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I'm getting close to finishing a PhD in applied mathematics (next May), and I'm starting to think about next fall's job application season. I'm realizing that one of the things I'm missing is a strong recommendation from a senior academic that isn't on my committee or a professor I've taken courses from. I realize that it takes time to cultivate these relationships, but I'm now also realizing that I've been a fairly introverted student in the sense that I haven't really pushed myself to build any collaborative relationships that would make asking for a recommendation more natural. I've had lots of conversations with senior people at conferences or who have visited my department, but I never seem to follow up because I doubt their level of interest in me or my projects (this is flawed, introversion-driven reasoning, I realize). I have a few loose collaborations going with other junior academics but again, I've been a little shy and flaky on pushing those projects forward for some reason or another. I also wouldn't consider these collaborators senior leaders in my field, which isn't an issue for collaborating, but the value of their recommendation is perhaps less so than someone higher up the proverbial ladder.

The question is the following: since I still have a little bit of time before the next application season (6 months or so), should I focus on nurturing the collaborations I already have going, or should I start trying to get a little more bold with more senior people? I realize that I should probably do both, but I welcome any input.

  • It is natural that during your PhD studies you have occupied your cocoon. That is necessary, to maintain the focus on the thesis. Now, you are starting to look around you. I would advise testing out the relationship with several potential collaborators, and focusing on the people and the quality of the collaboration rather than the individual's seniority or name value. Also, ask not what your collaborators can do for you, but what you can do for your collaborators. No, seriously, focus on the substance and the satisfaction of the collaboration. – aparente001 Mar 23 '17 at 6:22
  • Why do you think you oughtn't get letters from your committee? Those are the prime candidates... especially if you are somewhat introverted! – paul garrett Feb 17 '18 at 23:22
  • @paulgarrett the thinking that a hiring committee would be swayed by a prestigious recommendor. In hindsight, this question was very naive. – icurays1 Feb 26 '18 at 4:55
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This question seems to be incorrectly premised; this is particularly evident in the following sentence:

I'm realizing that one of the things I'm missing is a strong recommendation from a senior academic that isn't on my committee or a professor I've taken courses from.

Why do you feel that is missing? A good reference is one that assesses your suitability for the post you're applying for. As such, it will need to be written by someone with knowledge of (most of) the following:

  • Candidate's technical skills/expertise
  • Candidate's professional experience and achievements
    • Able to verify key claims the candidate has made on their cover letter/CV about what they did in the relevant role
  • Candidate's transferable skills (communication skills, teamwork etc)
  • Candidate's general work ethic and behaviour
  • Able to verify any extenuating circumstances that may affect the candidate's application (if relevant)

This means that the best formal references are from people the candidate has worked closely and consistently with over an extended period of time, and generally from those in supervisory roles. Your committee are precisely the people best placed to provide act as your referees. In terms of other good referees, if you've been, say, particularly involved with the teaching of a particular course, the lecturer you worked under may also be a suitable referee. Again, it's a similar sort of supervisory relationship, where they'll be able to make judgements of interest to a potential employer.

While it is sometimes the case in academia that referees with a looser connection are used (e.g. viva examiners), particularly to testify to the candidates academic knowledge, I'm not aware that this is hugely common. Most potential employers would expect to see references from supervisors; if those are absent, it's a huge red flag.

The real benefits you want to unlock from wider collaboration stem from the networking opportunities (although your primary purpose in seeking the collaboration should always be the overlap in research interests and potential for a strong shared project). Perhaps they'll be impressed enough to employ you, or they'll point you in the direction of open positions that they know of. They may well be willing to provide you with introductions to other PIs, that might grease the wheels of a job application.

  • Thanks for the response. In hindsight, this question was very naive - at the early career stage, I should be focusing on building collaborations and a base of effective research, not worrying about who I know. I was assuming (out of paranoia) that my job applications would be thrown out because I didn't have a letter from XYZ Nobel laureate/Fields medalist/etc. – icurays1 Feb 26 '18 at 4:58

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