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It looks like I'm about to apply for a postdoc position to go back to my former PhD supervisor, with only one PI in between.

Normally as a Postdoc going for a 2nd (or 3rd depending on how you count it) position, the PhD supervisor would be a good person to ask for a reference (one of 3 in this case). My supervisor was also the last person I worked for before my current PI - again, last but 1 boss would be a sensible reference.

But what if the position being applied for is working for the former PhD supervisor? It seems obvious to me that you can't ask someone to for a reference when they're the one hiring. In this case everyone I'd ask for a reference from my PhD days is on the hiring committee. Is the only course of action to not have any references from the PhD period?


In this case I'm on good terms with everyone, but have a fairly limited network (partly because of the geographic limitations that are why I'm applying to go back there); I'm moving on because of funding running out so my PI knows I'm applying for stuff (and I've actually asked them pretty much this question).

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  • You just finished a postdoc with someone, and now you're applying for another postdoc with the PI who supervised your PhD? Just clarifying. Jan 13 at 20:16
  • @AzorAhai-him- not quite finished, but that's right. I'll re-read my Q because having just written essentially the same in an email I might have missed a key point
    – Chris H
    Jan 13 at 20:25
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I would just drop your former supervisor an informal email - he will know what to do.

And honestly, given that he knows you most likely very well the whole interview process might only be a formal procedure while the actual decision if it hires you again or not takes place in the moment he knows that you apply.

One other thought that you should keep in mind is that doing a post-doc in your former PhD supervisor's lab might not be the best choice for your career as the aim of a postdoc is to show independence from the former supervisor.

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  • Your extra thought is noted, and had occurred to me. I'm geographically restricted so really have to try for everything academic within commuting range (which luckily covers a few cities), otherwise it's back to industry for me
    – Chris H
    Jan 13 at 20:28
  • That informal contact would be a good approach, but in this case I found the job listing only a few hours before the deadline. I'd only just started looking broadly
    – Chris H
    Jan 14 at 9:15
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In the end, on advice from my current boss and with limited time, I put the former supervisor down as one of 3 referees. I haven't had any complaints, and I would expect to have done by now.

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