Let's say that some person has a Ph.D. in mathematics and several publications in peer-reviewed journals. After that he worked several years in another field (not directly related to mathematics). Now he is thinking about returning to mathematics. The downside is that:

  1. he doesn't have any teaching experience, and
  2. he can't arrange for any recommendation letters (I am not going to explain why, let's just consider it as a given for the purpose of this question).

All mathematics postdoc position announcements that I've seen so far require recommendation letters, and the vast majority of them require teaching experience. Do you know of any postdoc positions in mathematics that would make an exception?

Also, are there any other positions (in the private sector) related to mathematics that you would suggest to look for in this situation?

  • The obvious people to ask would be the people who are offering the jobs! Aug 9, 2016 at 10:12
  • 1
    This doesn't answer the question as asked, but just because you have no letters now, it doesn't mean you can't go out and get some. If you're willing and able to travel on your own dime, I'd suggest sending your work to researchers in your subfield and asking to meet.
    – user37208
    Aug 9, 2016 at 18:56

2 Answers 2


I can't imagine taking on someone who wasn't able to provide any recommendation letters, even if the candidate had several Science and Nature papers. However, I would be happy to consider strong recommendation letters from an employer in another field in combination with a very strong publication record.

  • 3
    Just curious, what possible value would you get from a letter from an employer in another field? That a person doesn't steal paper towels from a washroom? Why would a non-relevant recommendation letter be better than no recommendation letters at all? I genuinely don't get this.
    – John Doe
    Aug 9, 2016 at 11:47
  • 7
    Is the candidate a decent human being? Do they have a strong work ethic? Can they get on with other people? Can they be relied upon? Do they have grit? Do they show initiative? Do they think things through? Anything that makes a person a good employee will also help make them a good PhD candidate. Aug 9, 2016 at 11:55
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    Note that the person in the question already has a PhD; they aren't entering a PhD program. I'm not sure what the phrase "PhD candidate" is meant to signify to each of you. Aug 9, 2016 at 18:26
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    Incidentally, Science and Nature aren't particularly relevant journals for mathematics. Aug 9, 2016 at 18:29
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    @Significance You're mixing two different things. One thing is performing background check and asking for recommendation letters suitable to the research field the applicant deals with; one other thing is to read an un-related recommendation letter from another field that won't give you any sensible information. You don't want to trust the applicant but you want to trust someone else's opinion on the application from a different field? It seems very odd to me.
    – gented
    Aug 9, 2016 at 22:58

I think complete lack of any sort of recommendation letters would be a serious red flag, to the extent that the application would be a non-starter (for example, at my large, state, R1 university). That is, even assuming the research record is excellent, there will be other applicants for post-docs with excellent research records, and with excellent letters of recommendation. In the U.S., the letters matter a lot. I gather this is not the case in some scenarios in the EU, for example, but I cannot speak authoritatively on those situations.

  • +1. I would add that a break of several years with, I imagine, little to none research conducted during this period will not be taken lightly by post-doc search committees.
    – D Poole
    Aug 9, 2016 at 12:59
  • I would like to clarify that I am well aware that recommendation letters matter a lot, and as I indicated, the lack of recommendation letters disqualifies a person even by the formal list of requirements (let alone any informal suspicions or red flags). So, my question is not about how things work in general, or in a typical case, or in most cases, or even in the vast majority of cases, but rather about the existence or non-existence of rare exceptions from these general rules.
    – John Doe
    Aug 10, 2016 at 3:23

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