I am applying for a position at a University. The director of the department at the University I am applying to was my PhD supervisor.

Is it still proper to ask them to provide a letter of recommendation? Or is this a bias (conflict of interest) I should try and avoid?

EDIT: The director IS involved with both the interviewing and hiring process; however, they said to still use them as a reference.

  • 5
    Seems like a waste of a reference if they're going to write a letter for themselves to read. I would ask someone else (and likely they will tell you the same thing if you ask them for a reference). Aug 11, 2020 at 16:51
  • 13
    @astronat: More likely they will recuse themself from the hiring decision, and their letter will be read by the rest of the committee. Aug 11, 2020 at 17:48

5 Answers 5


I suggest that you ask the person whether they believe it is proper for them to write you a letter. They know the institution to which you are applying and its procedures. If they indicate that it should be fine, then it is fine. Otherwise, look elsewhere for a letter.

But it is good to avoid assumptions in a case like this. The director may be involved or not. A letter from them might be considered proper or not. Don't assume. Don't guess. Ask.

You can indicate in your note that you don't know the proper rules and, while you would value a letter, you will understand if they think it improper. Hopefully you know them well enough that such a note won't seem out of order to them.


I think you are confusing "bias" with "conflict of interest."

The fact that a job applicant was previously supervised by the person who is making a hiring decision is not an unethical conflict of interest. There might be a conflict of interest if you were related or if you offered a bribe.

In this case, it is not clear if your supervisor is even involved in the hiring decision.

  • Hmm bribes, I didn't think of that (I'm joking). Right, I suppose I should check to see if they are actually involved with the hiring process. Let's assume they are, either way, it sounds like you think this would not be a COI as they rightfully can vouch for my performance?
    – Shinobii
    Aug 11, 2020 at 4:04
  • 4
    Not based on the information you provided. It's up to the person hiring to handle conflicts of interest, not the applicant. Aug 11, 2020 at 4:06
  • 2
    But don't go seeking them out. Aug 11, 2020 at 4:07
  • 3
    I would imagine there would be more than a conflict of interest if you offered a bribe :) Aug 11, 2020 at 6:17
  • 1
    @TylerH There are different types of bias. Being biased in favor of a candidate who is related to you is nepotism and is almost universally condemned as bad. Being biased in favor of a candidate that you have worked with in the past and know to be a talented researcher is simply bringing first-hand knowledge to bear on an important decision. Bias traceable to previous knowledge of a candidate is almost unavoidable in academia, especially in smaller fields. Aug 12, 2020 at 12:07

If your supervisor's guidance is to put them down as a referee, then you should put them down as a referee (i.e. it's a good idea to do so). The fact that your reference comes from someone within the department is in no way hidden from the other people involved. It is entirely transparent.

Turning this on its head, it would be very odd indeed—assuming that this is a postdoc position, or one you are applying for soon after your PhD— if you did not use your supervisor as a referee. In fact, this might look a lot dodgier than if you do. Think about if you were applying for a job and didn't give someone from your most recent employment as a referee. It raises questions.

How to counteract any bias (or perhaps sound knowledge about you) that may enter into the hiring process, given that you are the ex-supervisee of someone in the department, is a question for the hiring committe to work out, not for you. And remember, whether your ex-supervisor is your referee or not, they are still your old supervisor and you are still their ex-doctoral student. There is nothing you can do to change this. The reference makes no difference in this regard.

Good luck with your application!


You need a letter of recommendation which he/she is honour-bound to write strictly with their supervisor's hat on.

If that letter is not there, and the person is asked their opinion during the meeting, it will be less clear which hat if any they have on.

It is up to the hiring committee to work out if and how the person should recuse themselves. There may be bias and or conflict of interest, but this is precisely their deontological burden, not yours.

Between you and me and the bedpost, all appointments in academia are at least a bit tainted. Be grateful if and when the cards come up in your favour, as it will not happen terribly often.


You could request them to give a general recommendation letter (To whomsoever it may concern) and then add it to your application. Now it is up to the committee or your former supervisor to decide the outcome. Your association with the director in a professional capacity should in no way be detrimental to your chances of securing this job. If it is, then it is a case of reverse bias.

In any case, it is not something you must be worried about. In fact, you should feel more confident in getting the position as your skills and strengths are well known to the potential employer.

Best of luck!

  • (The -1 isn't mine, but) Being elusive won't help the OP, imo. Harm seems more likely
    – user2768
    Aug 11, 2020 at 10:32
  • 1
    -1 is not a problem. Is it the responsibility of the OP to mention in their application that their supervisor is the deciding authority? The burden of sharing this knowledge with the higher-up is on the director, imo.
    – kosmos
    Aug 11, 2020 at 10:36
  • Requesting a general letter of recommendation, addressed to whomever it may concern, and then returning that letter to the author seems rather deceptive to me
    – user2768
    Aug 11, 2020 at 11:53
  • I do not see the deception here as I assume that the director is not the only person responsible for hiring. That would be unusual. But I kind of see your point now that you make it.
    – kosmos
    Aug 11, 2020 at 12:37
  • 1
    Perhaps deceptive is the wrong term, elusive, probably something else. The point being: The author wasn't well-informed about the situation they were entering, and they're mightn't be happy about that
    – user2768
    Aug 11, 2020 at 13:08

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