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Undergrad thesis advisor declined my LOR request...what do I do?


chilito_verde
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Hi all, I am applying for MPH programs for fall 2013 and I am concerned about the fact that my advisor for my undergraduate thesis (regarding Latina health) declined to write me an LoR (this person did not provide a reason as to why). My backup LoR is coming from my thesis reader who didn't really work with me closely. I am afraid that not having a letter from my thesis advisor will be a red flag to the admissions committee, and that the reader will not be able to speak to the extent of my research abilities like my advisor would have. The reader wants some pointers on what to write, which is understandable since it has been several years since I was a student. I know it is a good idea to name one's mentors and influences in the statement of purpose, but I am also worried that this will call extra attention to the fact that this person is not endorsing me in my application. Thoughts or suggestions?

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It definitely could be a red flag, and is a red flag to me that he wouldn't write you a letter with no explanation why. That implies no close relationship to me. I wish I had better news for you, but your concerns are VERY valid.

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Yeah, it definitely seems that way. This prof was actually very enthusiastic about me while I was a student (even going as far as getting me published) and was the person who encouraged me to pursue a career in public health in the first place! Too bad there is no way to really show that in my application. :(

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Have you contacted him again and asked why? That seems pretty illogical to just rebuff one's thesis student with no reason whatsoever. Can you think of a reason why he might have done that?

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I am afraid to come across as demanding and possibly burn a bridge that I may need in the future. At first I was worried that I had given this prof too little time (6 weeks, but I received a response after 2 weeks) and my request had an apologetic tone-- I prefaced my request by saying, " I know you must be busy with your current students and research..." and ended with an " if you are unable to do this I understand" as a way to be polite and undemanding; now I think I just gave an easy 'out'.... the prof's response was: "I can't provide you with a letter at this time. Good luck." I responded with a "thank you for your time and thanks again for all your help in the past." I haven't seen this person for 3 years so I can't think of something I did that could have damaged our relationship. Either way, I feel like it may be better to move on rather than dwell on it, but I don't know how (or if) there is a way to do damage control for this.

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That is too bad -- what have you done in the 3 years since finishing your thesis? If you can get recommendations from people who have worked with you more recently, perhaps it will still be OK.

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I have been working for a community clinic in the last few years. Two of my letters are from professional references but I also need one from an academic reference. I am hoping that the others will be strong enough to compensate, but it is scary to think of how much one person could potentially affect my chances of getting in.

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I am afraid to come across as demanding and possibly burn a bridge that I may need in the future. At first I was worried that I had given this prof too little time (6 weeks, but I received a response after 2 weeks) and my request had an apologetic tone-- I prefaced my request by saying, " I know you must be busy with your current students and research..." and ended with an " if you are unable to do this I understand" as a way to be polite and undemanding; now I think I just gave an easy 'out'.... the prof's response was: "I can't provide you with a letter at this time. Good luck." I responded with a "thank you for your time and thanks again for all your help in the past." I haven't seen this person for 3 years so I can't think of something I did that could have damaged our relationship. Either way, I feel like it may be better to move on rather than dwell on it, but I don't know how (or if) there is a way to do damage control for this.

At this point its kind of tough.

When you need something done, don't apologize and don't give anybody an out. Imagine if your boss called you on your day off and said "this is important, I need you to come in to work right now." You would probably be more likely to go in than if he said "I know you're probably really busy, but it would be great if you could come it to work today. I understand if you can't make it." Certainly don't thank him for not helping you...

You might email him back and tell him that you weren't able to find 3 other letter writers and you really need him to write you a (strong) letter outlining your research ability and that he is in the best position to do this. Also, let him know how important it is to you.

Good luck.

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I am very tempted to write my thesis advisor again; however, I fear that this may be interpreted as my not respecting their decision and that they may refuse to do me any favors in the future because of this. How do I approach this without sounding entitled or demanding? Would I be burning a bridge?

