From USA universities, Can I request to see a reference about me?

Do they offer the Right to Information and request the information provided in a referee report about me to release?

I can have this service from the UK.

I ask this because my current PI congratulate me on an interview for a postdoc position, next time he followed up and asked how did it go. Later I found he sent a negative referee report about me and not to hire me. (long story short, they were my PI's colleagues - so, through the Right to Information I got told to request HR to have a copy of all the referee reports)

Still PI doesn't know if I know about his backstabbing, however, I want to make sure this from another place in the USA to confirmed if that was a personal attack or if it was due to I applied to his colleague's group.

If this is genuine backstabbing, what actions I can take through universities / academic level, without going to courts.

I had/have to put this PI as a referee for someplace where they know which lab I am coming from. PI is famous in the university for this kind of games he plays, however, he has top political power as he has billions of grants, and staff/students afraid to talk in public.


To answer few of your Qs /comments:

To @Jon Custer : "how do you know the report was "negative" vs "not positive enough given the other applicants"?"

I am specialized in using a few lab techniques. PI has written in the report, I do not! (Funny enough PI is the one who doesn't know these two techniques - I got trained by a postdoc and a tech at different institutes and attended a workshop).

However, the rest of the world believes PI is an expert in this very field and specialized in this specific technique, as he published dozens of articles. The Truth is, He does not know the technique, all come from a technician and a postdoc (both postdoc and tech left the lab, I have a referral from the tech, that I got trained from the tech)

To: user151413; "Reference letters are an assessment, which can be negative. (Otherwise, what's the point of an assessment?) "

This would be true if it was an honest assessment. The problem here is deliberate lying, and giving false information in the assessment.

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    What is your question? There's more than one in the post. In any case, it is not clear whether you can sue about that, unless he stated provably wrong things. Reference letters are an assessment, which can be negative. (Otherwise, what's the point of an assessment?) – user151413 Jan 4 at 15:27
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    In the US you are typically asked if you will waive your right to see the reference letter. Did you waive this right or not? – Kimball Jan 4 at 16:29
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    So, how do you know the report was "negative" vs "not positive enough given the other applicants"? What outcome are you looking for here? A reversal of the hiring decision seems out of the question. If you want to write off any further assistance from the PI, keep pursuing this... – Jon Custer Jan 4 at 18:07
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    @Kimball that’s only in the context of student applications where the student waived their FERPA rights. For proper job applications I believe in the states such as CA where a right exists to view one’s (redacted) letters this is due to a general legal right of an employee to know what information their employer has on record about them. As such, this right is considered too fundamental to be subject to this kind of waiver, even if agreed to “voluntarily”. (Basically it’s assumed that any waiver of this sort agreed to by the employee will be agreed under a kind of coercion and hence void.) – Dan Romik Jan 4 at 19:09
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    UK has very strong libel laws, probably far stronger than the US. So, even just threatening a court case is a real menace. That being said, it's probably not a good idea to do anything than deselect the referee in the future. Very few people, if at all, are going to write a reference for someone who takes their referee to court (or creates other kind of trouble for them). To be honest, your case is why it is unwise to write a reference for someone unless it will be positive. – Captain Emacs Jan 4 at 19:10

As a general rule, institutions are very reluctant to give access to letters of reference to anyone and candidates in particular. That's because they know that if they regularly shared these letters with the people being written about, letter writers would stop giving honest assessments.

As a consequence, regardless of matters of law or regulation, you should expect that universities will not give you the letter. You may have a legal way to obtain such a letter, but you will likely have to sue the university to obtain it. Whether that's worth your time or money is a case you need to evaluate for yourself -- taking into account that knowing what is in the letter does not actually change anything. It's not like the university will offer you the position you were seeking just because you know what was in the letter.

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    Or maybe a FOIA request? – Azor Ahai -him- Jan 4 at 18:50
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    @AzorAhai-him- Wouldn't FOIA only apply if the university in question was run by the government? – nick012000 Jan 5 at 8:20
  • Excellent answer @Wolfgang Bangerth .Yes, I agree. In both the way, there is no advantage for me. Alternatively, I can drop the PI from the referee list. The problem is community knows where I am coming from and they expect him to be a referee – Dendrobium Jan 5 at 13:08
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    And a point about obtaining the letter by suing: they are not obligated to write a reference, so if word gets out that you sued an institution for it, then likely no one else would ever want to write you a reference. – vsz Jan 5 at 13:40
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    Most states have Freedom of Information Acts themselves. State universities regularly have to reply to these sorts of things, including personnel data. At my previous university, we had a case where someone whose tenure was denied sued to get information about his tenure case. But you have to fight for this information, and at the end of the day, having the information does not actually change anything about decisions that were made. – Wolfgang Bangerth Jan 5 at 18:34

Here is a link to some information about the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 or FERPA for the rules and regulations in the US. In general, you have the right to see any and all records. However, there are two critical caveats with regards to LoR:

you can only access your recommendation letters after you've gotten your admission letter of acceptance and chosen to enroll in a college. If you were rejected from or chose not to go to a certain school, then you won't be able to get your hands on those letters.

Once you add a college to your Common Application, you'll see a tab show up to invite your recommender(s). Before you send those invites, you'll be prompted to read about your waiver of access and select a response.

