I am currently finishing my PhD thesis (in Mathematics) and trying to find a post doc position.

My PhD supervisor is a very nice person and is, of course, one of my referees. However, most places need 2-3, so I am not sure who else to ask.

I have a secondary supervisor but we only talked once really during a formal thing. So asking a referee who does not know much about the work or the personality is a bit... weird...

I had a decent relationship with my Master's supervisor, but unfortunately we have not corresponded once in the 3+ years after my masters, so me writing "hey, do you remember me from waaaay back then, would you please write a reference for me" seems a bit ... strange .. too.

I have published several papers already but I don't have any co-authors whom I could ask.

I have given one talk outside my university but I am not sure who to ask there. I don't actually know these people, my supervisor referred me to them and they were OK so I gave the talk.

Any ideas?

  • 2
    Have you given any seminar talks at other universities? For competitive postdocs, you ideally want some references from people not at your institution. If you are graduating in May 2016, talk to your advisor about finding some places to talk in the fall. If you are graduating now, I am afraid that the postdoc boat has likely already sailed for jobs starting in the fall, at least in my field - applications are usually due in the year before the postdoc would begin. Jul 23, 2015 at 13:45
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    What does your advisor say? Jul 23, 2015 at 13:48
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    +1 for talking to advisor. If there's no one else to write a reference you have to act fast. You have until November/December (assuming you are in the US). You might want to work with someone else on a project, explicitly so they can write a reference letter. Maybe your supervisor can help arrange stuff likw that. Without 3 letters i think you're unlikely to get a good postdoc (i.e. one that will give you a shot at TT positions). You might even consider to extend your PhD for another year, so that you have time to build a strong application. Jul 23, 2015 at 15:07
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    A general point (based on my observations in math in US/UK)- usually "the clock" starts when you finish PhD. If you're not in a TT job within 5 years then things start looking iffy. So it can make sense to take an extra year in PhD if youve only done 1 talk and need to boost your application strength. Jul 23, 2015 at 15:28

3 Answers 3


This answer applies most directly to my field of mathematics, but it probably applies to similar fields as well.

Most genuine postdoc positions are extremely competitive. You need to apply well in advance (typically, in December for a position starting the next August). Postdocs will be difficult to obtain if your thesis work is substantially unfinished a year before you apply. I am not counting temporary teaching positions for new PhDs, which are a different kind of job entirely.

For competitive postdocs, you want to have very strong letters, both from your advisor and from senior researchers at other institutions. The way to obtain such letters is to build connections throughout your graduate program, particularly in the later half. Ideally, you should plan to give one or two seminar talks at other institutions while in graduate school. In addition to disseminating your research, these talks help to get your name out as someone up and coming. Your advisor can also have a role, behind the scenes, in getting invitations.

Competitive postdocs are given to people who seem to be up-and-coming in the field. There are usually only a handful of postdocs each year, worldwide, in each particular research specialty, so the committees have a collection of strong candidates to choose between, all of whom have the minimal credential of a PhD. So, if you want to pursue the postdoc track, your goal in graduate school is to develop a vita and letters that are competitive in that environment.

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    Well I don't want to sound ungrateful but partially your post reads like answering you should not break a teapot ones someone is on the internet asking how to fix a broken teapot. :) Secondly, generally the one gives talks is through a recomendation of the supervisor. This is how it was with me. I did give one talk but I could not ask anyone there to write me a reference. I mean they don't know me and I don't know them. I doubt that 1 talk changes that.
    – newuser
    Jul 23, 2015 at 14:10
  • I apologize for that; the answer here is somewhat general. In your particular situation, I agree with Mark Meckes: have a frank discussion with your advisor. The point of giving a talk, besides disseminating your work, is that you have a chance to talk with people at the school during your visit. Usually, when I visit someone or they visit me, we spend a few hours working on some problems together. I am not sure why you think no-one at the other school can write a letter for you, but in any case your advisor is likely to have a sense of who you can ask. Jul 23, 2015 at 14:17
  • Thank you. Yes I will talk to my supervisor again. I did talk to him about it a few times but never had many great ideas about it. Partially also because I am also going to try with a grant application and that has a better chance he thinks, then a dirct post doc. I agreee that having a referee from a different university is very desirable, but I never figured out how to manage that. I am not very socially active if you get my drift :). Thats part of the reason I went the academic rout, since I thought that all I had to do was write papers :).
    – newuser
    Jul 23, 2015 at 14:32

I know it doesn't apply to you yet, but I used my PhD external examiner as a referee on my first postdoc application. Having read through my entire thesis he was in a very good position to talk about the quality of my work.

  • yes that is a usefull tip in general. Thanks.
    – newuser
    Jul 23, 2015 at 21:11

If those are your only options, ask them anyway. When professors take on students as interns or PhD advisees writing a letter of recommendation for them is generally understood as part of their duty, so they will probably accept.

However, depending on how much they know about your work they may not be able to write a very persuasive letter. In the future, try to cultivate a network of relations that extends beyond your current supervisor (this holds in all walks of life, not only in academia!). Best of luck!

  • "When professors take on students as interns or PhD advisees writing a letter of recommendation for them is generally understood as part of their duty, so they will probably accept." yes but my master thesis has finished 3 years ago. Does that still apply? I have unfortunately not written him at all after that so thats why I am reluctant.
    – newuser
    Jul 23, 2015 at 14:06
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    I would say that this also holds for the Master supervisor. What matters is whether you interacted closely with this person, so that they are qualified (and presumably inclined) to recommend you. Jul 23, 2015 at 14:14
  • fair enough. Its just that it seems rude to me to write to someone after years and ask for a favour. Thats why I am asking if it is indeed the norm and acceptable behaviour. The thing is that a mathematician has 2+ masters students a year so seems kinda a lot to write them all references :). Oh well. I guess I will ask him. Thanks for your posts btw.
    – newuser
    Jul 23, 2015 at 14:28

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