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I am a postdoctoral fellow, working in a rather prestigious institute in Asia, for about a year. To be frank, I was rather surprised to get a position here, as many people here have spent at least some time in Ivy league level colleges. I did my PhD in a good university in Asia, but it is not well-known for my field. Moreover, I did my undergraduate degree in my home country, and it is not a very reputable university despite being the best in the country.

Part of the reason I got this position was because my present mentor decided to fund me from her grant, unlike others who are funded by the institute. My mentor is also highly respected in her field, basically a superstar. However, I made some mistakes after coming to the institute. Firstly my mentor had told me earlier that I had research freedom, but after arriving I slowly realized she did not really mean it.

The main mistake was choosing to work on a project with multiple other authors including her, and in a topic that was only related to my previous work in a minor way. It was really out of curiosity and an interest to learn that I took up this project. As the project was going on, she started hinting that we should discuss topics closer to my specialization, but I naively said maybe we could do that after the current project was done, and she just chuckled.

It became confusing when not long after that she said she might be able to extend my contract, so that I would not have to apply for a postdoc during the next round of applications. It sounded great to me but I sensed something was not right, and indeed I eventually realized, when I spoke to her, that she wanted me to work on something closer to my specialization, as she said it was a promising topic.

I started working on the topic, but somehow nothing worked out. To top it off I was subject to a lot of indirect condescension and even racism from colleagues at times, which made me even more anxious. Strange local contract laws, Covid restrictions, loneliness and maladjustment just added to my troubles.

I did ask her about my performance and about whether I contributed enough to the first paper (that did get published), and her answer was that I contributed more than some other coauthors. To make things more confusing, on one occasion she said she felt I was doing well, but on another occasion she said that she felt I was not very competitive. Shortly before this, she had also mentioned to me that it was important to become an expert in one topic if I wanted to get another postdoc.

It is now the season for postdoctoral applications, I have no concrete new results, and to be honest I am full of regret for not just playing it safe after arriving, and working with her on something I knew well. She was kind enough to give me the official contract extension recently, but for various reasons I still feel like applying and hopefully securing another postdoc.

The main reason is I am sort of a persecuted person in my home country, where I have no freedom of religion. I have permanent residency in the country where I did my PhD, but the longer I stay away the more likely it is that I will lose it. I am really hoping to make it to the West and find an academic job there (the country I am in does not take in foreigners easily), or go back to the country where I did my PhD and find a similar job there. But both of these are difficult, as both options seem to require that I have studied/worked in the West myself.

A positive recommendation letter for the postdoc applications from my supervisor, who is very influential, might help. She said she did not mind writing one, but my fear is that it might be negative given my performance and silly choices (although she is aware of the non-academic challenges I faced in the institute). A negative letter from her might irreparably damage my chances of lasting long in my career.

Should I go ahead with getting a recommendation letter from her?

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    Could you not just ask her if she is willing to write you a strong recommendation letter? If not, why? Nov 22 at 12:39
  • I never really knew one could do that, since I thought such letters are confidential. Thank you for the suggestion, I could try asking, but it is hard to say if she would give me a straightforward answer.
    – scientist1
    Nov 22 at 12:52
  • The contents of the letter are confidential, but the information whether she would be willing to write you a strong letter isn't. Nov 22 at 12:56
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I'm not sure why you think she doesn't appreciate your work. Every indication you give here suggests otherwise. She thinks you contribute a lot (more than others), she wanted to extend your contract, etc. I think you will get a good letter, but you can ask her about it directly, though that is a bit uncomfortable.

And, in any case, a letter from the supervisor is almost always needed.

Don't worry too much about research results being elusive. If you are doing serious research (as a student or thereafter) that is the nature of it.

Talk to her about your long term goals and ask for her support in getting there. Both in the current research and in finding a more permanent position. I'd guess that she would welcome having you as an external collaborator and you would also benefit greatly by keeping contact and collaborating as much as possible.

I'd also guess that the residency question is causing stress that might be leading to fear of failure that is probably not warranted.

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  • Thank you for your reply. It is really encouraging and helpful. Indeed asking her would help, but to be honest I am not sure whether it would come across as rude according to the local culture. But I guess it is worth a shot.
    – scientist1
    Nov 23 at 1:07

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