TT on the DL

Feb 17 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

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?

15 responses so far

  • I think the best thing to do in this case would be to get a letter from some one other than the PI (like a senior staff scientist or something) and ask him/her to cover the above issue in the letter. This way you will have a letter from some one in your lab who is a senior and you will also cover your ass for not getting a letter from the PI.

  • DJMH says:

    Contact everyone in your lab who has ever gone on to a TT position. Ask them why they didn't ask for mentor's letter, how they handled it. Also maybe ask if there are any TT openings where they are, since these are the few people (other than local PIs) who can be really really helpful in assuaging a committee's concerns.

  • Chebag says:

    A "nice guy" who nobody dares ask for a letter? Do you work for Comradde PhysioProffe or his henchmen like Odyssey and DrugMonkey by any chance?

  • Heavy says:

    I think you need to have this difficult conversation with your advisor. I think the results may surprise you and quite likely you'll get that letter you need too.

  • Gerty-Z says:

    If you aren't getting a letter from your PI then you better have another letter that is damn clear about WHY. This is a huge red flag.

  • 27andaphd says:

    Two things first: 1) I'm not in the TT, I'm a staff member, 2) I specifically left out my PD boss as a referee during the job search. That said, I didn't ask him, BUT, I did let him know I was looking for a staff position, and he did volunteer to talk to prospective employers if needed. Now, my situation is slightly different, which why I wholeheartedly agree with Gerty-Z in that if you don't want your boss to write a letter, then have a high ranking person(s) write letters and talk about the separation anxiety or whatever issues the boss may have. It is indeed red flag not to have your most recent boss recommend you or be on your list of referees, but I think that if other high ranking people in the lab can vouch for you, your work, and of course, your boss's attitude/issues, that can go a long way.

    I left out my most current boss (the postdoc mentor out) for several reasons, some of which include: him not being in my former field of study, hence not (in my mind) being able to judge my interest and performance in said field, me not accomplishing many things in his lab (a combination of mentoring at a distance and lack of effective communication skills on both sides) and what I perceived as his lack of interest in my project. All that said, when asked I did give potential employers my boss' contact info. Only one lab asked, and that's my current place of employment. Yes, it can work, but you have to do things right.

    Will all that said, I'm not clear about something. Maybe I totally missed it .. but is the writer not wanting to bring the topic for fear of the boss' reaction? Or for fear of him "retaliating" due this person's possibility of departure by writing (or not writing) a horrible letter of recommendation? Is it that the topic of moving on from the lab something that you think will elicit a strong reaction from the boss, yet when the initial shock passes, the boss will regain his composure and write a decent letter? I'm a bit lost (which is not unusual). I would like to think that if indeed the boss may have a strong reaction, but he's overall nice ... then maybe after a cooling off period, he'll be open to write letters? Is this even a possibility? I know I tend to avoid bringing certain topics to the table when talking to my boss (like why I haven't re-wired blah, blah, blah). I know that after the initial shock, (most of the time) he'll cool off, come and talk to me and help me re-wire blah blah blah. Is this even possible or is the person so "unstable" when these types of news are given that there's no possibility of getting a recommendation? Sorry for the long ass comment. I'm just curious.

  • I was wondering the same thing, 27, what is the fear of exactly? I was also wondering if these PD to TT transitions were happening really soon after the PD's arrival in the lab. I guess the only reason I might be nervous about telling a PI I was job searching would be if I really hadn't been there long enough to 'be useful' as in, gotten a lot of technical training at the PI's expense, but not produced a paper or much usable data or something. But even in that case I can't imagine not telling the PI, it just might not be that fun a conversation.

  • sms says:

    Hi all, I'm the original letter writer.

    Thank you all for your helpful comments! As I am early in the process, I am in the information-gathering stage and trying to determine if this is a truly weird situation (it seems to be!), and if so how to handle it. I was hoping that the response would be "sure this happens all the time! all you do is ________" but I guess that isn't the case.