So letters of recommendations only have to be shared once you join a specific institution and you will be asked in advance of your application if you want to waive this right. This means, in cases of rejection you have no recourse to see the letters. My guess is that this was put in place to protect the writers of the LoR. It is a really challenging situation for you to be in, since the LoR from your current advisor is surely important in landing a new position.

  • Thank you Mario. Useful info :) – Dendrobium Jan 4 at 15:02
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    Is FERPA releveant for postdocs? – Azor Ahai -him- Jan 4 at 15:28
  • @AzorAhai-him-, that's a really good question and I honestly do not know. – Mario Niepel Jan 4 at 15:34
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    In the pdf @Buffy linked below it is clear that different parties have (successfully) sued employers to provide LoRs. But clearly this is a matter of legal challenges and not regulation. So short of litigation (maybe due to suspected libel) there does not seem to be a regulatory way to get your hands on you LoR. – Mario Niepel Jan 4 at 15:40
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    Postdocs are not students, and FERPA doesn’t apply. – Dan Romik Jan 4 at 19:13

The other answers address the legal and regulatory aspects of the question. You should also consider the cultural aspects: Many American academics expect that applicants will choose not to read their reference letters. If you violate those expectations, they will not trust you.

  • Thank you. Very good advice. Also, I agree with this. – Dendrobium Jan 5 at 2:55

In the US, the answer is almost certainly no, you should not ask to see your reference letters.

Even the most positive letters contain candid descriptions that letter writers do not want to share. If you seek out those letters, you will strain your relationships with the writers, and you are less likely to get detailed letters in the future.

Right now, you want a letter to see whether you're:

  1. Trapped by an abusive PI who is writing false letters to stop you from getting a job, or
  2. Not as good as you think you are (at least in the eyes of your PI).

I understand that this is an important question, but you don't need the letter to answer it.

If your PI is trapping you - and it happens! - you may notice that: (1) You have good luck with applications that benefit your PI, like grants, but terrible luck with applications that help you leave, like jobs; (2) Your job applications are successful up to the point where references are requested, then fail; (3) Other colleagues are startled by your lack of success on the job market.

If this is the case, your relationship with your PI is done (though you'll likely need to stay quiet about it, lest they sabotage you further). Start looking ASAP for a mentor who will actually support you - either a colleague who can write your letters of reference, or a new boss/PI.

If your PI doesn't think you're very skilled, you will find that (1) they don't put you forward for anything, even grants and awards that would benefit the lab; (2) Few of your colleagues praise you; and (3) If you ask your PI, they'll bluntly tell you that you need to improve.

This leaves you in a tough spot. As above, you may find that your relationship with your PI is completely broken and you need to find a new mentor ASAP. You'll also need to do some deep reflection, preferably with the help of your most supportive colleagues, on what changes you could make in order to succeed. This may involve improving your skills, communicating your achievements better, switching to a research project that better matches your talents, or leaving research for a more suitable career (and a more supportive boss).

None of these options are easy; the good news is that, in the long run, all of them will leave you better off than you are now.

  • Thank you, Kelly. I understand, my case falls into 1. st category, I am Trapped by an abusive PI. I applied for grants, with him, my application process mostly to the second round. after the referee report, it ruined. I received a copy of his back stabbed referee report from UK university (he doesn't know this). I can ask others to write referee, the problem is for some places I have to put this PI. Very unfortunate. – Dendrobium Jan 9 at 0:47
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    @Dendrobium Yeah, I'm sorry to hear that. I'm glad you have other people willing to be referees for you. You might be able to get away without letters from the PI in more applications if one of the other referees is willing to explain what's happening... Overall, it looks like you're likely to have options, but it's still an unfair situation, and it's bad for all of academia that PIs have so much power over other people's careers with so little oversight to make them use it fairly. - Kelly – Blizzard Jan 9 at 0:57
  • Thank you very much for your kindness. It's my bad luck. This PI has ruined a few people's careers. One of the postdoc's life has completely erased from academia and taken his project. In the end Money talks. Uni driven by grants, So PI is a top political head. Only I have to believe now is the power of the faith, nature! I have not done anything wrong. Thank you. – Dendrobium Jan 9 at 1:06
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    These problems are unfortunately common. If it's useful, the best outcomes I've seen from similar situations occur when the student/postdoc gets out quickly - either going to another faculty member who supports them and has enough political clout to protect them from the original advisor, or to a non-academic position where typically reference letters are not needed and the advisor has no power at all. The worst outcomes I've seen occur when the student/postdoc stays for years, hoping to win approval from an advisor who slowly destroys their prospects and self-esteem. – Blizzard Jan 9 at 1:33
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    Thank you @Bizzard , Yes I totally agree with you. I did the same. If I realized this, I'd have left the place in my first year. Every time thought, I'd be able to win the person working 24/7. – Dendrobium Jan 9 at 9:28

In the US it would almost certainly be improper for information about you to be released to a third party. But who can say what sort of conversations go on between people who know each other and speak informally?

But the privacy laws here are pretty strong, so a formal request from third parties to see information would be denied. Even the fact that you had applied is almost certainly protected.

Here is a statement from one US university (pdf) on the legal issues around letters of recommendation

  • Thank you for letting me know this. – Dendrobium Jan 4 at 14:56

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