There are a number of questions on this site about lacking (good) references from people who know your work, but none seem to address a situation where you lack references because there never were any people who know your work: Due to the nature of the department and especially the projects my supervisor is responsible for, I work entirely alone. This means that after one year I have no one whom I can say "knows" what I can do. Whom do I turn to for references in the case that I work entirely alone and I'm too new for anyone to be familiar with me?

On a given job application site, for example, I have to provide not just one but three references. In my case, even getting one is uncertain because my supervisor is only aware of my work on a superficial level. My previous degree was finished 5 years ago, so I doubt that my supervisor from back then could provide much of a reference, either. The job I held before starting was also for only a very short period, as was the one before that...

Addendum 29/10/2017: I am leaving the department, so I do not have much time to cultivate any possible sources of recommendation letters; I have to make due with the relationships I currently have, which are very few.

  • 8
    As you may understand, if the sense of your "working entirely alone" is such that it leaves you with no recommendation-letter writers, then (long-term) you truly need to change that... because you need letter writers to get jobs, if not to do the literal work itself. One may reasonably view "cultivation of letter-writers" as an artificial add-on to the work itself, but it is in fact a necessary task. Oct 28, 2017 at 22:58
  • 2
    Some journals/editors offer to write letters of recommendation when you have published there. Basically everyone who knows something can write a letter - the letter writer doesn't necessarily have to be your supervisor or collaborator.
    – Mark
    Oct 28, 2017 at 23:09
  • 5
    Really? Nobody knows what you’re doing? You don’t give seminar or conference talks? You don’t publish papers? What are you doing, then?
    – JeffE
    Oct 29, 2017 at 2:22
  • @JeffE basically firefighting for huge problems; see my other posts on this SE. Oct 29, 2017 at 7:48
  • 1
    @errantlinguist I don't think you should expect those who help you to go through your other posts in order to understand your situation.
    – Mark
    Oct 29, 2017 at 16:26

1 Answer 1


I think the elephant in the room is that, in your case, your issues finding letter writers is merely a symptom of a much deeper problem. You not only fail to collaborate in your research (which, in many disciplines, would be a severe career hindrance all by itself), you appear to not even communicate what you do sufficiently. I understand that situations come up where collaboration with the faculty in your own university simply does not happen, but if literally nobody (inside or outside your institution) is aware of what you are doing and how it is going, then why are you getting paid a stipend to do it in the first place?

So to answer your question:

This means that after one year I have no one whom I can say "knows" what I can do. Whom do I turn to for references in the case that I work entirely alone and I'm too new for anyone to be familiar with me?

Change this immediately, not primarily because you don't have somebody to turn to to write a letter, but because you will not have success on the job market anyway if nobody knows what you do. Network internally and externally. Give talks. Go to conferences. Actively look for collaboration opportunities. If you are just one year in, you have plenty of time, but now is definitely the time to start becoming more proactive.

Note that a letter writer does not necessarily need to be deeply embedded into your daily work to write an effective letter. If an experienced researcher has broadly observed what challenges you work on, how you work, what your best research contributions were, etc., they will be able to write you a letter. You don't need to meet with a letter writer multiple times a week - just seeing you give a department seminar twice a year and chatting occasionally in the hallway may already go a long way towards being able to write a letter, if no more suitable options present themselves.

  • Thank you for the helpful insights: it seems my interpretation of "knowing" what someone does is different from that of others because I do talk to colleagues informally about my work; I'm unsure if that means they "know" what I'm doing or not. I will not have many years to fix this, however, because I'm quitting... hence asking for recommendation letters. Oct 29, 2017 at 7:46
  • 2
    @errantlinguist Usually, the interpretation for "knowing the work of someone" is knowing from a professional point of view, that is, someone knows your work when they have read your papers, collaborated with you or discussed the details of your work with you. Oct 29, 2017 at 9:34

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .