We all know that usually when applying for a post phd academic position students need at least three recommendation letters. But what can we do if we have only worked with our advisor and we have no other close professors in the department to ask. This refers to the case when the student took classes, had a little teaching experience, but never got to the point to know some professor well, or collaborate with researchers from another place.

Some sub-questions: 1) how well does the writer need to know the student to write a decent recommendation? 2) how research recommendations are looked at when applying for purely teaching job? 3) how non-research recommendations are looked at when applying for research job? 4) what else can we do in a short period of time to acquire those recommendations? 5) is there a way to avoid submitting recommendations, at least in the first stage of the application process?

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    "But what can we do if we have only worked with our advisor and we have no other close professors in the department to ask." — Don't have done that?
    – JeffE
    Apr 23, 2012 at 21:04

5 Answers 5


You need to strategize with your advisor, or a trusted mentor, about this. You need recommenders who have a high opinion of your work, are willing to put in the time to write a good letter, and know how to do so (which rules out more people than you might think). Ideally, you need advice from someone who knows what sorts of letters different people write and can help you choose who might be most appropriate.

What I recommend for my students is:

  1. A letter from me, which will discuss in detail what they have done, why it's important, what the student's key contributions were, what the future might hold, etc. I'll also sit in on a class the student teaches and talk with them about teaching, so I can put in a reasonably well-informed paragraph about that, but the focus of the letter will be research. (I'll have a different version of this letter, which emphasizes teaching more, to be sent to highly teaching-oriented jobs.)

  2. A teaching letter from someone in the department who is well known for excellent teaching and can evaluate the quality of their teaching.

  3. A research letter from another faculty member in the department. This will be from someone the student has met with at least a couple of times each semester for the last year or two, if not more often, so they will be in an excellent position to write a serious letter.

  4. A research letter from someone at another university, typically someone I know who has interacted with the student at conferences, seen the student give at least one talk, and read at least one paper by the student. This proves that the student is developing a reputation outside their university, and it supplies a letter from someone who has less of a vested interest in seeing the student succeed.

Of course, it's hard to set up (3) and (4) on short notice. It's often helpful if your advisor asks someone. I can say "You remember my excellent student Alice, the one who wrote the paper on X? She's graduating this year, and I think she's going to do very well on the job market, but she still needs one more recommendation, and we're hoping for one from another university. Could you help?" By contrast, there's nothing a student can write that will be as effective. (From a student's perspective, the letter is a favor to the student, but faculty sometimes think of it as a favor to the advisor.)

The biggest problem is if your advisor can't or won't help with this. Then you'll have to pick the most supportive people you know and ask them yourself. It's helpful to offer to meet with them to tell them about your work, to make sure they are fully up to date. You should send them copies of all your application materials. It's also helpful if you supply additional background and commentary, to help give them more of a feeling for your work and its context. This makes it easier to write the letter, by supplying interesting ideas and facts the letter writer can mention. (That's the lazy approach to writing a letter, but if someone is going to be lazy, you want to make it as easy as possible for them.) Make sure everyone writing a research letter actually plans to discuss your research. It can really hurt your application if a letter just says "Bob took my advanced phrenology class and received an A. I was particularly impressed with his insightful questions regarding retrophrenology, and I became convinced that this bright young man has an extraordinary future in pseudoscience. I haven't read any of his papers, but his advisor assures me that they are wonderful, so Bob has my strongest recommendation." When you get your Ph.D., you should be judged based on your research (and teaching), not your performance in classes.

You should request letters at least one month before the deadline. It doesn't really take a month to write a letter, but it can take a number of hours (looking at papers and application materials, thinking, and then writing). Any given week may be very busy - for example, someone may be travelling or facing a major deadline - and faculty members often have to write dozens of letters, so if you do not ask far enough in advance, then there may simply not be enough time for your letter. If you need a letter very quickly, then you are asking for a huge favor, and the letter probably won't be as long or compelling as it might have been otherwise.

As for some of your sub-questions: The writer does not need to know the student well, but must know something about the student's work (for example, from papers or talks). For most academic jobs in the fields I know about, there is no way to avoid submitting recommendations with the initial application.

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    Excellent answer. The only thing I'd suggest is that if the student has maintained contact with someone from their undergraduate university, that might be an additional source of a good letter of recommendation, as it would be with someone with longstanding knowledge of the applicant.
    – aeismail
    Apr 23, 2012 at 9:04
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    @aeismail: Only if that someone is an expert in the student's research subarea.
    – JeffE
    Apr 23, 2012 at 21:00
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    Yeah, it's dangerous if a letter writer focuses on undergraduate work and then deals only briefly with graduate work. It's OK to ask an undergrad professor one has kept in touch with, but it's crucial to make sure they understand the graduate work in detail and plan to focus on it almost exclusively. (I would not recommend more than one or two sentences about anything from before grad school.) Apr 23, 2012 at 21:36
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    @aeismail I'll third that sentiment. I would only suggest asking a professor you knew as an undergraduate if you've had interactions with them since strating grad school you consider sufficient to write a letter. I've seen one person you got a letter from a Nobel laureate who knew them as an undergraduate which was very positive, but probably hurt more than it helped. Nov 12, 2013 at 16:18

You could ask members of your doctoral committee to write you a letter of recommendation each. They would probably need some details about the job and what it entails. They would also want to see your transcripts and a copy of your curriculum vitae but that shouldn't be a biggy!

Research related recommendation letters are obviously great if you are applying for a research job. Either way, you could ask your advisor to write you a letter that carries a good balance of research aptitude and general work skills.

In my experience, it is difficult to get letters of recommendation on short notice. They could take a couple weeks to a month or so.

Good luck!


If you are applying for a position that involves teaching, you should have one or more letters addressing your teaching. If you were the TA for the course, they should come for the lead or recitation instructor. If you were the lead instructor, it should be whoever supervised you, possibly an administrator. If you apply for a teaching position without any such letters, they will infer you really want a research position and are only applying to them as a fallback position, which does not make you an attractive candidate. (I've been on both sides.)

I second the recommendation to solicit letters from members of your doctoral committee, as well as anyone with whom you have co-authored a paper, done an internship with, particularly impressed while taking their class, etc.

If you have done impressive service, you can get a letter from someone about that.


In some areas of computer science, summer internships at corporate research labs (Microsoft Research, IBM research, and AT&T research mostly) have become an important part of the PhD process. The main benefit of doing an internship or two is to broaden the student's set of collaborators. This is helpful for them to get exposed to new areas of research that will eventually form a part of their thesis, but it is also an excellent source of recommendation letters. A researcher who supervised a student for a summer, and with whom he wrote a paper (or two, or three!) is in an excellent position to write a strong letter.

Of course, your thesis committee is another good place to look. Many times you will need 4 people on your committee (Your advisor, two others from your department, and sometimes an external researcher). With luck, at least 3 of these people will know your work well enough to write for you.


Really, you should start thinking about who you'll ask to write letters a couple of years before you ask for them. Then you'll have time to develop relationships with your letter writers. If you'd like to get a letter of recommendation from someone (particularly at your university), but haven't worked with them, try to start a collaboration. For faculty other than your adviser, your "researchy" interaction with them will often start with a reading course (or independent study).

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