Recommendation letters

In addition to be accepted by the prof, you also need the approval from the university. And among other things, they require three recommendation letters from previous professors, plus one from the professor who wants to hire you.

My problem was that since I hadn’t studied biology for a while, I wasn’t sure to find relevant professors to write those letters. So I asked if a letter from my former boss (who luckily owns a Ph.D.) would count; it worked so I only had two more to go. Logically, I asked my bachelor and my master thesis supervisors if they could do me this favor since they were the only one in the academia who had spend enough time with me to (maybe) remember me. My master supervisor replied me this “nice” email:

As you need a reference letter for a position in natural sciences and we worked on a topic in the field of economics, a reference letter from me would be more or less useless. Furthermore, I do this only in special cases (i.e. working over a longer time period and/or excellent results). Sorry, that I can not help.

So in last resort I asked the dean of EPFL’s life science department as I had spent enough time there for him to remember me. He required a lot of information that I sent him less than an hour later, but never heard from him for a week. I sent him another email saying it was urgent and that would be kind from him to help me there. He replied that he needed the info he asked me. In accordance to my legendary tact, I replied in one sentence that I had sent him that days ago. Silence for few more days. I tried to call again and again, sent an email on LinkedIn to his secretary who suddently didn’t read her emails anymore etc… He finally called me back as I was super sick and dying alone in my bed, and explained me that he hadn’t time to write such a letter, that the university should have a form that he just would have to fill.

I remembered having seen something like this so I looked for it and of course the link was broken. Found the woman who is in charge. Sent her an email. Received an automative response saying she was out. Found out who else could help. Received the form. Sent it to the dean telling him to let me know when he had sent it. Never heard from him ever again.

Meanwhile the secretary asked me to register online on the university website. On the recommendation page, it was clearly stated that their should be one from the master thesis supervisor plus two other. I wrote down the name of my supervisor but also the one from the dean of our department who had examined me, hoping that he might be nicer than the first one. Since I wasn’t sure it would work, I added the name of the two computer science profs for who I worked as a TA and who had written me super nice letters. I would then have five letters and was hoping it would cope for the absence of the master’s one.

But at the same time, I was fearing that without this letter, I might wait for the whole evaluation process and get denied at the very end and it would then be too late to do anything. So I wrote a last chance email to my thesis supervisor saying that they were insisting on having him filling the recommendation form I had joined. And he did it! I now had six recommendation letters instead of three, I was sure it would go super fast.

My bachelor and master thesis supervisor had sent the letters directly to my future prof so I never saw them, and couldn’t transfer them to the secretary. So I asked my prof to forward them, with a letter from his behalf, to the secretary. The other professors sent their letters to the secretary but didn’t told me that. So after a week without any news from the secretary, I contacted her to be updated on the progress of the admission process. She replied that she was still waiting for letters from my supervisors, former and future.  So I kindly asked him to forward the letters. Again, a few days without news so I asked if everything was okay this time. She replied that she was still waiting for the letters from my Ph.D. supervisor. Why hadn’t she directly contacted the guy in Israel, I will never know. Again “please transfer bla bla”. Just a little check with the secretary a few days later. “I can’t transfer your file because the letter from Prof. B. is still missing”.

  1.  Why don’t you ask if it’s missing?
  2. Prof. B. was the dean I had wrote the name in case I couldn’t get the letter from the master supervisor so it wasn’t necessary anymore.
  3. Why would you wait for a letter when you received 6 of them instead of 3?
  4. Why don’t you tell me????


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