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I am very tempted to write my thesis advisor again; however, I fear that this may be interpreted as my not respecting their decision and that they may refuse to do me any favors in the future because of this. How do I approach this without sounding entitled or demanding? Would I be burning a bridge?

If this is truly your last resort, you may want to give it another shot. Write a second email stating your situation

and reminding him or her of the work relationship you two had. If possible, you should also attach as secondary

reminders any essays (with comments and grades) you wrote for your advisor in the past.

If you really cannot get support from your advisor, approach your thesis reader immediately. I understand that

this is a very hurtful situation, but you don't want to get stuck in it forever but should instead move on and finish

your applications.

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I am very tempted to write my thesis advisor again; however, I fear that this may be interpreted as my not respecting their decision and that they may refuse to do me any favors in the future because of this. How do I approach this without sounding entitled or demanding? Would I be burning a bridge?

It sounds to me like the bridge is already burnt (or burning). I wouldn't worry too much about hurting your professional relationship at this point as he was pretty curt and unhelpful to you.

As others have said, I would probably still be polite but firm and relay the fact that he is your one and only resort for a strong writeup of your research abilities. If he's still a jerk, then let it go and assume something happened that's out of your control. Hopefully he won't be and will have some compassion and help you out considering you said he was helpful in the past.

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It sounds to me like the bridge is already burnt (or burning). I wouldn't worry too much about hurting your professional relationship at this point as he was pretty curt and unhelpful to you.

I agree -- if they aren't going to write you a LOR now, they will not be more helpful to you in the future. Just don't do anything that would be unprofessional (obviously) but there is no reason to be afraid of coming off as too "demanding" at this point.

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Something no one has mentioned though is that if something has happened, are you sure this person will be able to write you a great letter? If there is some kind of grudge, that would obviously be very bad.

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One of my recommenders told me that she thinks my thesis advisor is just being a "responsible researcher"; according to her, the prof hasn't seen me in three years and is just being cautious of vouching for someone whom they haven't seen in such a long time and cannot speak to my present-day abilities. This other recommender assured me that the lack of my thesis advisor's letter does not reflect poorly on me, but I find it hard to believe her. To my knowledge, there hasn't been an incident wherein I offended this prof or damaged our relationship and I am pretty annoyed at the fact that they did not even give me a reason why they couldn't write a letter- all these assumptions are driving me crazy! I have already drafted a second request for a LoR email in which I point out my advisor's crucial role in my career path and their unique position to speak to my research capabilities. I avoided the apologetic tone from my previous email and asked if a mid-January deadline gives them enough time to write one. I haven't sent it yet.

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One of my recommenders told me that she thinks my thesis advisor is just being a "responsible researcher"; according to her, the prof hasn't seen me in three years and is just being cautious of vouching for someone whom they haven't seen in such a long time and cannot speak to my present-day abilities. This other recommender assured me that the lack of my thesis advisor's letter does not reflect poorly on me, but I find it hard to believe her. To my knowledge, there hasn't been an incident wherein I offended this prof or damaged our relationship and I am pretty annoyed at the fact that they did not even give me a reason why they couldn't write a letter- all these assumptions are driving me crazy! I have already drafted a second request for a LoR email in which I point out my advisor's crucial role in my career path and their unique position to speak to my research capabilities. I avoided the apologetic tone from my previous email and asked if a mid-January deadline gives them enough time to write one. I haven't sent it yet.

Send it. It wouldn't hurt. In the meantime, keep looking for someone else who's willing to help.

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I'm going to jump in to agree that I wouldn't try to push for a letter of recommendation for someone who is unwilling to write one. I'm curious as to how the prof worded the rejection. If it were truly a matter of lack of time, I think he(/she?) would have mentioned it. (In fact, I get the impression that a lot of professors use the time thing as an excuse when they just don't want to write a letter). If it were a matter of having not seen you in three years, once again, it would have made sense for the prof to mention that as well. Or the prof could have just ignored your request. Something doesn't quite add up.

Go ahead and send another letter, especially if you think your wording might have negatively influenced the response. But this prof does not sound like an ideal letter-writer either way.

