After I completed my PhD program, during which I published one refereed paper, I applied for several academic positions. For a while, my two main thesis advisers agreed to write letters of recommendation, but after a few couple of years, one of them told me he would no longer recommend me because I had not published enough. He even admitted that it was not his job to judge my publication record -- potential employers could do that -- but until I published again, he wouldn't recommend me.

I do admit that I should have published more during my PhD program, but I was always under the impression that my publishing would begin after I had got a relevant job. During the period between graduation and being refused a recommendation, I'd been a consultant, a college teacher and unemployed. I could have published on my own but, after the delay, I felt hindered by being unemployed and rather "burned out" after the thesis writing process. Catch-22? Even more ironic is the fact that I had asked my thesis advisers if I could submit my thesis in the form of a series of published papers (this was allowed under the rules), instead of as an unpublished monograph, and both said no!

Don't thesis advisers have a duty to both encourage candidates to publish and to recommend them for academic positions? At the same time, is it right that universities expect job applicants to already have publications before they arrive? What could I have done, other than publish as an independent after the fact? It is hard not to feel very bitter about the whole PhD process.

Addendum Since it was not yet listed, I add How to handle not having my PhD advisor as a reference? is a related question.

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    Are you in a field where postdocs exist? Are you applying for a postdoc, a job at a research-oriented university, a community college job...? In any case, you can't force someone to recommend you if that person doesn't want to recommend you.
    – user1482
    Dec 12, 2013 at 1:13
  • Even more ironic is the fact that I had asked my thesis advisers if I could submit my thesis in the form of a series of published papers (this was allowed under the rules), instead of as an unpublished monograph, and both said no — did they motivate the negative answer at all?
    – gerrit
    Dec 12, 2013 at 9:40
  • @gerrit What do you mean by "motivate"? Don't you mean "justify"? I don't remember what/if any justification was given.
    – user9957
    Dec 12, 2013 at 19:35
  • @BenCrowell The jobs were at institutions that required publications, i thought that was clear. I was successful getting a (1 yr) contract teaching at community college, i thought that was clear. No, i cannot force someone to recommend me -- but said person changed from writing letters to not writing them.
    – user9957
    Dec 12, 2013 at 19:40
  • @user9957 I probably just mean justify. I apologise, English is not my native language.
    – gerrit
    Dec 12, 2013 at 22:48

5 Answers 5


This is a tricky situation, and it's hard to interpret it without more information. Thesis advisors certainly have an obligation to help their former students within reason and to recommend them for appropriate positions. An advisor who gives up too quickly on a student is an unsupportive jerk at best (and it's easy to think of much worse descriptions). On the other hand, nobody has an obligation to recommend a candidate they cannot honestly support. Telling someone that is really awkward, especially when it's their own student, but the alternatives are writing a dishonest letter or writing a letter that undermines the candidate's chances, neither of which is any better.

Based on what you've written, there's no way of telling whether your advisor is a jerk or the two of you are just caught in an awkward situation. I'd recommend asking your advisor some key questions:

  1. Are there other positions you could apply for that might be a better fit for your background and accomplishments so far?

  2. Based on your unpublished work, how could you prepare a good paper as quickly and efficiently as possible?

Hopefully you'll get encouraging and useful answers. If you and your advisor can work out a plan that satisfies both of you, then that's great. If not, you may have to give up on your advisor and apply with letters from other people. That's far from ideal (the first thing everyone will ask is why your advisor didn't write a letter), but it can work if you get strong enough letters.

Of course publishing would help with getting strong letters. Ultimately, I'd bet that publishing another paper or two is in your best interests, regardless of the situation with your advisor. I can understand that it's upsetting to feel forced into publishing on your own, with no job in your field and no guarantee of getting one in the future. However, it's probably a worthwhile investment of your time, and it's a valuable contribution to the academic community in any case (so regardless of what happens, it's something you can be proud of).

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    Regarding (2), the advisor ought to support this since they get co-authorship. It sounds like a good way to bring them back onto your side...
    – mankoff
    Dec 12, 2013 at 5:30
  • @mankoff Advisors can get co-authorship but that's up to the individuals involved. But let's not argue over that -- it is surely debated at length elsewhere :-)
    – user9957
    Dec 12, 2013 at 19:53
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    Most who knew the person would approve of the epitaph "an unsupportive jerk, at best" and usually do think of worse ;-)
    – user9957
    Dec 12, 2013 at 20:00
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    @user9957: That would be a truly mean epitaph. (You probably meant to write "epithet", but this is actually quite funny. Sorry about the necromancy.)
    – tomasz
    Aug 2, 2016 at 10:21

Don't thesis advisers have a duty to both encourage candidates to publish...

Many Universities prefer, or require, that a thesis be in the form of an expository monograph, which is absolutely different to several papers stapled together. If that is the case at your University, don't interpret your supervisor's adherence to this as discouraging you to publish.

...and to recommend them for academic positions?

