I have strong publication record in my Ph.D. and 1st Postdoc that went for two years. Got 4 TT interview calls before last year.. but not successful in any. Last year did not apply, but this year, after fixing a few shortcomings noticed in my previous interviews, started the search again. In the meantime I published a couple of top journals as the corresponding author. However, I am not in harmonious professional relation with the present postdoc advisor. I am working for a little over one year in this position but did not yield any journal publication. I am sure that this advisor's reference will have negative impact on my search, if at all he agrees to write one. The only best way for me is avoid this advisor's letter, since I can arrange the required number of good letters from my previous affiliations. If I proceed with out my present advisor's reference, will it have any bearing on my chances? Expecting some suggestions from the people having experience in search committees.

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    It might have a bearing on your chances, but your strategy still seems the best one given the situation. Sep 14, 2019 at 16:33
  • If you'd been in this postdoc a bit longer it might be a red flag. But you've barely broken a year when the other postdoc was 2 years. I would just assume the Ph.D. advisor, 1st postdoc advisor, and long-time collaborator knew you better. If you'd been in this postdoc 2 years, I'd wonder why a letter didn't come from them. Sep 15, 2019 at 16:31

3 Answers 3


In my view, strong letters are extremely important. You certainly don't want any letters from people interested in sabotaging you in any way. Even poorly written letters can be a setback. So can letters written by non-native speakers who may not grok the nuances of certain phrases.

There is the concept of Damning with Faint Praise that can be absolutely deadly in a letter. It can be intentional or not, actually.

Get letters from people who know your potential and are willing to speak for it. They need to know about your past work, of course, but people will be looking for potential and how it relates to a particular position.

If you have any doubts about what a person might say, ask them about it, or go elsewhere. In certain situations (non-native speakers, say) you might even request that a letter writer check their letter with a neutral third party, such as a department head. This would have saved me tremendous grief long ago.

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    If a letter from your current advisor will harm your search, you must apply without a letter from your current advisor. Will that omission have an effect? Of course! But the effect of a negative or weak letter is far worse.
    – JeffE
    Sep 14, 2019 at 17:59
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    "This would have saved me tremendous grief long ago." Is that a story you can share? Sep 14, 2019 at 21:35
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    @darijgrinberg, I had a great advisor who wrote me a great letter if you knew how he meant it. Unfortunately he was Czech (not a native English speaker) and a classically educated mathematician. His description of my essential knowledge (classical real analysis) made it sound like all I knew was Calculus. Of course, both of us knew what he meant, but it was years before another faculty member reviewed that letter and saw the implication. Moreover it was a difficult time to get an academic job in math (70's).
    – Buffy
    Sep 14, 2019 at 22:04
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    @Buffy: Ah, the classical European humility plus the non-existent separation between calculus and analysis outside of the US :) Sep 14, 2019 at 22:07
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    @darijgrinberg, yes, we (folks like myself and my now, sadly deceased, advisor) think of Calculus very broadly while many think of it as a first year course (or even one for secondary school). The man was honored posthumously by Charles University, though he had left (escaped) Czechoslovakia many years before. (Before it was the Czech Republic, of course). He went out the Western border while the Russians came in the Eastern in one of the iterations of invasion and domination.
    – Buffy
    Sep 14, 2019 at 22:15

There is no problem in asking other people than your postdoc host to provide letters for you. It is you who decide who to ask, and recruitment committees will probably not even notice, nor will care whether your postdoc host is missing (unless there exists a special relation between a committee member and the host, in which case you can still not ask the host for a letter).


I recommend having someone from your current institution write a letter showing that you are good to work with.

I have served on several search committees. I read letters not for information on research productivity (which is better shown in the CV) but for indications of how the candidate would be as a co-worker. I do not want to hire a jerk.

For someone in your situation, I would notice that you did not have a current reference and I would be concerned that you might be a jerk. If a co-worker, preferably someone who is more senior than you, can speak to what it is like to work with you and perhaps even show that your advisor is the problem, that letter would make me much less concerned.

  • Interesting. However I disagree that a common recruitment committee would care who the references are not. Obviously, if the OP has three references from e.g. world leaders and his PhD advisor, then it is not necessary to ask more people to chip in (as most job postings ask for three letters at most).
    – Dilworth
    Sep 15, 2019 at 21:44

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