I'm hopefully in the last half a year or so of my Ph.D. in a subfield of mathematics/theoretical physics and am considering applying for a postdoc within the next three months.

My supervisor works (partly) on field X, and I've pursued my Ph.D. in the direction of subfield Y (with the thumbs-up from my supervisor) – however, my supervisor neither has experience in subfield Y nor much familiarity with the type of mathematics involved. Furthermore, my supervisor is the only person working on field X at my institution.

I've therefore been working with zero direction/advice from my supervisor (I like them, I'm not complaining!) – essentially complete research freedom (which I guess is strange for a typical Ph.D. experience). Of course, this has its pros and cons. The cons mainly consist of working in complete isolation (internet aside) without any supervision in the traditional sense, and with no people in area X (let alone Y) to talk to – my own doing, I know it's what I effectively signed up for! This has been slightly daunting at times (given I had zero research experience before the Ph.D.); it's been 99% laissez-faire.

I have managed to attend a few relevant workshops. The discussions there have been great and have often left me feeling positive/excited about research – I guess if I managed to secure a postdoc in an environment with a group of people in field X (even better with some in field Y), I'd get to experience the stimulation/collaboration experiences that I've thus far missed out on.

The question: When applying for a postdoc, should I mention any of the above? I'm not sure if having done the Ph.D. in field Y in 'isolation' will be a mark for or against me. If I should mention it, what would be the best way (roughly) to word things?

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    essentially complete research freedom (which I guess is strange for a typical PhD experience) - It's not that uncommon, and the situation should be clear from your reference letters.
    – Kimball
    Commented Mar 1, 2020 at 23:41
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    I don't mean this as a negative, but just for students in a similar situation who are still in grad school and reading this: I would be much more impressed if you had initiated connections with researchers in area Y (outside your institution) and then learned from and published research with them. That shows some important skills that will serve you well later in your research career. Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 7:50
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    Just to be clear: Supervision does not necessarily mean supervision om the research field. There are lots of supervising task that do not require knowledge of the field, but of management. Help you get on track of writing chapters, going to conferences, meeting people, etc. Did your supervisor not help with any of that either, or did them only not help with that particular subfield of maths? Because if its only the latter I'd say you still got plenty supervision Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 10:10
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    Be positive about the situation, above all. To get a PhD it is assumed that a) you can do research on your own b) that you are willing and able to work under supervision, and usually with some sort of team-format. To the extent you worked with others (labs, any TA work, etc) emphasize that as well as your ability to do things on your own! Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 20:20
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    If your subject is sufficiently obscure (i.e. not currently overrun), everybody in it will know that your supervisor had no clue what you were doing. ;)
    – Karl
    Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 20:47

7 Answers 7


Should I mention that I completed my Ph.D. with no supervision?

Definitely not. "I had no supervision during my PhD." could be interpreted as "Nobody taught me anything during my Ph.D. so I am unqualified." or "I am incapable of giving credit to other people who deserve it." or "I am so obnoxious my supervisor will not interact with me." or "I refuse to work with others." It is likely none of these are true, but the misinterpretation is a possibility.

What should happen is that your supervisor writes a letter of recommendation saying that you have shown a high degree of independence and that you now have more expertise in Y than they do.

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    Thanks, those are great points. I have a good relationship with my supervisor, I'm sure they'll make my case in a way that highlights the pertinent points in a recommendation letter. "Nobody taught me anything during my PhD so I am unqualified." That is a scary thought.
    – Meths
    Commented Mar 1, 2020 at 19:38
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    If someone is so crazy to interpret such an innocent sentence with those horrible meanings, you would imagine what else they gonna interpret about you based on random facts about you....
    – user35129
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 2:10
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    @CoderInNetwork If it were me, with my best intentions, all I could get from that sentence is: "So... The faculty doesn't care about its students? Why did this person put this sentence here? What's the purpose? I should ask." Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 14:04
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    @CoderInNetwork if you get a recommendation letter through from a supervisor who clearly worked with the student and the student has claimed to have done everything alone what would your conclusions be about the situation? Would sound like an inability to give credit to me. Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 14:47
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    @Vincent No. When someone says: "There was no elephant in the room.", I start to wonder - wait, I never thought about that - should there have been an elephant? Is there usually an elephant? Did they expect an elephant? Are they disappointed that they could not shoot some ivory? Has china been broken and they are looking for an elephant to blame? Is there actually an elephant in the room and they try to divert me from the fact by denying it? In the moment you state something highly unexpected, the attention level towards relevant ramifications increases significantly. Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 1:11

Tread carefully to avoid a doesn't play well with others impression.

