I'm currently a postdoc (in computer science) and planning on applying for faculty jobs soon. During my 3 postdoc years I've had a couple of papers with 2 "superstars" in my field, whereas my current boss is somewhat less renowned. Most job ads seem to require 3 referees.

Now my question is, who should I list as referee?

  1. my PhD advisor + the 2 superstars
  2. my PostDoc supervisor + the 2 superstars
  3. A different combination?

Would option 1 or 2 be perceived as unusual?

  • 2
    Where can one find a superstar to write letter?
    – user4511
    Jan 16, 2013 at 11:29

4 Answers 4


List all 4!

People will find it odd if you PhD advisor is not under the list of referees. The same holds for the host of your last position. If you are limited to 3 references then get rid of one of the "superstars", but typically job descriptions say "at least x referees".


I agree with @A.Schulz: List all four. You must get letters from both your thesis advisor and your postdoc advisor.

If you have to choose only one of your superstar coauthors to write a letter for you, consider the purpose of the letter: to help the committee make an informed judgement of your long-term potential for high-quality, high-impact research and intellectual leadership, or to put it more bluntly, your likelihood of getting tenure. The best recommendation letters draw direct comparisons between your research ability/quality/reputation and that of other people in your subfield at similar career stages. For that reason, the most useful letters are from people who have a broad perspective on the field, with direct experience with many other people at the same career stage as you. For example, someone who has served on lots of recent program committees can offer a good perspective on your current competitors. Someone who has worked in a strong department for many years can offer a good perspective on people who had records comparable to yours in the past, and how their careers progressed. The research reputation of your letter-writers is secondary to their credibility in judging your potential.

Also, in the interests of objectivity, each of your letter-writers should focus as much as possible on the work that they were not involved in. In particular, what you do not want is a letter from a superstar coauthor that talks about the fantastic paper that the two of you wrote together; such a letter will not be taken seriously, because of course they think their own paper is good. So ideally, you should only ask a superstar coauthor for a letter if they are willing to write a strong letter about your other work.

  • 1
    I think this is a little too research oriented. Not all schools require high-quality high-impact research to get tenure. Some schools value teaching over research.
    – StrongBad
    Jan 16, 2013 at 16:56
  • 1
    But if you're aiming at teaching-oriented departments, letters from research superstars are probably not worth much.
    – JeffE
    Jan 16, 2013 at 18:04

Yes, if you have worked for your current boss for at least a year, not listing him as a reference will look weird. Same for not listing your PhD advisor, unless you obtained your PhD a long time ago (say, you have held 3 different positions since then). Thus, I would advise to drop one of the superstars if you are limited to 3 names.

Another thing to consider: you have worked with superstars, but if your relationship with you has been less close than your boss/advisor, will they write a glorifying enough reference letter for you? Unless you have made quite an impression on them, or you had an close relationship, I don't think the odds are in your favour (though you have more information to answer this question than I have).


I am not sure to what extent a letter from a "superstar" is that useful. Often superstars are only stars within their fields and not know more broadly. If you have a publication with these superstars, that will speak for itself. If there is a pending publication, maybe the letter would help. If there is no publication coming, it is not clear why you would want them to write a letter.

Unless there are odd circumstances you need letters from your PhD and Post-Doc supervisors. These people are going to be in the best position to write a letter for you since they likely know you the best and have the most invested in your success. As for a 3rd letter writer, you need to think about what the perceived weaknesses are in your application and who can best comment on them. For example, if you have limited teaching experience, you might want a letter from someone who has seen you teach or at a minimum given talks. Maybe your research is weak, then a letter from a research superstar might be useful.

  • 1
    Superstar letters are a high-risk high-reward proposition. If they are good they have a disproportionately large boost, and if bad can be problematic, depending on the way in which they are bad.
    – Suresh
    Jan 16, 2013 at 16:05

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