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How bad is this? Can't get reference letter from top researcher

  1. Oct 5, 2014 #1

    I'm applying for my phd in field X at the moment. Two years ago I did a 2-month research project on X under guidance of one of the leading figures of that field (Prof Y). Now, he is notoriously hard to get a hold of (even his phd students struggle) and he isn't responding to any of my requests for a reference letter (including calling his secretary who was supposedly going to give him a note). I know this sounds as if I did bad work and that's why he isn't giving any response, but really my research with him went well (he told me that himself afterwards) and as I said most people I know have a problem with getting hold of him (last year I managed to get a letter from him after finally being able to get hold of him).

    So I'm thinking of giving up and asking another referee (who would probably write an ok/good letter; also I already have two good letters in the bank). I'm not worried about not getting a letter from a famous researcher (I wish that were it), what worries me: they will see I have done research with Prof Y (it would be foolish to leave out that experience in my Statement), and they will certainly know of him, so if I don't have a letter by him, I worry that they will conclude it was a bad experience? Or will they not assume that if my other letters (some research related) are good?

    Thank you!
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 5, 2014 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    It is natural to conclude that there is some reason that the famous researcher is not writing you a letter. Can someone else in the group write one?
  4. Oct 5, 2014 #3
    Sadly there's no one relevant to ask in my case. Thanks for the honest response. I suppose I'll try to contact him again, but I'm afraid I'll just have to give up after that.
  5. Oct 7, 2014 #4
    Surely you can find him in person somehow? Does he teach anything? Does he regularly attend any seminars? Is there any door you can sit in front for a couple hours until he will come by with high probability (just bring physics HW)?

    f you know where he is I would go up to him and ask for the letter, beg him to write it soon. Explain that grad school means alot to you and you are counting on him. The risk is that he is doesn't really want to write the letter. But you are implying the work went well. In this case I would not let politeness hurt my chances at grad school (And if he is famous that letter might really help).

    If he was genuinely happy with your work he is unlikely to hold it against you that you were forceful in getting your letter. You will only come off annoying instead of driven if your work was sub-par.
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2014
  6. Oct 7, 2014 #5


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    I agree w/ deluks917. It's a pain to have to go to this trouble, but should be worth it in the end.
  7. Oct 7, 2014 #6


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    A very effective tactic with super busy superstar types is to write the letter yourself and then give them a draft. That way they only have to edit it or even just sign it if they agree with it. I would draft a letter, email it to him, and then hand him a physical copy as he leaves a lecture or something. You can even walk with him back to his office and explain when and why you need the letter. Assuming he is just busy and being a bit insensitive that should be enough to get him going on it.
  8. Oct 7, 2014 #7
    Thanks for the support guys. I finally was able to contact him (which was quite hard since we're on different continents) and he agreed to write the letter :)
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