I received a PhD in mathematics last May. Last December, my advisor passed away quite unexpectedly.

My advisor was an extraordinary person; in addition to being a fantastic advisor mathematically, he was a wonderful mentor who I always thought of as a friend – this is very much a personal loss for me. My initial emotional response was that I should clearly leave mathematics forever. Rationally, that seems uncalled for. Before all of this, I had been aiming for academic jobs in mathematics. However, I expect that a recommendation (as well as other help) from one's advisor is a significant part of an academic job application (for example, this recent answer states that the letter from one's advisor is read first even when applying for a tenure-track job after a postdoc).

How does one go about an academic job search when one's advisor has passed away?

For example, my advisor wrote a letter for me for my job search out of grad school. Does one try to use that letter (via perhaps my graduate department) for subsequent job applications? Do I mention in every cover letter from now on end that my advisor has died (that seems horrifying, since I like my vague sense of denial)?

I am in the first year of a (3-year) postdoc, so I won't be on the job market for a while (in fact, it seems simultaneously very soon and too far away). Of course I can tell that my productivity and motivation have slumped in the last few months, and I know that I should try to get back into gear as soon as possible.

PS: It’s entirely possibly that there’s no ‘practical’ difference between this situation and other situations where one doesn't have a letter from an advisor (as commentor Sumyrda has said), in which case that would be a perfectly reasonable answer that I would happily accept.

Related questions:

While in more of a 'denial' stage, I asked this question to try to get at this.

The analogous question for current graduate students was asked here and here.

There are several questions about dealing with not having a letter from one's PhD advisor on this site, such as this one, or this one, or this one.

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    as someone whose (potential) adviser is also an amazing person, i can't even begin to imagine how you feel. i am so sorry for your loss.
    – essay
    Mar 23, 2015 at 16:53
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    I get why the first couple of related questions are different to yours, but the last one yo linked seems quite on topic. Based on that question's answers: explain the situation yourself or ask one of your letter writers to explain it. I'd also include the old letter, if you can get your hands on it. Mar 23, 2015 at 16:55
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    Please don't leave academia!!! Your advisor had a huge community of people who admired him, and I you will have no problem finding other people to write letters. Those letters will mention your advisor's tragic passing, so there is probably no need to bring it up yourself. Your current postdoc advisor is a wise person and I'm sure will be able to give you advise on who to contact when the time for letters arrives. Of course, the rest of are always happy to talk too (nb for non-Aru's: I am a faculty member at Aru's former graduate school, so I know the situation well. All of us are sad). Mar 23, 2015 at 17:10
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    It's not a childish response! You should never feel embarrassed about how your process your grief, though I'm sure that Tim would have wanted you to continue with your research. My father passed away when I was a graduate student, and I thought very hard about quitting. Death has a way of making even wonderful things like mathematics seem less important. Keep working, take care of yourself (both physically and emotionally), and have faith that the practical aspects of losing Tim (e.g. getting letters) can be overcome. Mar 24, 2015 at 3:50
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    @AndyPutman Can you please turn your comment into an answer so I can vote for it?
    – jakebeal
    Mar 25, 2015 at 12:08

3 Answers 3


This is a very difficult situation. As per the comment by Andy Putman, let your other letter writers explain the situation. Considering you got the Postdoc job, your current supervisor must have been impressed with what your advisor said in his letter. Your current supervisor can include a personal story about something your advisor said about you or even include a few of his favorite verbatim quotes about you from the letter of recommendation for your current postdoc. Anyone on a hiring committee will understand, and will possibly even be personally touched. This will not count against you.

I wouldn't send a copy of your postdoc letter in your application materials If your postdoc supervisor highlighted the strongest quotes from the advisor's letter. If he chooses not to do this or if your advisor's letter in its entirety is much stronger than the best few quotes from it and your postdoc supervisor still has the letter he could send it along with his letter.(note that in other fields this letter may be a bit inappropriate because it could contain a lot of detailed information about how you are a great fit for the particular postdoc position but as Pete points out this usually is not true in pure math).

Unfortunately this does not heal any wounds caused by the unfortunate passing away of your advisor and life long friend, but you should not worry about the letter writing situation. I can't say that I even begin to imagine the emotional pain of losing an advisor so close to graduation, but as someone who lost a parent while in college I greatly sympathize with you and I can think of no greater honor to your advisor than to continue in academia and continue doing great work.

