I had worked on my math PhD for 4 years before dropping out almost 2 years ago to lecture at a small college. I basically finished almost all of my research but am having trouble finishing my dissertation. This is in part due to the fact that my advisor turned out to be a terrible match for me and not very helpful at all. I want to move up in my career but almost all teaching jobs require at the very least recommendation letters and unfortunately, I have not done a good job at keeping in touch with my advisor. Does anyone have any advice for how I can try to re-establish a relationship with my advisor or maybe choose someone else to work with in order to finish?

  • 3
    If you are looking for a teaching position, the recommendation letter should address your teaching. So a recommendation letter from your boss or an established teacher in your college may be sufficient. If the position you want to apply require a letter of recommendation addressing research, an unfinished PhD is an issue to solve first.
    – Taladris
    Jun 19, 2014 at 14:17

2 Answers 2


To move on in your career you need to (1) finish the dissertation; (2) publish lots of papers in prestigious places; (3) cultivate connections with senior people in the field by going to conferences, refereeing journal articles if asked, etc.

Finish your dissertation, and get a couple good papers published, and probably your old advisor will be happy to write you a good letter.

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    I largely agree, but the "publish lots of papers in prestigious places" part is only necessary for those seeking jobs in which research plays an important role. For teaching-oriented jobs, one could often replace it with "publish some papers in good places" (or less, depending on the job). Jul 19, 2014 at 20:13
  • @AnonymousMathematician Thank you for your comment. Could you give us a breakdown (even if anecdotal) about publication expectations at various kinds of schools for Math? I have some sense for Philosophy, but the OP would probably be more benefited by advice from someone in the discipline.
    – user10636
    Jul 19, 2014 at 20:19
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    Hmm, that's a tough question. It's hard to quantify this (it depends a lot on the specific papers, on the school in question, on the subfield of mathematics, etc., plus it can change over time: looking at CVs of long-time faculty members can be a terrible way to judge the current hiring standards). But this could be a good question to ask on this site. For a quick overview, research universities and even top liberal arts colleges are really demanding in terms of research accomplishments. Community colleges are not, and in the U.S. other schools fill pretty much the whole range in between. Jul 19, 2014 at 20:33
  • Not a bad idea. I'll post one.
    – user10636
    Jul 19, 2014 at 20:37

Re-establishing a relationship with an adviser that you left is sort like asking your former boss for your old job. There is certainly nothing wrong with doing that. Just think about how you left things with the adviser, perhaps recognizing and owning where you got off track and offering a plan to move forward. Even if you believe that the problems were that of your adviser, it is best to avoid those issues. Show that you are interested in completing your dissertation and self-motivated -- that is, that you are really prepared to move forward and will be independent to the extent possible.

If this doesn't work, then looking for a new adviser is certainly warranted. However, I think the path of least resistance is probably to patch the relationship with the adviser with whom you had worked. I guess you just want to communicate that you have the time and motivation to get it done, and that you will not be a burden on her or his time. Because you are in a teaching position with a presumably heavy teaching load, it would be good to really take stock of the amount of time and energy you have for completing the dissertation. You don't want to re-establish the relationship only to discover that it is way too much for you to complete.

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