    Since writing Becca I have talked to people in my lab about this and it seems the general consensus for why we are nervous to talk to our PI about transitioning is that we think 1) he will write tepid recommendations (despite writing stellar recommendations for things like grants) and 2) he will grind our ongoing projects to a halt. Our PI has a weird issue with promoting or feeling that people are "ready" to move on - for example, the last person to leave our lab had been there for 8 years (5 as a post-doc, 3 as an instructor) with no concrete plans (i.e., in writing) to be promoted to TT. This postdoc went on to a TT position at a top tier institution, so he was obviously promotable/qualified, but for some reason he was "not ready" to my PI. Until this postdoc had the competing offer, then he was instantly ready to be promoted in my PI's eyes (same process as the 3 postdocs before him).

    In discussing this with my lab members we also feel that our PI is uncomfortable with competition, which is not totally unfounded considering the last two people who left chose to directly compete rather than have an honest conversation about what they should/could take from their post-doc work. I feel that perhaps if the whole transitioning process were in the open, these conversations could have occurred.

    DJMH - this is a good idea. The last two people who left did their process on the DL and had verbal conversations with people at the application institution about why they weren't including the PI. I assume this becomes trickier if you don't know people at the institution to which you are applying, so I will definitely be in touch with other former postdocs to see how they handled it.

    Thanks again for all your advice!

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    Keep in mind, that this is a time where ALL job postings are seeing unprecedented numbers of applications. Thinning these can be hard. But obvious ways to thin are lack of PD recommendation letter-not only does this leave a HUGE question mark as to the applicant's relationship issues, but also to the feasibility of their research plans.

  • NewProf1 says:

    I am on the search committee for my department right now and I was recently in the hunting for jobs position not to long ago. I think that 1) in your cover letter you should state that you will not be getting a letter from your current PI and explain that there have been personal interactions with them that lead you to not asking them for a letter of reference, 2) make sure your other letters are kick ass and from people who know you as well or better than your PI and can confirm your scientific chops, 3) the bigger question is going to be about what you are going to work on and what you can take from the lab you are in now. If you can't take the story with you then you are in trouble, or if you will be directly competing with that lab now then that does not help your search.

    For example, we have a candidate who has a grant and gave a so-so talk but everyone liked them. They come from a lab where the boss isnt going to compete with them but isnt going to stop the lab from doing the work either. So that person dropped down our list because they are going to get creamed by their current lab, even without help from the PI and with a grant. Just make abundantly clear the situation to the search chair and they will understand. But be able to answer the questions about taking your science with you and competition when they ask.


  • NewProf1 says:

    One more thing, have one or all of your references discuss the issue with your PI in their letters, so its not just coming from you but from a third party as well.


  • Anon2 says:

    Are you SURE he won't give you a good letter or do you just THINK he won't give you a good letter? My postdoc PI was similar in that he had a major knee-jerk response when anyone discussed possibly leaving (I think he had separation anxiety, it's hard to lose someone who is an integral part of the team). But once he got over that, he was very supportive and willing to provide letters.

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  • metoo says:

    My advice is to be cautious like your predecessors. Maybe you should state in your cover letter that several people who did move on from your lab explicitly recommended to you that you not mention outside job applications to your current PI - if that is an accurate representation of what your predecessors have told you. It's not fair, but this sort of situation can blow up in your face. I say that as someone dealing with the aftermath of such a blowup at the moment. If it doesn't kill my current TT application, I'll be extraordinarily lucky.

    I had a PI who seemed like a really good guy and was alway complimenting my intelligence and skills and telling me that I was fun to work with, then got quite upset when I started working on a TT application, after being encouraged to apply by a member of the selection committee. He was really upset about me spending any weekday hours working on the application - even though afterwards I was working Sundays to make up for the time. This situation was different, with me being less than a year into the post-doc. Now I can't ask him for a reference letter - he did write one and let me see it, but it explicitly mentioned stuff he'd hoped I would do but that there wasn't time for, and in ref letter language pointing out work that's undone is downright vindictive. So, I walked away, and will probably have to try another post-doc, which shouldn't be too hard to get since I have several other ref letter writers who seem to think I walk on water.

    A tip for all the other readers: when looking for post-doc jobs, it's important that you contact people who've moved on from post-doc jobs in that lab to positions they wanted, and find out if the PI was supportive of the transition. If s/he was, then that's a good sign. If s/he wasn't supportive of moving on, or if no post-docs from that lab have been able to move on to positions they wanted, those would be warning signs.

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