I need a reference from my former professor, for my PhD application, but I would also like to work with him for my PhD. He would be my top choice, but I will of course need to apply to other universities too. How do I do this? I feel like it's a bit much too ask, and I feel unsure about how to phrase these things.

Also, if I apply to do a PhD with him, can he also write the reference for this application too or would i need to find a different academic?

edit: I am in the UK, and I hold a MA, so I would be applying straight for PhDs (no Master included etc.)

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    Its completely normal and it would depend more on your professor than anything else. I would vote to close as primarily opinion based, but I can't with open bounty Sep 6, 2017 at 4:10

3 Answers 3


Keep the email brief and to the point. If you haven't spoken to him in a while, introduce yourself and tell him what you're doing (1 sentence should suffice).

Explain that you're applying for PhD positions and that you would like him to write a reference for you. It's probably a good idea to mention your research interests and remind him of any projects you worked on together, so he can write an effective reference for you. At this point, you can also ask if he is currently looking to take on a new student, as you're very interested in his research and would like to work with him.

If you do end up applying to work with him, you will need a reference from another academic. There's no point him writing a reference for you which he will then read. He will be able to find out more about you and get the full picture if you have a reference from someone else.

Note that most UK PhDs will require at least 2 references anyway, so you should have at least 3 people in mind who you can ask should the need arise.

Your first email to him may go something like this:

Subject: Reference letter

Dear Professor X,

Hope you are well. I am writing to let you know that I am planning to apply for PhD positions in Y and consequently need some letters of reference. Would you mind writing a reference for me?

It would be helpful if you could mention when you supervised my work on project Z, as this project was very successful and the topic is in line with my current research interests.

On this subject, I noticed that you recently published a paper on topic Z. Are you currently looking to take on a PhD student? If so, I would be interested in applying for the position, as our research interests align well and we had some success with the project I mentioned above.

Many thanks and best wishes,

George Welder

  • thanks a lot!! One problem I see is that my research interest is not fully clear yet and I would not apply for positions this year, but next year. Would I still write the same email? I know the area I want to specialise in, which is this professors area, but I don't know the exact topic yet. Also, I don't really have any other competitive reference to show. I have him and another professor, who could write references, but that's about it. I could get other people to write something, but the letters wouldnt be so strong, as I haven't worked with them as much as I did with him & the other prof. Aug 3, 2017 at 13:57
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    why was this downvoted? I'm curious, what's wrong with the advice given Aug 3, 2017 at 14:24
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    @GeorgeWelder I think you could write broadly the same email, but modify it so the professor is aware that the request for the reference is more speculative than urgent. While the letter from another prof might not be as strong, I think you should find another-- I myself had to when I was in a similar situation (the prof himself asked for me to find another reference as it was pointless him writing one for himself to read). // I would also be interested to know why my answer was downvoted... Aug 3, 2017 at 23:12
  • "If you do end up applying to work with him, you will need a reference from another academic.": not necessarily. In my case, I got a reference letter from a professor under whom I then started working (though I later switched advisors). If your advisor-to-be already knows you well, he doesn't need the reference letter; the rest of the committee does. Aug 5, 2017 at 22:12
  • @darijgrinberg it still seems like you're "wasting" a reference though- if you're applying to work with someone who already knows you, they can unoficially/ informally recommend you to the committee, plus the 2 official reference letters = a 'bonus' reference. Aug 5, 2017 at 22:34

I am not sure if official rules are available regarding your questions, but I will share my thoughts.

1) It is great that you think Professor X is your top choice! Let him know, he will be glad.

2) Nevertheless, it is your right (and your duty) to apply to other PhD programs as well. Tell this to Professor X. Any clever professor will be happy to hear this. You show him that you know that applying to one single program is not enough to obtain a good opportunity. Do you think he might be upset hearing that you dare applying to other positions? If he does, he is not someone you want to work with.

As a non-native English speaker, I do not even attempt to draft a letter, but the one written by @astronat with the needed modifications is perfect.

3) Frankly, I wouldn't be happy if a student asked me to write a reference letter for him for a PhD committee I am sitting in. Sounds like he tries to get special treatment. I would suggest not to do that.

  • I dont understand why I cannot use him as a reference. When I applied for my Masters at the same institution as my BA, my professors wrote a reference for me, but well, they were the ones who ultimately read it, as it was all at the same institution. Is there a difference when we are talking PhD? Sep 6, 2017 at 17:42
  • mmm... Sincerely, I cannot help you, because I don't know how thing work in UK, but here in Italy it would sound strange if you ask to a member of the examining committee to write a reference letter for you. Actually, if you are unsure you can ask his opinion. He will know. Sep 6, 2017 at 20:49
  1. Tell this professor your intentions. I imagine this discussion will put you at ease (or settle the issue for you).
  2. Ask for the letter of recommendation for other programs. They understand the plight of a prospective PhD student.
  3. Remember stuff like this happens all the time in their world, so just be polite and respectful. Be direct and voice what your thinking and what you want. If you don't share your thoughts, they can't read your mind.

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