I'm applying for a postdoc position at a French university, and the employer, who's a professor, requested me, in an informal email exchange, to state the name and email of a specific former employer from whom she could ask for a recommendation. Now when I was working in that former postdoc position, it was not productive for both, things didn't go well, and I'm ready to take part (but not all) of responsibility for it. I've a bitter feeling about that postdoc advisor for reasons that're not relevant to this question.

My question to you is: how do I tell my potential postdoctoral employer that I don't want her to seek a recommendation from that position? Here's what I drafted so far:

"If it can be avoided, I'd rather not have my mentor at position *** write a recommendation for me, as I often felt our professional relationship could be improved as we disagreed on many approaches in the project and there were also personality mismatch - while I do take part of the responsibility for it, I'm unable to take all of it. "

after which I finished the draft of this informal email with:

"If you're okay with the above response, I'll go ahead and send you a formal application." And my CV does mention another postdoctoral employer who could write recommendations for me, which I stated earlier in the same draft email.

What do you think of the above response? And practically speaking , is it okay to tell her that I don't want her to request recommendation from this and that post? For me: I tend to feel it's okay as long as there're some other capable people who can write recommendations - everybody has an unfavorable period in life, and that could happen in a postdoc, but that alone doesn't define me as a researcher.


It would be unprofessional to describe your previous employer in anything but positive terms when you are a job applicant. If you cannot describe them positively, do not describe them at all. You are showing the future employer how you will describe them in the future.

You could try suggesting an alternate reference, without saying why.

Ask yourself, why would the potential employer make an unusual request for a specific reference if this was not a critical factor in their hiring decision? Your efforts might be better directed towards a different employer.

  • Thanks for your answer. I understand your point about saying positive things about my previous employer and suggesting an alternate reference. Will do that! However, what if the potential employer asks me why I don't want her to seek a recommendation from that specific one? What will I answer? As for the unusual request you mentioned in your answer, she's asking for two references, both from universities in France, where this potential new position is in as well. I'm guessing she'd feel more comfortable to see the reference from people from French universities. – Science Man Sep 26 '20 at 7:56
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    Just say "I would prefer to use X as a reference. X is an outstanding expert in ..." – Anonymous Physicist Sep 26 '20 at 8:31
  • Of course employers do not really need to ask you for permission before asking people about you. It's just a custom. – Anonymous Physicist Sep 26 '20 at 8:32
  • Thanks, I'll modify my email accordingly. It may be a custom, but I feel it's a biased one for the previous postdoc mentor and has an inbuilt sense of hierarchy: a collaboration is a two-way street: if one has to judge how it was, then both parties involved in the collaboration should be able to express themselves about the other one. Since I'm the one asking for a new job, I should not be the only one in the position of being judged and not be able to say anything about the person judging me. How would someone know that a person is not giving a bad reference because of personal vendetta? – Science Man Sep 26 '20 at 9:40

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