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I did not get along well with my former PhD advisor. I was able to defend and graduate; however, I have learned that my advisor was giving bad recommendation letters. No wonder why all of my postdoctoral applications were unsuccessful even though I have good academic standing. Since we had several intense arguments in the past, I can conclude with confidence that any reference from my advisor would be damaging.

I have decided to go to industry (non-research) not just because of this problem but also because of poor job prospects in academia. Now, I am wondering how I can minimize the damage. I do not know how references work in industry, but I can certainly exclude my advisor in any list throughout a recruitment process. My PhD advisor also has several connections in HR. This can also be damaging if a company background-checks through the university HR department.

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    When you say that you have decided to go to industry, do you refer to research or non-research positions?
    – noe
    Jun 14 '20 at 19:23
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    non-research positions. Is there a clear line between research and non-research positions in companies? Jun 14 '20 at 19:53
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    It is very likely that the HR department will be more circumspect, especially if you have lodged a complaint about unfair references - the department is there to protect the institution, not the advisor. If applying to industry, it may be appropriate to be totally frank with them, pointing out that poor relations with the advisor has soured your view and is the very reason you are now applying to industry. It's expected that academics can have strong views, and industry's opinion of academia is often low anyway. Use a better referee if you have one, and let your record also speak for itself.
    – Steve
    Jun 14 '20 at 20:38
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    Can this question be migrated to workplace.stackexchange.com ? Presumably, that's where the actual experts from outside academia can give answers! Jun 15 '20 at 14:12
  • That is done here: workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/159260/… Jun 15 '20 at 15:45
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You are worried to much.

My PhD advisor also has several connections in HR. This can also be damaging if a company background-checks through the university HR department.

First, HR is not allowed to say anything bad about you with no clear evidence (for fear of being sued). They will just give minimal information, and that's it.

Second, background check is often done by a third-party, who is only interested in ticking all the boxes that you declared. They are not interested in hearing some random stories.

I do not know how references work in industry, but I can certainly exclude my advisor in any list throughout a recruitment process.

For non-research positions, nobody care about references.

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  • I was a hiring manager in industry before retiring to teach. I, at least, absolutely did care about references. I also had an unwritten rule not to hire anyone who spoke badly about a previous employer. The rationale was that I was looking for people who want to come to my organization, not to get away from someplace else.
    – Bob Brown
    Dec 13 '20 at 12:12
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I've been on both sides of the fence, and hired from academia into industry.

There is a lot of variability, of course, but generally references matter less and impression made during the interview a lot more for jobs in industry vs academia. Accomplishments and credentials continue to matter.

In industry, many people who change jobs are doing so since their previous job is not a great fit. Or have not let their current manager know they are looking elsewhere, so cannot use them as a reference. And getting a good reference from someone else is easily gameable. As a result, many reference checks -- at entry level in particular -- are purely formal ones, merely to make sure the candidate isn't a conficted fraudster or lying through their teeth about their prior experience.

To the extent you are applying for more senior and/or creative positions, there may be a desire to genuinely talk to someone to get a better sense of what kind of person you are. So you should think through what articulate and ideally industry-experienced contact, another faculty member or even a fellow research team member, you could supply if someone does want a reference.

By the way, we of course can't know about the specifics of your relationship with your advisor. But it is certainly possible that a dispassionate (as opposed to loyal) advisor may have given poor references during your academic job hunt not out of personal animus, but since they were not convinced (rightly or wrongly) that you are well suited to continuing in academia. They might be quite supportive of you seeking employment outside academia and even able to provide a good reference in that situation. Of course, this may not be the case at all, especially if you feel you cannot trust your advisor to not be two-faced.

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