I'm only applying right now, so take the following with a grain of salt, but I don't think that not having your thesis adviser write you a letter would kill your application. There are a million reasons that this could have happened - for all the adcom knows, the prof is currently going through cancer treatment or is on sabbatical in the Keeling Islands without Internet access...I think your thesis reader sounds like a decent sub. I'm not sure about mentioning the original prof, however, as that might bring attention to it, as you said. I guess it's hard to judge that one out of context.

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One of my recommenders told me that she thinks my thesis advisor is just being a "responsible researcher"; according to her, the prof hasn't seen me in three years and is just being cautious of vouching for someone whom they haven't seen in such a long time and cannot speak to my present-day abilities.

That is a very weak response. You are not the only future grad student who has taken time off. I have, and so have tons of other people. I don't understand why he won't do this. When you sign up to be a prof., LOR writing is one of your responsibilities. As far as I'm concerned, he has already burned the bridge.

At this junction, I'm on the fence. For whatever reason, he doesn't want to write a letter. It's not good to get letters from folks who aren't 100% on board. However, not having a thesis advisor's rec is very bothersome. I'd try to get his AND your reader's rec. I think you'd benefit from having 4 recs.

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That is a very weak response. You are not the only future grad student who has taken time off. I have, and so have tons of other people. I don't understand why he won't do this. When you sign up to be a prof., LOR writing is one of your responsibilities. As far as I'm concerned, he has already burned the bridge.

At this junction, I'm on the fence. For whatever reason, he doesn't want to write a letter. It's not good to get letters from folks who aren't 100% on board. However, not having a thesis advisor's rec is very bothersome. I'd try to get his AND your reader's rec. I think you'd benefit from having 4 recs.

Again, I agree -- if a rec isn't glowing, or could be tinged with subconscious negatives, that will hurt your app, not help. If he's not enthusiastic, you don't want his in my opinion.

Second, I don't know that not having a thesis advisor will hurt you. Will the grad program know you had a UG thesis or the nature of your UG curriculum? For instance, I don't have a thesis advisor rec simply because I didn't have to write a thesis for my program at all.

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Thanks everyone for your advice. I sent the advisor an email politely asking for their reasons in declining my request and thanking them for their help in the past. I also pointed out that they were the only professor that could speak to my research skills and public health knowledge. This whole situation came out of left field. I am feeling pretty pessimistic at this point.

My top choice school's website states- "if you have been out of school for an extended period, recommenders should include a supervisor or someone with whom you have conducted research- an individual who can touch upon your intellectual abilities and research skills- especially if in the practice of public health."

This professor was the only person fitting this description.

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Thanks everyone for your advice. I sent the advisor an email politely asking for their reasons in declining my request and thanking them for their help in the past.

You asked somebody to give you an excuse and then thanked them for not helping you?

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I thanked them for their help in the past. This person encouraged me to submit a shortened version of my thesis as a part of a book that was eventually published. They also asked me to present my findings at two different conferences post-graduation, and invited me to a public health conference so that I could learn more about the field. I definitely was not expecting the response I got.

Asking other professors (which I am doing anyway) will not make my application as strong, since my major was in a foreign language. (I chose to write my thesis under the social sciences department for my minor.) My thesis project was what propelled me to work in the public health field.

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I thanked them for their help in the past. This person encouraged me to submit a shortened version of my thesis as a part of a book that was eventually published. They also asked me to present my findings at two different conferences post-graduation, and invited me to a public health conference so that I could learn more about the field. I definitely was not expecting the response I got.

Asking other professors (which I am doing anyway) will not make my application as strong, since my major was in a foreign language. (I chose to write my thesis under the social sciences department for my minor.) My thesis project was what propelled me to work in the public health field.

I think you may have done the right thing: to thank those who helped you in the past; and find out the reasons why your advisor rejected your request for reference letter.

There's no need to be pessimistic. It seems to me that you've got a very strong record (publicatoin and conference presentations). Now you just have to find someone who can truly help you.

Edited by arcyoung
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