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I have a couple of interviews for research assistant vacancies in the next few days, but I didn't list the advisors of my undergraduate research project as my references, even though I added the project details and listed them as the advisors. I left them out of the references as the relationship I had with them wasn't that great. It was solely a case of a poor fit between a student and advisors; they had a particular way of providing feedback and comments that worked really well for some students but didn't work for a lot of students. I unfortunately fell into the latter camp.

The other thing was that over the course of the year, my mental health condition had worsened, and I think it was fairly awkward for my advisors as they were not sure how to supervise or manage a student with a mental health condition. I had thankfully finished the project with their continued guidance and supervision (and lots of medication and therapy), but the entire experience was just rather unpleasant enough that after I submitted my thesis, I left fairly unceremoniously.

I want to emphasize that they were not bad people, but simply because the fit, both professionally and personally, was probably quite poor to begin with. They've had students before that really blossomed under their supervision style, but it required a particular kind of student with solid coping mechanisms that I unfortunately did not cultivate at the time. They've also had much more personable relationships with other students as well, one which I did not have with them; we only talked about the thesis. Again, it wasn't their fault, and I can't emphasize that enough, but it was just a case of a really bad fit that I unfortunately did not see at the time.

With interviews for research assistant positions coming up, I'm not sure how to address this if it's asked. For example, 'Why weren't your advisors listed as reference?' or 'How was you're relationship with your advisors?'

Worse still, 'Would you be able to provide us with the contact details of your undergrad advisors?'

Has anyone else been in such a position before? Have you had a relationship that made you not want to list your advisors as a reference? Has it come up in interviews before, and if so, how did you address it?

If you're a PI for a lab, what would your initial thoughts be on this? Are all poor advisor-student relationships a red flag, or do you consider each circumstance on a case-by-case basis?

  • What part of the world are you in? "Interviewing for research assistant positions" is not really a thing in the US... – cag51 Apr 14 at 6:02
  • @cag51 Good observation, as you may have guessed, this is outside of the US. It's a Commonwealth country, or at least one of the countries that were formally/still part of the UK colonies. Sorry for being vague, I tried to keep this anonymous for myself and advisors in question. I hoped that the circumstance could be applicable to many different people who may be faced with the same problems. – Lalochezia Apr 14 at 6:12
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Try to focus on the positive in interviews (well, and life :-). Explain why you recommended whoever you did recommend. Say that you thought the people you recommended could give the best assessment of what you would be like on this particular job, and why you thought they would be good at that. Point out (if pressed) that your supervisors are listed on your CV and could of course be contacted, it just wouldn't be your own first choice.

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    I really like that you kinda hit the nail on the head with an overarching principle that can get me through the entire interview (and possibly life, indeed!) and some pointers that stayed parallel to that important principle. I already feel better about the interview! – Lalochezia Apr 16 at 5:09
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The advisor-student relationship is only of higher importance in such an interview, when the student has to and is still learning a lot and needs regular supervision and guidance. It comes down to division of labour in the end, how much supervision and control an advisor wants and invests of his time on the student and how much supervision the student needs and wants.

So you could argue that you are a very autonomous person, self-teaching new material to yourself etc... Of course, it's a bonus if you can also connect easily with all types of persons and cultures and did so in past and are able to make compromises. But it would be rashly to exclude you from a job position (in my opinion), because you seem like a difficult personality, as this phenomenon is not uncommon among some of the historical renown and very successful scientists, mostly because such had very personal ways to think and conduct their work with the will (not inability) to not make compromises. Just don't overweigh this issue. Other questions, criterions and answers in an interview are much more important and personally I would prefer a difficult but autonomous and creative person over someone who needs constant and unbroken supervision.

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