5

I entered current school as a Master-Ph.D. integrated course in high energy physics, however, decided to graduate as a master in this year and will apply abroad in the next year since my research interest is different from that of current supervisor. The defense is upcoming, indeed is on this Friday.

I'm considering changing MS thesis advisor because I'm uncertain but I guess my current supervisor may write a bad letter of recommendation. I had several troubles with him mainly because his research field and style is different from mine. He implicitly mentioned that I took other student's chance of being his student because my interest was different from the beginning. I asked him explicitly if he can write a letter for me, and although he said he will write the paper, many of what he said after this implied bad contents. For example, I asked him if I regularly report what I'm doing in next year, whether he can re-evaluate me or not. He politely rejected this saying once I graduate from his lab, I and his life should be independent and he shall not care about mine. He also mentioned that evaluation should arise naturally, not in such an artificial way.

My defense is on December first, so it's within this week. But I have been seriously considering to changing supervisor and to postpone graduation to the next semester. I already got approval from a faculty to whom I want to transfer. He also explained the project I will take on if I change the supervisor to him.

However, I am very worried that it would be very rude and inappropriate behavior to change supervisor due to the worries about a bad letter and within such a short interval before the defense. I'm also worried that doing this will make current advisor as an enemy. But I am confused because he had suggested me to change the supervisor at the end of March this year.

If I graduate this semester and get a bad recommendation letter next year, even though I got strong ones from other faculties and researchers, will it be a significant weakness in the Ph.D. application?

Can any advice or opinion? Thanks.

P.S. In a comment I left, I mentioned that my advisor rejected advising me. To be specific, he told me that he is very busy so he will not advise me in person but instead he will ask two PDs in the lab for my thesis. He seemed very busy, but I was first student of his the only two students, and I know that he is regularly advising and being in discussion with an undergraduate student for his graduation thesis. Also, he explicitly mentioned that since he doesn't trust my ability, he can't allow extending my work beyond the elementary scope when I asked him for adding contents beyond the Standard Model on my thesis.

P.S.2. I am quite certain that I can get a good reference from the faculty to whom I want to transfer. Even though I graduate this semester, I'm planning to work with him next year. In this case, if I have a bad reference from the past supervisor while also have a strong one from another faculty with whom I will work next year, will it seriously affect my application?

6
  • 3
    " For example, I asked him if I regularly report what I'm doing in next year, whether he can re-evaluate me or not. He politely rejected this saying once I graduate from his lab, I and his life should be independent and he shall not care about mine. " To me his reply seems perfectly natural, especially if you're not really interested in the same things?
    – starless
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 11:18
  • @starless I agree with you, however, my advisor repeatedly told me that ‘I haven’t shown him any outcomes.’ That’s why I need re-evaluation after working with others in next year.
    – Liberty
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 11:23
  • @Liberty but you are about to defend your thesis and your supervisor is presumably about to sign off on that? It seems like an outcome to me...
    – user24098
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 11:31
  • @dan1111 "It seems like an outcome to me..." during the project with him and another PD, he showed me for many times how he was disappointed that I didn't make any outcome. He also refused to advise me on my thesis work while he is doing so to an undergraduate student for his graduation thesis. From this, I guess he doesn't have a good impression and expect on my research ability and potential. May these be hint of bad reference?
    – Liberty
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 11:53
  • @Liberty, these comments raise more questions then answers. How is your advisor refusing to advise you? What do you mean? Perhaps more information on your situation should be added to the question.
    – user24098
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 11:56

2 Answers 2

5

Delaying your graduation by a semester would be a huge cost to bear due to the mere suspicion of getting a bad recommendation letter. Right now it's only a suspicion.

Yes, it's clear that your reputation with your supervisor isn't the greatest. But still, writing a bad recommendation letter is an exceptional step--especially after being asked and agreeing to write a letter. Most professors in this situation will write a positive (though perhaps not particularly strong) letter.

Being asked to write a recommendation letter, agreeing without stating any concerns about the content, and then going on to write a bad letter is pretty unprofessional. If you don't feel you can write a positive letter, the normal response is to not agree to write one, or to agree with a warning that you don't think you can give a good recommendation. That isn't to say it never happens, but it is pretty unusual.

The examples that show your concern, to me don't indicate that he is planning to write a bad letter.

  • The negative general comments are unfortunate but hardly prove he will write a bad letter.
  • Your idea to report back regularly after you leave his supervision and hope that improves the recommendation was quite odd, and was rightly rejected by him. The recommendation is supposed to be based on the period he worked with you.

Unless there is something more concrete that makes you think you won't get a good letter, I would not do something drastic like delaying your graduation.

6
  • 1
    "Delaying your graduation by a semester would be a huge cost to bear due to the mere suspicion of getting a bad recommendation letter. " Can I ask you which cost that I may bear if I postpone the graduation for one semester? Yes, I am worried about it hurts my advisor since he also agreed to write a reference. But for a new thesis topic, in fact, it overlaps largely with my previous work from which I was ruled out after I declared graduation.
    – Liberty
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 11:45
  • @Liberty the cost is taking an extra semester of time and effort to complete the same task.
    – user24098
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 11:54
  • 1
    I do agree with other points in this answer but the first paragraph seems odd. An extra semester for a PhD might not mean much for your academic career, a bad recommendation letter from your advisor will likely ruin it.
    – JiK
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 12:57
  • @Liberty (1) In their answer, user24098 rightly says: "If you don't feel you can write a positive letter, the normal response is to not agree to write one, or to agree with a warning that you don't think you can give a good recommendation." I am however aware of situations where people did this, and the outcome of it was highly destructive. Therefore, my recommendation will be totally opposite: extend your stay for a semester, provided you are certain that the new advisor writes a good letter for you. Commented May 16 at 1:41
  • 1
    @Liberty (2) In academia, people seldom write outright negative letters. They instead write lucewarm letters - which are interpreted as their readers as negative. I know such cases. So be vigilant. Your present advisor may write for you an insufficiently positive letter -- which will be enough to kill or badly reduce your chances for admission for PhD Commented May 16 at 1:44
0

It sounds as though your advisor is an advisor only on paper as he declined to work closely with you after you decided not to work on a topic that was relevant to his research interests ("his research field and style is different from mine. He implicitly mentioned that I took other student's chance of being his student because my interest was different from the beginning").

It is normal for Masters students (and in many fields, PhD students, too) to work on topics proposed by their advisors, and while an assertive student with strong ideas of their own might persuade an advisor to support them working on an unrelated topic, it is understandable that your advisor might have been disappointed if this meant that he missed out on getting a student to help further his own research. So -- that's in the past and there is nothing you can do about it now, but I am guessing that is what has happened.

I would recommend that you not use a recommendation from this advisor, but I don't think that means you necessarily need to spend another semeseter working with another advisor. Although in the ideal case, you would have a strong letter from your Masters advisor, you can also use strong letters from other academics that you have worked with, and not ask your Masters advisor for a reference letter at all.

If you have no money concerns, no deadline for graduating, and no need to get on with the next steps in your life, it certainly might help in a PhD application to have stayed an extra semester and achieved stronger research outcomes with a more sympatico advisor... But an extra semester is still an extra semester of your life. Depending on where you plan to apply, it might mean delaying your PhD application by a full year.

Things to ask yourself:

  • How strong would your PhD application be without that extra semester? If your grades are outstanding and your research project was good enough, you probably don't need it.
  • How strong would your PhD application be with the extra semester? If your grades are merely "good" and your new research project is anything less than outstanding, it might not help.
  • How essential is a PhD to your plans for the future? If the PhD is an absolutely essential next step, the risk-reward ratio might be different.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .