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Deciding on which letters of reference to solicit

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Deciding on which letters of reference to solicit

Postby David » Thu Jan 20, 2005 3:35 am

Hello,
I am applying for a prestigious individual post-doc fellowship in Europe. I can request that three referees write and support my application. Two are older, hot-shot professors (one a collaborator from Harvard and the other my current boss, here in Finland). Both of these like me and will write glowing references.
The third position is currently unfilled. I cannot ask my PhD supervisor because I have been told that she wrote a very nasty letter last time (I was told this by the PI who was hiring me and she liked the other references and my CV suspected that my PhD supervisor had an axe to grind which was indeed the case). The nature of that axe is beyond the present scope of this missive but suffice to say she saw me as competition (which wasn?t the case but who can reason with insanity?)
So, my third position is still unfilled.

I have two choices. Ask a big prof at my PhD school (Oxford) or a junior faculty member at a smaller school. The first knows me well; knows my PhD research but is not in my field. The latter was one of my PhD thesis examiners and knows me very well (he is in my field and also acted as a friendly and journal referee on some of my papers).

So what to do!
Dave Jensen in a Nextwave article http://nextwave.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2001/09/19/4?
suggested going for the junior faculty member that can write a more personal and tailored reference. I am leaning towards this but would appreciate other thoughts on the matter.

Thank you in advance

David
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Deciding on which letters of reference to solicit

Postby Val » Thu Jan 20, 2005 6:22 am

> I am applying for a prestigious individual post-doc fellowship in Europe

Sounds like Humboldt to me. I myself applied for the fellowship (and did not get it). I arranged to send the reference letters from my current employer and from the PhD advisor and from somebody else... and they (Humboldt) requested a reference from my MS advisor.

The general advice is that the referee should come across the prospective employers as a sincere and talkative person with the detailed knowledge of the applicant. The employers do not care much about the high standing of him. The junior faculty as a referee is fine.

Regards,
Val
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Deciding on which letters of reference to solicit

Postby Ken » Thu Jan 20, 2005 8:42 am

As a side piece of advice, be prepared with an answer for why you're supervisor is not providing you with a letter. It will likely come up and you should have a prepared response.
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Deciding on which letters of reference to solicit

Postby Madison » Thu Jan 20, 2005 12:13 pm

I think you should pick whoever knows you more on a personal level AND whoever is most familiar with your grad work. Additionally, the person should be able to address the problems you had with your grad PI and let them know that it was PI related, and you were still very successful as a grad student despite the problems. You should ask the letter writer to address this point specifically, since you're not getting a letter from your grad PI. I think the older person might be a better choice since he will have been "closer" to you in the lab, knows your PI, and been able to observe you on a semi-daily basis.
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Deciding on which letters of reference to solicit

Postby David » Thu Jan 20, 2005 12:29 pm

Madison,
Is it your opinion that the referees I choose should explcitly mention that they know my grad PI was unfair (which they do) and this is the reason I have not solicited a letter from her.
It was not my intention to mention it but perhaps by not doing so I am making a mistake. Better to anticipate their thoughts?

Good advice and food for thought.

No disrespect to your good advice Madison (and since I have previously called you a clever cookie I am sure you wont mind) but I would really welcome some input from anybody out there who has, in the course of their professional life, reviewed applications where an applicant did not submit a letter from his PhD advisor

best wishes

David
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Deciding on which letters of reference to solicit

Postby Dave Jensen » Thu Jan 20, 2005 12:56 pm

Hi David,

My comments in that NextWave article were directed, as most of my material is, to an industry job search.

Much of the reference advice is the same, however. It is just that in industry, people are going to NOT rely on those reference letters. They are going to call and really dig into the situation. Reference letters drive me crazy . . . Sure, I'll read them, but the first thing I am going to do is call those people and ask WHO ELSE knows this person, and then I'll call them. That's what 90% of hiring managers or HR people will do from industry.

But in academia, those letters are treated with reverance, and they go in your personnel file and stay attached to your CV. If I were you, I would NOT have anyone directly address the problems you faced with your graduate advisor. You can talk about that if asked, but I'd say to avoid that particular chestnut until you see that it could be a problem, and then openly talk about it.

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Deciding on which letters of reference to solicit

Postby Ken » Thu Jan 20, 2005 1:09 pm

My current industry postdoc was offered to me with the understanding that I would supply three letters of recommendation; in other words, they hired me before they read my letters. So, I second that they are simply not as important in industry.
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Deciding on which letters of reference to solicit

Postby Kevin Foley » Thu Jan 20, 2005 10:07 pm

Ken, RE: "...they hired me before they read my letters. So, I second that they are simply not as important in industry."

Hopefully you are not implying that references of some sort are not important in industry? As Dave already mentioned, they are incredibly important, but not through letters, through phone calls. In a couple of dozen industry job interviews, I don?t think I' have ever been asked for a single letter of recommendation. But without exception I have had to provide contact information for 3-4 references for the hiring manager (or, in the case of lazy hiring managers, HR) to telephone.

Personally, I place enormous weight on talking to these references. I never delegate this job to HR (which annoys the hell out of them!). And I?ll often talk to a reference for 15 or even 30 minutes about a candidate (which no doubt annoys the references as well). No matter how good an interviewer you are, it is very difficult to predict future performance based upon a few hours of interviewing. But a serious one-on-one conversation with someone who has worked closely with the candidate can be a real eye opener. In my book, strong verbal references and multiple first-author papers are the two best predictors of future performance in a prospective employee.

Cheers,
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