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I am about to finish my PhD at a US university and am starting to apply for jobs and postdocs in physics and computer science. Throughout my PhD, I maintained a good relationship with my PhD supervisor. However, in the last year and a half, he has made social (not academic) comments that were very inappropriate. These comments more directly influenced other students, and the proper actions have been taken with the university and an investigation is on-going. To be clear, the comments are inexcusable and I have lost all respect for my supervisor.

I am wondering what the most appropriate way for me to proceed is, as many positions explicitly ask for a letter of recommendation from ones supervisor.

Some additional data:

  1. I, luckily, had a rather successful PhD and have many collaborators who I could ask in his place. However, I imagine I would need to address why my advisor is not writing a letter.

  2. I do think my advisor would write me a positive letter, but (a) I feel uncomfortable asking him for a favor and (b) I worry that (and I hope) if public action is taken, his letter will not be viewed in a positive light. Quite simply: I'd rather not have a word of support from him.

Is this something I can/should address in a cover letter or otherwise?

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    General question - are you in a position where you avoid his inappropriate comments naturally? For example, if his inappropriate comments are directed at women, are you also a woman who he "approved of" more, or also a man? – Azor Ahai -- he him Jun 22 at 14:48
  • By address this issue in a cover letter, could you be drawing attention to this issue that shouldn't matter in the first place? If not everyone in your discipline knows about your advisor problem, then you should evaluate this risk. – ssquidd Jun 23 at 4:41
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    @ssquidd, I think evaluating that risk is what OP is trying to get help with here. If someone doesn't know about the advisor problem, then that someone also won't know why OP doesn't have a supervisor reference, which OP is worried will look bad. – user51076 Jun 23 at 6:03
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    Is the ongoing nature of the university's investigation public knowledge? – Will Jun 23 at 10:12
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While there is always risk in such things, if his professional credentials are good and the other comments don't reflect badly on that, I'd suggest asking for the recommendation and not otherwise mentioning it in cover letters and such. Treat it as a purely professional relationship, which it should be.

As you note it is odd to not have a recommendation from one's advisor. And I'm assuming that your judgement is that his letter would be professional. If you have a way to find out anything about what he has written for others, it would be a benefit. A department head might, possibly, give you some guidance. But that is another judgement call - whether to ask.

Of course, you can't control the reactions of others, but you can, if asked, disassociate yourself from his views. Just say that you don't hold those views in any interview or such.

I'll note that in math and cs there have been a number of similar situations where a person is widely respected professionally, but whose views on some issues have been shunned and the people condemned. It doesn't reflect on their technical work, not should it reflect badly on you or your work.


See the case of William Shockley, and that of Robert Lee Moore.

And, of course, many people hold appalling views of things, that may be known to others, but not to their students.

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    Yes, avoiding asking your advisor for a letter in these circumstances feels a bit like sabotaging your own career for no gain - after all, it doesn't help your adviser to write you a letter. – Jeff Jun 22 at 14:42
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    I think the question is not the effect on the advisor but whether the recommendation could be actually harmful to the student @Jeff – Bryan Krause Jun 22 at 15:26
  • @BryanKrause That's reasonable, although I intended my comment to be an endorsement of the answer from Buffy, so I would refer to that. – Jeff Jun 22 at 16:19
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    This also matches what I was advised to do in a similar situation. After discussing it with several people, the conclusion was that leaving out a reference from your advisor was probably going to be too big of a disadvantage. Plus, the people reviewing applications can hopefully be counted on to act professionally and not let their view be tainted by non-professional aspects. – Tobias Kildetoft Jun 22 at 17:20
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If you don't get a letter from your advisor, and I certainly see why you'd feel uncomfortable doing so, the best thing to do would be to ask one of your other letter writers to address why you don't have a letter from your advisor. In practice, this may be tricky because it only works if you know that one of your letter writers knows about the problem with your advisor and agrees that it's a problem, so I understand if this is not possible. But it has several advantages over only you mentioning it:

  • Faculty where you're applying are much more likely to read the recommendations than your cover letter.
  • The committee is more likely to believe a third party that your advisor's offensive comments are the real issue and not that you're worried your advisor wouldn't write a good letter
  • The presence of a powerful person backing you up lessens the chances of a friend of your advisor retaliating against you.

In a sense, what you really want is a kind of "surrogate advisor", someone who's willing to step in and champion you going forward because they understand the situation. A postdoc advisor might be able to play that role, but if you've worked closely with other faculty already they also might be able to play that role.

All that said, I think most people would understand that you're in a powerless situation vis-a-vis your advisor and wouldn't hold you getting a letter from your advisor against you.

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    You might be able to get the best of both worlds this way. An ordinary letter from the PhD advisor, and a letter from another writer acknowledging that Advisor is a jerk but none of the jerkness has rubbed off on the candidate. – Nate Eldredge Jun 24 at 3:26
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    In Nate’s approach, OP should not also mention the issue with the advisor, due to the risk of someone telling the advisor and the advisor changing their letter (which is easy to do on mathjobs). It’s a little tricky. – Noah Snyder Jun 24 at 17:14

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