A thesis adviser does not have an obligation to recommend a student for a position. Arguably they have an obligation to write a reference letter, but that letter should contain the adviser's honest and confidential opinion of your suitability for the job.

I would encourage you to still try to publish, as good references from your thesis supervisors are a huge help if that will win them over. If you publish your thesis results years later, this well help show that you are serious about getting back in the game.

You will need to prove that you are an excellent researcher to get an academic job. If you cannot get strong letters from your supervisory faculty, good publications become even more necessary.

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    @user9957 Hence why I also said "prefer". In some fields, a compilation thesis is viewed as a significantly weaker piece of work than a coherent monograph. "Allowed, but frowned upon" could be applicable to your case, perhaps. Adhering to your supervisor's wishes will likely have had positive consequences with regards to the overall quality of the documentation of your research.
    – Moriarty
    Dec 12, 2013 at 3:23
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    In some fields, a compilation thesis is viewed as a significantly weaker piece of work than a coherent monograph. — why?
    – gerrit
    Dec 12, 2013 at 9:43
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    It can be much more difficult to compile a collection of publications into a publication thesis that is as expository or coherent as a monograph. For a compilation thesis, you should be able to regularly publish your results throughout the research period. If your results are expected to "all come together at the end", a monograph is the logical choice.
    – Moriarty
    Dec 12, 2013 at 22:04
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    Do the rules say that this unplublished monograph needs to stay as just an unpublished monograph? My experience was that my thesis had to ba one coherent whole, but the material within it is published as several distinct papers. It takes some work to change between the two different styles, but leaving your thesis unpublished (if it's good enough to be and you want to stay in research) seems odd.
    – Jessica B
    Aug 25, 2014 at 10:54
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    I felt my comment fitted better with the discussion on this answer. I noticed the age just after posting. If the question is ever of use to someone again, maybe my comment will be too.
    – Jessica B
    Aug 26, 2014 at 11:46

Recommendations are a method for discrimination

The only reason why recommendations exist is to discriminate potential candidates - to have some information that is correlated with the candidate being better or worse. If everyone gets a good recommendation, or even a recommendation as such, then the whole process would be useless, so everyone getting recommended is definitely not a reasonable goal. If an advisor sincerely believes that a candidate is weak, then the only ethical action is to give a clearly weak recommendation or no recommendation at all.

What to do if you don't get good recommendations

  1. Become better - identify your weak spots and fix them. It depends on the field, but 1 paper during PhD and 0 papers in a few years after that sounds like a strong indicator that the candidate isn't doing solid independent research and thus can't be recommended. This can be fixed in the obvious way by doing such research.

  2. Communicate your good things - if you have done solid work, then it needs to be communicated and shown in order to be appreciated. If you've done anything useful and worthwile, then you should get that published. This, coincidentally, seems to be exactly what the advisor suggested.


Demanding publication record in order to write a recommendation letter has no point at all to me.

Let us give an extreme example: someone publishes in Cell by his/her third year in graduate school and publishes again in Nature when he/she finishes the graduate program. This guy will not need a recommendation letter at all.

On the other hand, imagine a hard-working fellow who is acknowledgeable, knows the field in depth and is good at designing experiments, but got unlucky because the biology of his/her hypothesis was not what he/she, neither the supervisor, were expecting and, because of that, did not publish in a high grade journal or did not publish in a fast pace. This fellow is the guy who needs someone to state his/her qualities and to be vouched for. The recommendation letter is redundant for people with high grade publications, whereas it is usually essential for people without them.

  • No papers => No research. If you cannot publish on your own, you did not deserve a PhD in the first place. Postdocs are for helping others (graduate students) to publish. How can you help others, if you cannot do it yourself?
    – Alexandros
    Aug 12, 2015 at 7:10

That a thesis advisor refuses to recommend a former student exposes the underlying tensions inherent during the supervisory process, or differences in what constitutes the core research question. The tensions are not exposed until after the student graduates. In my case, my supervisor used me as an "unpaid research assistant for three years" and sent my twenty texts to translate from a Southeast Asian language to English without even acknowledging my contribution to the research. He even stymied my PhD thesis submission by saying that my progress was marginal, even though I had finished 84% of the thesis six months before submission. I later realised that my supervisor was stymying my attempts to establish my credentials as a TA, soon after I would submit my thesis. He kept egging me to go back to India (he is incidentally Australian) and my thesis was undertaken in Australia.

Three weeks before I graduated my supervisor told me not to keep my hopes too high in the job market. I smelt that something was fishy and requested him to write a general letter of recommendation. My hair stood still on both ends when he commented adversely ion my social skills. I then decided not to solicit letters of recommendation from my primary supervisor. I instead, request letters from academics who are well-disposed to me. Of course, my supervisor's adversarial stance has affected my fortunes so far but I will never give up.

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    This does not answer the question, it simply tells a related story. Can you edit this to provide some more specific details relevant to the question?
    – eykanal
    Aug 25, 2014 at 12:23

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