It's not often that I get emails from you (WHY DON'T YOU LIKE ME?!), so when I do, I am eager to help. Most recently, I heard from a reader who has a situation that I imagine is not all that uncommon, but for which I do not envy this reader at all. What do you do when your PI wants you to stay forever? Can you succeed in applying for a tenure track job behind his or her back? It goes like this:
My PI is a good guy, but has strange issues with his postdocs moving on. My PI/institution also doesn’t readily promote, so it’s a really weird holding pattern of dangling a promotion carrot while never actually delivering. I know, this transition from postdoc to TT should be a natural progression (either within the institution or more likely with a transition elsewhere), but literally no one from my lab who has gone on to TT or other positions has done the interview process in the open. Not one postdoc has ever practiced a job talk in my lab, and the conversation with my PI about leaving happens when they have already accepted another position elsewhere. I can’t exactly pinpoint why the secrecy (see above mentioned comment about him generally being a good guy), but I think it has to do with anticipation of the PI getting paranoid and having his feelings hurt (and all the expected behaviors that stem from this).
Let’s assume that I don’t regret not factoring this into my postdoc decision-making process (ha! If only I read blogs back then!), don’t resolve whatever broader interpersonal issues exist with these PI-postdoc dynamics, and thus will go on the job market “behind my boss’s back.”
Do you think not having a support letter (and/or verbal recommendation) from the PI will hurt my application relative to other applicants, or do search committees anticipate this sort of thing? How is this handled in the application process? Do I put something about this in the cover letter (that seems weird)? Or just don’t list him as a reference and let this be implied?
I have been thinking lots about this situation, and truly, it makes me so sad. You work hard through your Ph.D, your post-doc, and then just when you need the support of your mentor the most, you feel you can't count on them to help push you out of the nest. Now, it's not clear to me from this letter that there have ever been negative, career-ending repercussions in this lab if a post-doc ever DID dare ask the PI for a letter, but more that there is some underlying subtext (is that redundant?) to trainee-PI interactions that indicate there MAY be. In that case, I would cautiously suggest that the reader actually broach the subject with PI. If he is a "good guy," maybe he does want his trainees to succeed? Of course, no one wants to be the guinea pig for such an endeavor, should your fears turn out to be justified, and so I sympathize with this reader's inclination to work within the limitations of this less-than-ideal status quo.
The primary question seems to be, if you HAVE to apply to TT positions without a letter from your post-doc PI, does that require explicit acknowledgement in your applications? I would say yes, although I admit I'm at a bit of a loss as to what you might say--"I was afraid of hurting my PI's feelings" isn't going to be very compelling. Having just sat on a TT search committee, though, it would be very surprising not to see a letter from an applicant's post-doc mentor, and I would wonder what the deal was. Addressing that in your cover letter would at least let me know that you recognize it's unusual.
Readers, I'm counting on you to flood the comments with your wisdom and advice for my letter-writer. Is it possible to successfully get TT on the DL?