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Let me explain in more detail... I currently occupy a fixed-term temporary faculty position that is set to expire at the end of this academic year. The position I have now will go up for a national search for a tenure-track appointment starting next academic year.

My current department head and Dean both have repeatedly expressed their desire that I apply for the tenure-track position and I intend to. However, there's no guarantee that I'll keep this position and I want to be employed next Fall. I have found another position that would be a good fit in case my current position goes to someone else (a very real possibility as my field has many qualified applicants and few jobs) and as part of their application they want current letters of recommendation.

I know my department head and Dean both would recommend me highly, but I see a potential conflict of interest. I'm also unsure if asking them for recommendations could be perceived as a slight and I don't want to burn any bridges at my current position because keeping it would be my first choice.

Another complicating factor is that this is my first university position and all other potential references either worked with me as a student or professional colleague in a non-academic capacity.

Any advice on the best course of action to take in my position?

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    Why are you only applying for two positions? In many fields there will be >100 applicants for each position. – Anonymous Physicist Oct 11 '15 at 14:13
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    As @AnonymousPhysicist suggests, I'd say you're almost certainly placing too much confidence in getting this one position. Decisions about who to give a job to should not be being made before the post is advertised. It's true that sometimes they are anyway. However, I've heard of a case where a job description was written to match a current department member, but it ended up going to someone else. – Jessica B Oct 11 '15 at 15:04
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    I'd strongly reiterate a point from the other comments: applying for just-two tenure-track jobs is (if you'll pardon me) wildly optimistic. There will almost-surely be hundreds of applicants for each, many of them very well qualified... so that things are reduced to some sort of crap-shoot/gamble even for the best applicants. Apply to several or many more jobs if your goal is to be fairly confident of being employed next fall. – paul garrett Oct 11 '15 at 16:00
  • While I do happen to be a wildly optimistic person, I'm still applying to as many positions as I could be conceivably hired/qualified for. I didn't mention this as I don't see its relevance, but I do appreciate your concern. I am very aware that though there's been a lot of talk about keeping me around at my current position, there will be many qualified applicants and I have no claim to the position. – MunchyWilly Oct 11 '15 at 17:34
  • @MunchyWilly, ah, ok, good. Sometimes people just aren't aware of the numbers... :) – paul garrett Oct 11 '15 at 18:28
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Without further information, I would assume the department head and dean will behave ethically and ignore the conflict of interest. They should understand you want to hedge against losing the competition for the tenure track position. Therefore you could use them as references.

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The conflict of interest you are describing is extremely common. The variation of it that I have seen most often is this: Dr. X works at department Y. She does great work and either already has tenure or knows that she is almost certain to get it, but for one reason or another is thinking of moving to another institution. She applies for jobs. Naturally, her current colleagues, who know her extremely well and have been internally evaluating her for years, are some of the people most qualified to offer an opinion about her, so she would like to ask one or more of her senior department colleagues for a letter. This leads to precisely the question you are asking.

I have personally seen this situation from all three perspectives: that of the candidate, that of the letter writer, and that of the letter reader at the other institution. As the letter reader, I noticed that it is common for the letter to contain a statement like "Dr. X is a terrific candidate. You would be very lucky to hire her, and we would be extremely sorry if she were to leave our department, but I understand that she has reasons to seek other opportunities elsewhere." Note that this situation actually can end up making the letter stronger, since the writer has an opportunity to express their feelings about the personal stake they have in the candidate's future.

Moreover, my observation based on those experiences is that because this situation is so common, a norm has developed whereby it is strongly expected that the letter writer overcome whatever tendency they might have had to selfishly sabotage the candidate's chances by writing a weak letter. To do otherwise would not only be unethical and worthy of criticism in the ordinary, obvious sense that would exist even without the norm, but I feel that because of this norm there is a sense of "karma" (for lack of a better word) that pervades this particular kind of situation; a kind of "how would you feel if this were done to you?" sort of thing, or an expectation that the letter writer be extra good at putting themselves in the shoes of the other person, so as to make themselves able to restrain whatever demons they have sitting on their shoulders and whispering nasty ideas to them.

With this somewhat philosophical analysis in mind, my practical advice is identical to that of @AnonymousPhysicist, namely that, barring any specific reasons you have for thinking that the department chair and dean are dishonest people and will behave unethically in this situation, your best bet is to put your faith in their sense of professionalism and ask them for a letter.

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If your current position is your favourite, you can be completely honest with your superiors and tell them what you wrote in your question. In this way you send out several positive signals: You do not take the tenure track position for granted, someone else is interested in you as well, and you are mobile. However, if it should happen that you get two offers and you pick the other one, they might feel cheated. So if the other position is your favourite, you might try to get your recommendations somewhere else, e.g. from people you know from conferences.

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    I'm not so sure the last sentence is good advice. I think not having a letter from your department chair, or at least someone in your current department who knows you well, could seriously hurt your chances of getting another job. People you know from conferences will not be able to say anything about your teaching or your general ability to carry out the duties of a faculty member. A letter from your department is the best evidence that you are being successful at your current job; without it, other prospective employers might assume the worst. – Nate Eldredge Oct 11 '15 at 15:01
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    So I think that regardless of your preferences, you should get a letter from your current department, unless you are legitimately concerned that they will act unprofessionally by intentionally writing a bad letter (in which case you probably wouldn't want to stay in this department anyway). – Nate Eldredge Oct 11 '15 at 15:02
  • Thanks. I don't think they would write a bad letter, but I could imagine myself being conflicted if put into their positions. I was thinking along the same lines that without letters from my current employers my chances of getting another job are slim-to-none anyway. – MunchyWilly Oct 11 '15 at 17:41
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There should be no issue here. Since you can't be guaranteed a position next fall it is perfectly reasonable for you to seek other positions in case the tenure track position is filled by someone else. Your current employer must surely know you would be applying wherever you could, that is only prudent. Assuming everyone is behaving ethically, no one should have any issue writing a letter of recommendation for you.

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