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I have started a postdoc position very recently. I have funding for now, however I wanted independence, my PI encouraged this idea and we are working on a fellowship for me. On the other hand, I have been nominated by my PhD institution for a different fellowship that is by nomination only and is by far the best option I can imagine. I would like to ask my current PI to write a letter of recommendation for this application but I am afraid to render myself as opportunistic or misleading (since we were working on a different option together right now). I would be grateful to know PIs perspective on this subject:

  1. Is asking for this letter appropriate or will I damage my relationship with my PI?
  2. Is it possible that my PI writes a bad letter for me because I'm pursuing a different option?
  3. What is the best way to approach my PI?

Thank you!

3 Answers 3

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A wise, honorable, respectable postdoc advisor will recognize that for someone in your position it is absolutely necessary to consider all avenues for remaining and thriving in academia if it is your goal to do so. You need to be pursuing more than one thing because you cannot guarantee you will get anything you have to apply for.

A normal human being will also be a bit hurt and disappointed if you have plans with them and decide to go a different direction. However, disappointment need not lead to retribution, and a good advisor would not let this color their recommendation of you. Quite to the contrary: the best person to write you a recommendation to continue working in academia is someone who would like to personally continue collaborating with you.

If your advisor considers you negatively for pursuing your other options, that's a problem with them, not with you. However, you know your advisor better than we do: if you don't trust them, you may need to act more strategically. If you do trust them, I would recommend you just approach them directly with the circumstance and opportunity and ask if they could write a supportive letter. I don't think it's necessary to predetermine which opportunity takes precedence if you obtain them both; for now, you're just an applicant to two different opportunities.

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  • Thanks for your answer! I do not know my PI long enough (3 months), it is not that I don't trust him, it is that I care a great deal about this opportunity. Any suggestions about how to "act more strategically" would be much appreciated!
    – The N
    Sep 23 at 20:10
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    @TheN The strategic advice would apply if you had reason to think your PI was a jerk, and would be coupled with trying to get out of there as soon as possible.
    – Bryan Krause
    Sep 23 at 20:20
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  1. The answer to the second half of your first question heavily depends on the personal traits of your adviser. Both jealousy and magnanimity are natural and widespread human traits and without knowing a person really well, one cannot predict which one will prevail. Technically speaking, your request is completely reasonable and legitimate though.

  2. It is possible but extremely unlikely. The general culture is just to refuse to write a recommendation letter if one doesn't intend to write a reasonably good one.

  3. Just be honest and explain clearly why you prefer the other option. As a tactical step, you may even start with "I have that other option. What do you think of it?" and play it by ear from there.

My answer, as a PI, would be "{That option has such and such (dis)advantages (if I know them)/I cannot say much about that other option (if I don't know much about it)}; I can offer you this and this here, but it is your life and career, so the choice is yours and I'll respect and support it no matter what you choose." (Actually I was exactly in the position of such a PI once, so I am just repeating what I said back then. The approach of the postdoc was way more direct than what I am suggesting and went along the lines of "Will you feel betrayed if ... ?").

If you hear something reassuring like the above, you can proceed without hesitation, for whatever your PI feels in his soul, you can safely assume that he keeps his feelings under control and really wishes you the best. There are, probably, some responses that should make you back off immediately too but you'll easily recognize them as well.

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  1. Probably, depends on how much they invested to get that opportunity for you. I want to believe it will not go too far but you may lose any privilages that you might have.

  2. Not unless they hold grudge so bad that they stake their reputation on sabotaging you. They may refuse to write a recommendation letter (even that might cause issues for them), but they cannot write a bad one out of spite. I personally will never employ (if I have the chance) someone in academia who has done this. Everyone passing through academic life require recommendation letter one point or another, anyone cheats this system has no place in it.

  3. Best course of action is a passive approach. Tell them you want multiple options in case one of them doesn't work. If they ask what will you chose if you get accepted from both, tell them you have not made your mind yet and you will consider both options. Even ask them their opinion on the matter. Who knows maybe they will say you should chose the other one.

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