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I have finished my PhD and am currently a postdoc. Since receiving my PhD, I have not worked with my PhD advisor. I am planning to apply for jobs for after I finish my postdoc — mostly tenured-track positions.

I am considering not asking my PhD advisor for a letter of recommendation. I feel this might be appropriate because I plan to ask my postdoc advisor to write a letter, because my PhD advisor may not have kept up with my current research, because my coauthors know my work better, and for other reasons.

What are the pros and cons of not having my PhD advisor as a letter writer?

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Why would you not want your PhD advisor to write a letter? –  Paresh Feb 15 '13 at 17:39
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There are many reasons: he may not be interested on the topics of my current research, I have several coauthors who know my work better,... –  aperson Feb 15 '13 at 17:59
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None of those reasons seem compelling enough to not get a recommendation letter from your supervisor. It would raise questions if he doesn't write you a letter, and such questions are best to avoid. –  Dave Clarke Feb 15 '13 at 19:34
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@eykanal: This really isn't the same question, actually; asking if a letter has to be from a professor is not the same thing as an advisor. –  aeismail Feb 15 '13 at 21:42
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@Benjamin Mako Hill: Thank you for revising my question, which made my points clearer. –  aperson Feb 16 '13 at 4:14

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

You should ask your supervisor for a letter.

Not having your supervisor write a letter is going to raise red flags. People are going to ask themselves, why isn't this candidate's thesis supervisor writing a letter? If you don't have a letter, you need to answer that question. Unless there's a very good reason to not have that letter, I think that it's better to avoid the question altogether. The reasons you've given so far do not seem good enough to me.

You suggested that (1) there may be more appropriate letter writers and that (2) your advisor might not be up-to-date on your current research.

I think these are not good enough reasons to not ask your thesis supervisor to write a letter and I think you can easily address these concerns:

  1. You should also ask your postdoc supervisor to write you a letter. Not doing so will also raise red flags for similar reasons. If there are other great letter writers, ask them as well. For the tenure-track jobs I applied to, each expected three or more letters. There's room for everybody.

    You can prioritize the more important or relevant letters. In your cover letter, it is normal to list the names of people writing you letters and it is normal to list those names in the order that you want them to be viewed. You can also specify in the letter which letters reflect more recent relationships, closer collaborations, or relationships closer to the core of your current research efforts.

  2. It is not a critical problem if your advisor is not up to date on your current work. Presumably, their letter will talk the work that they know about and about your qualities as a researcher, colleague, and person that will not change. Also, you can point your advisor to or summarize the work you've done more recently.

    I provided a copy of a draft cover letter, research statement, and teaching statement to each of my letter writers so that they could see how I was pitching and framing my work. I didn't do this because we were out of touch, but it seems like something similar would help address your concern.

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The only time that you shouldn't ask for a letter of recommendation from your PhD advisor is when you are not allowed to ask for one. This is not often the case, but it does arise in a few instances. The best-known one I can think of is that in Germany a Doktorvater (supervisor) is not allowed to write a letter of recommendation in support of an applicant whose PhD he supervised.

Other than that, you should have your PhD advisor write a letter; it is expected by just about everyone that the supervisor will write a letter, and it will definitely raise questions for you if you do not submit such a letter. If there is a particularly compelling reason, then, you should have that well in hand at the time when you are writing your applications. Otherwise, you'll have a lot more explaining to do, and probably a lot of potential postdoc supervisors may not even bother giving your application a second look.

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Hello, Thanks for the answer. However, it seems that you misunderstood my question. I am a postdoc already, and I am asking that after I finish my postdoc, what are the pros and cons not having my PhD advisor writing letters. –  aperson Feb 16 '13 at 0:24
    
I'd think you'd still be expected to have a letter from your PhD advisor, unless you could come up with four other letters from your time as a postdoc. Also, you could keep your advisor current on your work by forwarding them copies of your recent papers! –  aeismail Feb 16 '13 at 3:08
    
unless you could come up with four other letters — Any successful postdoc should be able to get four other letters, but the PhD advisor should write a letter anyway. –  JeffE Feb 16 '13 at 5:56
    
@JeffE: Four other better letters? –  aeismail Feb 16 '13 at 10:39
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@aeismail: Sure, why not? All else being equal, a letter from someone without a vested personal interest in your success is better. That's why advisors are never (well, hardly ever, at least in the US) asked for tenure letters. –  JeffE Feb 16 '13 at 16:41

I wanted to reemphasize something that Benjamin said in passing. If they're asking for n letters, they mean at least n letters. So asking your advisor for a letter doesn't mean that you'd need to not ask the other people. Ask your advisor for a letter and ask the other people who know your current work better for letters.

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Are you sure that we can send more letters than asked without making the recruiters uncomfortable? –  aperson Feb 17 '13 at 1:41
    
I'm not sure what you mean by "recruiters" which makes me think you may be applying to very different jobs than what I'm familiar with. For math tenure track jobs I'm quite confident that even though ads only ask for 3 or 4 letters, candidates sending 5 or 6 is typical. See this comment thread for more discussion on this point: sbseminar.wordpress.com/2011/04/15/some-advice-on-job-hunting/… –  Noah Snyder Feb 17 '13 at 2:31
    
Thank you. The link is very helpful. –  aperson Feb 17 '13 at 2:39

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