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    I don't think people would assume you saw/changed your advisor's letter if the department sends it out. That said, I agree it's unnecessary to send it.
    – Kimball
    Mar 31, 2015 at 5:39
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    "I wouldn't send a copy of your postdoc letter in your application materials because, it likely contains information specific to the postdoc that would be inappropriate." I'm unsure of your meaning. If you mean that it is a letter recommending someone for a postdoc rather than a tenure-track job: sure, that's the situation, and it might be better to include the letter if it is very strong. (E.g. if it says "She was my best student ever" then it would be a shame not to include this information.) If you mean that it is targeted to a particular institution: no, probably not, in the OP's field. Mar 31, 2015 at 15:29
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    @WetLabStudent: Quoting someone who is deceased from a letter that only you have access to is not ideal. If the letter is extremely strong and well written, it makes a better impression to include the letter rather than isolated quotes from it....Ah, but I see you've already taken this into account in your answer. Mar 31, 2015 at 17:21

This is a difficult situation, especially for a scholar just starting out and on the job market. But it is not unprecedented. On job search committees, it is true that the absence of a letter from a major professor usually raises eyebrows. However, it is just that: "why isn't there a letter from the major professor?" Therefore, in your own letter, when you describe yourself, you can make it clear without berating the point. "I received my Ph.D. from X university, writing a dissertation under the direction of John Smith (now deceased)." It's really as simple as that.

I am a senior tenured professor and I still have such a description in documents that describe me and who I worked under, because my PhD advisor died some years ago.

The truth is that the letter from your advisor (this depends on your field, I suppose) is important, but the other letters are often more so. Scholars outside your university who are willing to go to bat for you can often carry as much, perhaps more, weight than a letter from your advisor. And over time, a letter from your adviser may even become a liability, if the nature of the mentor/mentee relationship remains the same, or if the tone of the letter does not adequately reflect your maturity and growth as a scholar after the degree. Because you are fortunate enough to have postdoc, use that time not only to strengthen your scholarship but also to develop productive relationships and try to build a network of colleagues of your own, unconnected to your home university. They are your future letter writers.


The department chair where you got your PhD can pick up the pieces. Give the chair a copy of the letter your advisor wrote. S/he can take it from there.

If you have any trouble with that, seek out another senior member of the department instead.

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    This is bad advice because (1) It means the letter was in your hands, in academia the letter is not supposed to be seen by the subject (even if the letter wasn't in your hands the fact that it wasn't sent by the advisor means it could have been, and that's a problem) (2) the letter was for a postdoc, it won't be exactly the same for a faculty job, and most likely it even says something like "for postdoc X at University Y" in the letter, at best the letter would read a little strange and at worst it would be completely inappropriate. (3) it's a bit creepy (my opinion - possibly not others'). Mar 31, 2015 at 3:32
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    There are special, extenuating circumstances in this situation. Let's hope those who read the letter written by the advisor before his death, along with a letter from his department chair, show empathy and humanity. Mar 31, 2015 at 5:49
  • @WetLabStudent: The answer does not suggest to send the letter to its intended recipient, or to a recipient of a hypothetical recommendation letter that might have been written, were the advisor still alive. It suggests providing the department chair of the advisor with the letter, presumeably to allow them to familiarize themselves with the late advisor's point of view toward the advisee's research and skills, so they can decide to what extent to take over backing the advisee's claims toward future employers. Mar 31, 2015 at 8:39
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    That the OP almost certainly does not have (and should not have) a copy of her advisor's letter is one problem with this answer. But more fundamentally: how will the chair "pick up the pieces"? Other than coordinating sending a copy of the advisor's letter to future job searches [which is sometimes done when the time between the death and the PhD are both short; yes, it is a little creepy but death is creepy and this may be the best solution for the candidate], I don't see a privileged role for the chair to play: likely she will not be in the candidate's field, so should not write for them. Mar 31, 2015 at 15:19
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    What should the chair do? S/he should write a letter more or less like this: I am writing a letter of recommendation for (advisor), in lieu of her advisor (name), who died x months/years ago. I am able to write this letter with confidence, because (advisor) spoke and wrote highly of (student). Etc. etc. Apr 1, 2015 at 2:47

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