I was in a somewhat similar situation (Ph.D. supervisor in a different area), although I had plenty of contacts in my own area. In my applications, I never explicitly brought this up but did claim that I was rather independent in setting and pursuing my research goals. The evidence I brought up was here's some single-author paper and here's a bunch of papers coauthored with all sorts of different people. I left it to the letter from my supervisor to say anything more because he is in a much better position to put this positively.

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    Certainly one of the things I'm keen to avoid - thing is, I just haven't had a chance to coauthor a paper (would really like to if the opportunity arose), so my papers are single author.
    – Meths
    Commented Mar 1, 2020 at 12:05
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    Let your supervisor comment on your remarkable independence in their letter. Commented Mar 1, 2020 at 15:52
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    @user2705196 This should be the answer.
    – Keith
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 0:01

You shouldn’t say it, because it’s not true.

Of course, I’m guessing here and this isn’t based on any specific information in your post, but “my supervisor didn’t advise me on the mathematics in my thesis” is not the same as “I received no supervision”.

I am fairly confident that your supervisor taught you many things about X, the philosophy of doing research in math/theoretical physics, career advice, productivity and writing tips, and probably other things. Those workshops you attended - how did you hear about them? How did you obtain funding to attend them? Was your supervisor really so “laissez faire” that they gave you no assistance whatsoever related to anything that you can attribute your success to? (In that case, in what sense were they your “supervisor”? And why do you like them?)

To summarize: I congratulate you on your independence, but this quality is best attested to by others. Be mindful of how things you say about yourself are perceived by others. When you say you received “no supervision”, it sounds like you’re saying you got no help. But everyone gets some help along the way, and denying that, or appearing to deny it, makes you sound petty and ungrateful.

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    Oof. No, we never really talk about technicalities in field X / productivity and writing tips. Found the workshops using Google / through contacts made at previous workshops - funding through the project of course. I like my supervisor because we get on well (more like friends) - but still absent in the ways you mentioned. This question wasn't meant to be a complaint - it was just a question as to if/how I should word the independence of anything I've done. The answers have been eye-opening to say the least !
    – Meths
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 20:41
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    Thanks for your response though - like others, it does an effective job at illustrating how me claiming the above could really backfire!
    – Meths
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 20:43
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    @Meths ok, evidently I guessed wrong then, sorry for that. It’s still the kind of guess that others may make as well if you aren’t careful to not give them reasons to make such a guess. Good luck with your job apps in any case!
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 20:45
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    Nothing to apologise for whatsoever - totally legit answer, applicable for others who might chance upon this question and "It’s still the kind of guess that others may make as well if you aren’t careful to not give them reasons to make such a guess" - definitely! Thank you.
    – Meths
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 20:47

I think a careful inspection on your supervisor and your PhD subject/publications will reveal the truth. Therefore, no need to explicitly express it but you can mention it in your application.


When applying for a postdoc, should I mention any of the above?

I was in the same boat as you, one leg in one discipline, another one in a completely different one. I had one thesis director but the referees were from both fields. I also had the opportunity to discuss with them in the course of my PhD.

The experience was amazing. I made sure to highlight exactly this: the opportunity to be responsible, engage with people from different fields and end up with a thesis which bridged both. I was very grateful to all of them.

Turn it to your advantage by showing that you had a good time and that you are a team player

  • Excellent answer Commented Mar 4, 2020 at 14:00

The ability to work independently and attain significant accomplishments is noteworthy. Your letters of recommendation should speak to your many qualities. Your published contributions should speak to your research accomplishments and your ability to publish original work.

We are talking a form of a job interview here. And people are hired not just for what they can do, but also for how they fit into an organization. If you are considering a place which values independent work, your story will work well for you. On the other hand, if you are considering a place which operates with a tightly coupled team, there may be reservations.

Understand what the interests and expectations there are, and figure out how you can give them what they want, then sell it with as much evidence as you can extract from your past.


Do you have the experience, the knowledge and the expertise? Was your thesis published and peer reviewed? If so, what is the problem? You need to sell you so think sales and marketing Be honest in interviews and what you write down but no need to reveal details that do not affect your ability to do the job I think you should keep it to yourself

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