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I am currently a postdoc and will soon be applying for a faculty position in computer science. I am inclined to not ask my postdoc host for a reference letter when applying.

The reason I don't want to ask my postdoc host for a letter is because I have been a postdoc for less than a year and have mostly worked independently or with remote collaborators. So far I have only coauthored one paper with my host. (It's a good but not great paper.) Also, I am supported by a general fellowship -- i.e. I am not formally "tied" to my host, which means I don't think he feels strong "ownership" of me as a postdoc. It is not a true mentorship relationship.

I think my postdoc host would write a positive letter for me, but it would be weak for the aforementioned reasons -- he simply doesn't know me that well. I have other potential letter writers who would be able to write stronger letters.

What is worse? A weak letter from my postdoc host or no letter? Is this something I should try to explain on my application?

Any advice is greatly appreciated!

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    How should people know that you did not work together very closely, if he doesn't explicitly writes that in the letter (why should he)? I think people might rather read something into you not having reference letter from him, – Karl Mar 15 '17 at 19:48
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    Since most schools ask for 3-5 letters, I do not think that getting one from your host will be a bad idea especially since "not" having one from him/her "might" trigger a negative reaction. – The Guy Mar 15 '17 at 20:00
  • What would a potential employer think about the lack of a reference letter for this part of your CV? – FuzzyLeapfrog Mar 15 '17 at 20:03
  • These comments are point out the negatives of not having a letter. But what about the negatives of having a weak letter? – tomar Mar 15 '17 at 22:33
  • You can even out the negatives of having a weak letter (but he did work with you on one publication, so I would not think it should be really weak) by having more additional strong letters. Not having a letter from your main host/mentor/supervisor might rise flags. – skymningen Mar 16 '17 at 12:42
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First of all: It seems you're on good terms with your host. Well, talk to him about this exact issue. He will probably sympathize and either let you in on drafting the letter, or at least agree with you in principle on what he intends to write. (And if he evades then you'll at least know there's something wrong.)

What is worse? A weak letter from my postdoc host or no letter? Is this something I should try to explain on my application?

The answer depends a lot on whether the place/person you're interviewing for might talk to him over email/phone/Skype.

  • If they will certainly talk to him, then a letter - good or bad - is not very meaningful anyway. He'll tell them what he wants to. So I wouldn't bother.
  • If they will certainly not talk to him, then your actual merits regardless of his opinion are likely to count for more than his letter anyway, so I'd get the letter from him just in case, and mention in passing that you worked mostly independently. I'm not 100% sure I'd add the letter to the application, it depends on the circumstances.
  • If you can't tell whether they'll call him up or not, I'd use the letter just to be on the safe side - assuming you actually get the letter in hand and don't have to ask him to send it to them directly (a weird custom that exists in some countries). Better this way then for them to call him up and for him to say "Uh, Dr. Foo? Umm, yeah, he was here, umm, he worked on... let me see.. it was some... stuff, I dunno. We wrote a paper together at some point, it was ok I guess. Not sure what he did exactly."

But frankly I have to say that it's not clear-cut. I, for one, would not put much stock in recommendation letters unless they said something exceptional.

One last point: Perhaps you should ask your host to focus on specific traits of yours, your skills or strengths in some things he's observed, in which case it won't matter all that much that you haven't worked a lot together.

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I'm in math, where things may be different, but I wouldn't necessarily care if you don't have a letter for someone you've been nominally working with for less than a year. (Usually I would expect to see a letter from your PhD advisor though.) Even if you were there longer, I wouldn't necessarily expect to see a research letter from someone at that institution, unless a significant part of your work is in collaboration with someone there. Mostly I just look at what the letters themselves say, who they're from, and what your actual research is.

Reasons to not get a letter from your postdoc host:

  • you have other references that can write significantly stronger letters

  • your other references are more or as well known in your area

Reasons to get a letter from your postdoc host:

  • your host can say good things that your other references can't effectively comment on (e.g., how you're such a great colleague to have because of all the things you've been doing in the department, or how you have certain impressive skills/knowledge needed for your project with your host that didn't come up in your other collaborative project)

  • your host is more well known than some of your other references

Note: at least in the US, many departments will want to get a sense of what kind of colleague you'll be, not just how good your research is.

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