Must-Have Letter

Over in FSP a few weeks ago, readers and I obsessed about many different aspects of Cover Letters. And yet, there are still aspects of this topic that remain unexplored. Here is another interesting one from a reader:

I have a letter of reference question that I haven't seen addressed on your blogs, but (to me) seems like a fairly serious, and not uncommon, one.  I did not have a particularly close relationship with my thesis advisor, a prominent figure in my discipline.  Instead, another a postdoc in his research group was my de facto advisor.  While I suspect his reference letters for me are largely positive, I know that there are others who would willingly write letters that more accurately reflect my abilities.  I have had minimal communication with my advisor since completing my PhD several years ago.

I am currently in a non-tenure-track research professor job, and am contemplating applying for jobs with a short-track to tenure.  My question is: Would my application be discarded or flagged as suspicious if it does NOT include a letter from my thesis advisor?  Would it be sufficient to list him as an additional reference?

I think you should list the advisor unless there is some extreme reason not to do so. In that case, you need to try to have another letter writer address why there is no letter from your advisor (not your fault etc.). If your relationship was overall good, just not close, you should still list your advisor as a reference. Even if the advisor's letter is perfunctory, it is better than no letter. A really positive letter from a postdoc won't make up for a missing advisor-letter.

Also, I would make an effort to get back in touch with the advisor, especially if you are going to be asking for letters. Bring him up to date on your work, send him your CV, and explain about your upcoming applications.

Does anyone disagree with this? I did not have a close relationship with my advisor, so I can relate to this issue, but I still asked for a letter from him. Did anyone make the opposite decision, and live to tell the tale?

8 responses so far

  • John Vidale says:

    FSP has it right. Leaving the advisor off the list of letters writers looks bad, and subbing in a post-doc doesn't fill the void. I'd say it would take two other similarly senior faculty from the same department to cover for the absence of the formal advisor. And do give the advisor a CV if he might be rusty on your recent activities.

    We know that some people just write all their letters short and vague, so if the advisor's letter is vague and positive and others fill in the details, it is not bad.

  • Alex says:

    Is there a career stage at which you should NOT be getting letters from your advisor?

  • Rob says:

    My mentor died about a year and a half after I finished my degree, and I was completing some work in his lab while my wife was working on her degree. I have worked as an adjunct and visiting assistant professor at a small liberal arts college and am very happy doing this. I don't intend on returning to the hard research world unless I have to, but finding a full time, permanent position has been a very slow and difficult process.

    I could potentially get a letter from a post-doc that was in our lab, but don't know what kind of letter I would get. I could get a letter from the dept head, but I never interacted with him except when I finally turned over the keys to the lab after I cleaned it out and disposed of the hazardous materials.

    What would be a good move for somebody in my position?

  • I think you should list the advisor unless there is some extreme reason not to do so. In that case, you need to try to have another letter writer address why there is no letter from your advisor (not your fault etc.).

    Yeah, this is correct, except the reason to not get a letter from your advisor doesn't need to be any more extreme than "he is a total complete douchebagge who eats his young and writes them shitty letters only for that reason".

    • anon says:

      yes, but saying that just makes YOU look the douchebagge

      This whole post really strikes home to me as my former advisor ate hir young and held rec letters over students heads. Which is one big reason why s/he is my FORMER advisor...

  • I did not have a particularly close relationship with my adviser (we were really in different fields—I just needed an adviser finally in my 8th year of grad school, and he was interested in some of the stuff I was doing and willing to take me on for a year—it helped that I still had a fellowship). I understand he wrote me pretty good letters, and I got a tenure-track job before my thesis was signed (I had to go back over winter break to prove something NP-complete).

    That particular job was joint between two departments that weren't talking to each other (I was advised by my adviser that the job was risky), but after 4 years I moved to another tenure-track job, where I've been for 25 years.

    So though I was not particularly close to my adviser, I still think highly of him and was glad to have been his advisee for a year.

  • O.R. Pagan says:

    Based on my experience in search committees, not having a letter from your advisor (unless she/he is deceased or absolutely unreachable) does not take you out of the pool, but it marks you wiht a big red flag..... If anything, they will look at you more carefully.

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