To be more specific, I work in pure mathematics and I am applying for a postdoc position in the US.

Prior to this, I have only had my recommendation letters written by my former advisors and PhD defense committee members. However, my recent research, as well as the scientific profile of the job I'm applying for, deviates from what I did as a PhD. So I feel it more useful to have professor A (an expert in the field) reference me rather than those people.

But I merely have email correspondence with A and we have never met. Indeed, in the past year I released a paper which generalizes A's earlier work, and our emails are mainly technical discussions on his work and mine. So my question is: in these circumstances, is it appropriate to ask A for a reference letter?

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    It sounds like an even better way to resolve this problem might be to try to arrange to go visit A, or vice versa. It sounds like it would be good for you two to know more about each other's work, and could lead to closer collaboration. And he'd likely be able to write a stronger letter after having an extended in-person discussion with you. – Nate Eldredge Mar 19 '15 at 14:35

If you feel that A is sufficiently familiar with your work and your expertise and can comment upon those responsibly, then it is not inappropriate to ask him for a reference letter.

Your perception of your relationship maybe, however, different from his. And if that is the case he will probably politely turn you down (he is too busy, he does not feel comfortable doing it, etc.) in which case don't take it personally and don't hold it against him, and certainly don't force the matter. Having a weak letter at times is worse than not having one at all.

If the request was made to a complete stranger, it is possible that person may develop a bad impression due to this request out of the blue. But since you have been in correspondence with A, the worst that can happen really is that he would say 'no'.

To put in a personal perspective:

  • I have had an experience where an expert in the field, who has read some of my papers, and who has invited me for seminars (and hence whom I have personally met), turn down a request for a reference letter because he feel he is not in a position to write me an extremely strong letter.
  • I have had also an experience where an expert in the field agreed to write me a reference letter based on having read some of my papers and having conversed with some of my co-authors. We only had e-mail and Skype discussions after he agreed to write the letter and want to find out more about me and my interests.
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    Note that, if A agrees to write a letter, it will likely contain a disclaimer that he cannot speak about your teaching, collegiality, etc. So you will want to have other letters that do. – Nate Eldredge Mar 19 '15 at 14:31
  • I switched the first word to Unless, so that it reads better, if this wrong feel free to reject my edit – Mark Rogers Mar 19 '15 at 14:34
  • @MarkRogers I think it's the double negative that makes it sound unclear. Changing the first word to "unless" would give the wrong meaning, though. – DanielST Mar 19 '15 at 16:17
  • @slicedtoad - ah your right, my bad. My brain kept confusing the bolded point. – Mark Rogers Mar 19 '15 at 16:32
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    There is a subtle difference between nonnegative and positive, and the mathematician in me prefers the doubly-negated form. Of course, if you have a better word for inappropriate which is less confusing, I'm all ears. – Willie Wong Mar 19 '15 at 16:35

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