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I am at a stage to apply for an academic job, but can not find enough recommendation letters (3 typically). Currently, I am on my own grant, and mainly working alone on some relatively small, independent projects. Thus little collaborators.

When it comes to job application, they typically requires three recommendation letters. It there a way to get around the recommendation letter requirement? Apart from the supervisors/collaborators, who else can write those letters?

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    Aren't there people in your field who you interact with at conferences, who can comment on you and your work? Oct 25, 2016 at 0:39
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    Let's say, I have a colleague with whom I had lots discussions but no formal collaboration. Can he write the letters for me?
    – gastro
    Oct 25, 2016 at 9:29
  • Yes! The aim of requiring letters is to get assessments of your capabilities and what you can contribute to the field and to the institution. Anyone who can supply this is fair game as a letter writer. Oct 25, 2016 at 13:05
  • In the U.S., you need letters. No way around it. So the question is not about getting by without them, but how to get them... Feb 17, 2018 at 23:23

3 Answers 3

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No (assuming you mean something like a TT assistant professor position). Recommendation letters are a vital piece of any faculty application. While supervisors and collaborators make good reference writers, there are lots of other people you can ask:

  • People who have taught you in graduate school
  • People you have been a TA for
  • The chair of your current department
  • The director of graduate studies of your graduate school department
  • Colleagues in your field, who are more senior than you, who are familiar with your research
  • People recommended by your supervisor (who should be ashamed for letting you get into a situation like this)
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    Some of these suggestions are good, but others are bad. Letters from one of your instructors, your department chair, or your director of graduate studies are generally useless unless they have the expertise to speak directly and credibly about your research and teaching ability. (And if they do have that expertise, their position as department chair or whatever is irrelevant; they're writing in their capacity as senior colleagues familiar with your work.) Likewise a letter from someone you've been a TA for is only useful if you need a letter specifically about your teaching ability.
    – JeffE
    Oct 25, 2016 at 13:50
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    As usual, things vary a lot across countries. As I said several times, in my country recommendation letters are usually not a vital piece of faculty applications, but, in case, letters from "people who have taught you in graduate school" or "people you have been a TA for" would be probably dismissed, and could be even harmful, unless those people became senior in their field.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Oct 26, 2016 at 14:06
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Yes (somehow). In Germany you must not submit any letters of reference together with your application for faculty jobs.

Instead of recommendation letters, the search committee will find reviewers to write reports on the shortlisted applicants (often each reviewer reviews all shortlisted candidates in one letter). Also, it is not even necessary that the reviewer knows all the candidates personally and there are even rules that forbid to review somebody who has too close relations to you (believe it or not, the PhD advisor is explicitly forbidden...).

So, most typical "letter writers" in the US system will not play any formal role in the hiring process in many states in Germany. However, it is still important that you are part of some research community and that your work is known and appreciated. In principle, a reviewer who does not know you personally has to (and will indeed) have closer look and your papers and will judge their importance, comparing you and your work with the other applicants. So if you do really great work and can present yourself well in an job interview, you will get hired without any "letter writers".

In view of this, saying something like "in the German system it is all about who you know" is out of place. It is about you, your work and the community.

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    From my understanding of the German system, despite the "safeguards", it is all about who you know.
    – StrongBad
    Oct 25, 2016 at 3:16
  • interesting comment and reply!
    – gastro
    Oct 25, 2016 at 9:23
  • @StrongBad I flagged your comment as "not constructive" and I think it really does not belong here. That's something that can be said about any system in any country and the question whether or not it is true in this case is unrelated to the question at hand. Moreover, from more than ten year of experience in and in front of hiring committees in Germany, I can say, it's not true.
    – Dirk
    Oct 25, 2016 at 14:20
  • @Dirk the flag is still in the system. I, and the other mods, try not to deal with flags related to our own content. Your answer makes it sound like not having 3 letter writers doesn't matter in Germany and that is not what I have heard (but have no direct experience with).
    – StrongBad
    Oct 25, 2016 at 15:18
  • The thing is that there are no "letter writers" (in the meaning of the US system) in Germany. Most potential "letter writers" are considered "befangen" (probably best translated as "biased") and hence forbidden as reviewers in many states of Germany. So, yes, not having three letter writers doesn't matter. One the other hand, having a scientific standing is essential to get a position. But this is something completely different from "who you know" it is more "who knows your work". Put differently: Having nobody who knows you and your work or can't judge your work makes a difference.
    – Dirk
    Oct 25, 2016 at 15:58
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Who else can be referees?

Someone who knows your work.

If the position involves teaching: someone who knows your teaching.

If the position involves interacting with colleagues: someone who knows how you interact with others.

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