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About 3 years ago, when I was finishing my Master's, I applied for a PhD position in a Canadian university. Everything went well and the professor provided a letter of reference to the members of admission committee indicating his acceptance to be my supervisor and fully fund my research (he sent me the letter to submit along my documents).

But unfortunately due to some personal circumstances I couldn't continue my studies and attend the PhD position.

Now, I am again considering applying for PhD (in some other universities) and was wondering: Can I use this letter of reference as a kind-of letter of recommendation? If so, should I ask his permission?

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Three things:

1) It's polite to ask someone before putting their name forward as a reference. It's a huge turnoff to have someone get in touch with you unexpectedly saying that you're a reference for someone you didn't think you were a reference for.

2) It's smart to ask someone before putting them forward as a reference, because it gives them a chance to respond to you. It's possible that this person may not be able to give you a good reference at this point in time, and nothing will destroy your chances faster than if the admissions committee follows up with a reference who then says they would not recommend you.

3) In this case it sounds like the letter of reference might be highly specific to that institution: "I have the funding to work with this student and want them to do a PhD with me." That's a nice thing to say about someone, but it's not really a general purpose reference. Ideally, applying to a PhD program, you want a letter to explain why you're a great asset to a research program.

If you still want to use this letter, then be sure to ask the reference before you do so.

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You may be able to use the letter of reference, but I would absolutely ask their permission, and give them the copy to see if they want to update it.

A couple reasons for this:

  1. It's polite. Essentially, you are asking to speak on their behalf about you. You should ask before you do that.
  2. Not doing so risks them being blindsided. What if the people reviewing your letter call him for a followup? Being taken by surprise is not going to leave anyone with a favorable impression of you.
  3. It allows them to re-tailor the letter - touching on more recent accomplishments, targeting it to where you're going now, etc.

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