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I'm a PhD student in a 3-4 year program (UK), nearing the end of my first year. I want to stay in academia, so I want to have good LORs. I was wondering how to earn good LORs that I may need in 1.5years (at the earliest) for postdoc applications, from someone other than my supervisor (obviously they should write one). I dont have a secondary/co supervisor, so that is not an option. Indeed, there aren't really any professors in my department working in my subfield.

  • I suppose I'd need to develop a professional relationship with a Professor at another department. How do I go around doing this? My work is theoretical so collaborations don't seem standard (at least my supervisor hasn't suggested this).
  • Is there added value in the letter coming from a PI at a different university?
  • My subfield is interdisciplinary, should I aim to get a LOR from someone with background in the field opposite to mine?
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    I'm having difficulties to follow the sentence "My work is theoretical so collaborations don't seem standard". Why would theoretical work contradict collaborations? (For instance, I am in pure mathematics, and one could argue that it doesn't get much more theoretical than that; but still most people here collaborate all the time with various different people.) Jul 26 at 17:54
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    And interdisciplinary - seems natural to have collaborators in the other disciplines? Good letters of recommendation come out of doing good work with other people. Worry about that first, the LORs will come naturally.
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 26 at 18:33
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    why not concentrate first and foremost on doing good work? THAT will get you noticed by others… Jul 26 at 22:15
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    @ZeroTheHero I agree with that, but I doubt that someone having read my papers and liked, maybe even cited them, would be sufficient reason to request a LOR, let alone result in a strong one. Maybe I'm wrong though and this is standard
    – mmm
    Jul 27 at 15:24
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    @mmm you’re overthinking it. Do good work and then worry about LoR. Jul 27 at 16:02

2 Answers 2

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First and foremost, you should concentrate on doing good work, and let positive judgment from others flow from the quality of your professionalism and your work output. Also, when you are a PhD student, you should be careful about engaging in "impression management" since it can detract from your candour in identifying your own areas for development and seeking help to improve your work (and actually that's also true for people in higher positions too).

With those two caveats in place, one thing you can do here is to take actions to form a broader network of people who know about you and your work. There are a number of actions you could take to do this, such as:

  1. Reconsidering opportunities for collaboration or multidisciplinary engagement in your research (e.g., publishing a joint paper with an academic, etc.);
  2. Seeking opportunities for joint research work with academics at your university or another university;
  3. Regulary attending appropriate talk/seminar series at your university and giving occasional talks yourself to let people know about your research
  4. Asking to attend research committees that arrange research activities in your faculty (even just as an observer, since you are only a student);
  5. Undertaking teaching/tutorial work for one or more academics in your faculty; or
  6. Starting up a PhD student discussion group on a broad academic topic of interest to you and others, and asking an academic with knowledge in that field to be the patron of the group (attending meetings, giving advice and opinions, etc.).

All of these are things you could consider doing that could potentially expand the network of academics who are familiar with you and your work. Bear in mind that any activity you do has an opportunity/time cost, but consider the above as things that could enhance your PhD program and your broader academic network.

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  • Thanks for the suggestions. I'm unsure about what you mean by 4. I've done 3, 5 and 6, but I'm unsure these are enough reasons to warrant a good LOR (eg I doubt someone can write me a good LOR based on how well I taught their students). Even if I used that to get me noticed, my subfield is very disconnected from the rest of the department (as an example, think being the only bioinformatician, from a CS background, in a biology department), so the LOR's from other PIs would be useless. I wish I could collaborate, but my supervisor isn't very supportive of that
    – mmm
    Jul 27 at 15:30
  • I think this is a good answer. Doing 3 and 5 is a great thing, particularly in the other part of your interdisciplinary sub field. You could also organize conference panels on your topic and use these as a jumping off point for conference meetings with people in your field.
    – Dawn
    Jul 28 at 14:48
  • Ben, #4 is stupid advice. I see no basis for any student attending research committee meetings in any capacity. What the hell can a Y1 PhD do at such affairs other than absorb an acclimatization to cynical comment ? And how do you think other PhDs in OP's department will react to this blatant self-promotion. Regardless of OP's research work and departmental diligence he'd be damned by his own ambitiousness if he pursued this. Not that I think the research committee members would abide his presence.
    – Trunk
    Jul 29 at 16:28
  • That seems pretty hostile to the student to me. If a PhD student wants to work in academia, it doesn't seem unreasonable to me that they might ask to observe some of these kinds of proceedings where academics arrange their research agenda. As to "abiding his presence", shit man, if an academic can't abide the presence of a PhD student, academia is probably the wrong profession. Anyway, thanks for your perspective.
    – Ben
    Jul 29 at 22:03
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Like Ben I'd be a bit concerned that putting yourself about more than is reasonable would backfire as people push back against what's perceivable as over-ambitiousness.

You need to accept (I know it's hard for initiatory people) that progress in academia is perforce collegial and even the most obvious improvements demand due consultation with others - with the dumb and apathetic as much as with the bright and positive.

In this vein I'd explore, with other positive students firstly and of course with your supervisor and postgraduate studies dean, the possibility of your department's students attending seminars on your research area at another nearby university and vice-versa.

You have to play this one very coolly and carefully. Be prepared for resistance from your own department: it happens.

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