the fact that you saw it through and earned praise towards the end is a very good thing.

Finally, you should probably menage your expectations. You shouldn't expect that you'll find anyone willing to lie for you in a letter of recommendation. From your post, your adviser is a good guy, so, again, I think you have the best chances going with him. Or, put another way, your adviser said nothing that wasn't true, so this truth might or might not hinder your way into some institution, but that state was not induced by your adviser, he simply reports what he observed.

  • Thanks you for the reply. What I didn't mention in OP is that not only he helped me far beyond what we expect as a supervisor, but also we had a much closer personal relationship if I didn get it wrong - he offered me to live in his place when I had trouble find a temporary one immediately after I graduated, although I didn't end up taking it. He is really a VERY good guy, and I hope you are right in this sense -- his mentioning of my growth will be a good factor for the prospective school to consider, despite I did have a bad start.
    – David Wu
    Jun 7, 2017 at 16:18
  • I view this as having two issues. One is the way the letter will be taken if provided. But the other is the inference if it is not provided. If you apply but don't have a letter from someone who advised you in this MS program, even in a different field, isn't that likely to lead to a negative inference? That being said, while user3209815 is probably right that another letter won't necessarily be stronger, it seems clear the adviser is stating up front that it has issues. Damned if you do and damned if you don't. I'd take the letter, but not hold my breath. Jun 7, 2017 at 17:48
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    @DavidWu, "hold your breath" refers to having high expectations. Take the letter, hope for the best, but don't be surprised if your fear that it is not helpful enough turns out to be true. As for it being "suspicious," that's not the word I'd use, but it's close. If they know you were in a program, and left with an MS/MA, but didn't get a recommendation from your supervisor, they will likely wonder why you didn't get that recommendation. Of course another option is to try and explain that in your essay if you can. Jun 7, 2017 at 20:19
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    @FredDouglis Thanks for the explanation. I will definitely take his letter. Yes, I will probably need to explain in my PS if I don't take it, which will make the situation even more complicated. I always believe being honest and straightforward will make thing easier to deal with in most cases. But like you said, I won't bet a good result on my school applications.
    – David Wu
    Jun 8, 2017 at 1:58
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    @DavidWu - Well, this is the kind of situation where it might be helpful to try to make a personal connection with a professor in a department where you'd like to apply. Once you have that personal connection, you can be up front (=honest) and tell him or her about your experience. That person may then be able to put in a good word for you with the admissions committee. Also, you could include something about your personal growth in your psych masters, when you write your essay. Jun 8, 2017 at 3:21

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