I have been applying to postdoc positions, but I'm concerned about my advisor's recommendation letter.

I have been a productive researcher under his supervision and had a good, but stressful PhD experience and I believe I have been one of my advisors better students. He certainly seems quite pleased with my work.

I have a job offer that my advisor would strongly prefer I take, it involves working in a group indirectly controlled by him.

For personal geographical reasons (not related to my advisor or anyone I work with) I would prefer to work elsewhere.

What troubles me is that I'm not certain my advisor will write me a recommendation letter that accurately reflects my abilities as a researcher in order to force me to accept the position more closely associated with him. He's certainly been pushing me to accept this position by refusing to expend any effort to find more funding for me until I finish my PhD. I'm graduating next month and I've been without fellowship for the past few months). The people in charge of this postdoc position are happy to start paying me as soon as I agree to work with them.

I realize this sounds somewhat paranoid, however my advisor has done something similar to one of his previous students in very similar position. This student had been extended a tentative offer for a position at very prestigious institution, which was then revoked when our advisor sent a private email to this students prospective employer implying that the student had already agreed to work with him after his graduation. This student only found out why the deal fell through later when he met personally with some people working with the prospective employer and they were sorry that he wasn't available to work with them at that time.

I don't doubt this. My advisor is certainly the kind of person who would conspire in this way. He's sort of roguishly brilliant and I'm sure he justified it to himself by thinking it was in this student's best interest. He's one of the big names in our field as well.

What do I do? I understand that omitting my advisor from the letter writers can raise some eyebrows. Is there anyway to inform prospective employers of this situation without sounding insane?

3 Answers 3


You don't need a recommendation from your professor.

Some professors are magnanimous. Others are not.

Talk to the key people involved in your desired postdoc and inform them that your advisor may not be enthusiastic about your leaving, and they will understand.


If your supervisor is manipulating you to take a job that benefits them, and not you, then you should end the supervisory relationship swiftly, probably by graduating and obtaining a job outside their control.

Is there anyway to inform prospective employers of this situation without sounding insane?

I'd suggest that if you are clear with your supervisor you are leaving and are not open to changing your mind, they will probably write you a good letter because writing you a bad letter makes your supervisor look bad.

I can think of no explanation a recent PhD graduate can give for omitting their PhD supervisor's letter that looks good. Your other letter writers could give an explanation for you.

  • I like this a lot. I think in many cases this is the correct answer. Unfortunately, in my case the position my advisor offers is quite good, and I would accept it and deal with the consequences to my personal situation should nothing better be available. On the other hand, by doing this I may be kicking the can down the road and remain under my advisor's thumb... May 2, 2021 at 17:22

This is one of the rare moment where it is worthwhile to apply for the position without attaching reference letters, only providing the reference contacts, and after a week or so having a call directly with the PI or the responsible person for the new position.

What you describe here is best discussed "in person", so you have time to clarify all the details and your goals (i.e., exactly what you wrote here, but in writing they sound heavier and, counterintuitively, in writing it is less clear and there is a lot of space to misinterpret).

Maybe you do not realize it, but you are looking for a way out of an oppressive and manipulative advisor. Yes, he has been a good one[1], but better to cut your working relationship with him before discovering his bad sides. You have your PhD, you are and you must be independent from such a person (from any person, actually).

[1] when you say stressful, think about someone undergoing that stress with some personal/family/health issues. Do you think he/she would have dropped out?

  • He's not uncompassionate, only manipulative. If there was a situation as described in your footnote I'm sure he would give me the slack to handle it. You point out a really critical thing with what you say about communicating in person. Thank you very much for your answer. Unfortunately, I've discovered some of the positions/fellowships I'm applying to require a reference letter from an advisor. May 2, 2021 at 17:27
  • "The people in charge of this postdoc position are happy to start paying me as soon as I agree to work with them." Then you can honestly win some time. Tell them that absolutely, you are happy to work with them as soon as possible, then tell them you can provide three reference letters immediately (but not from your advisor), but the reference letter from the advisor can be delivered at the earliest in 3/4 weeks only (give no reasons). Do not mention it will be late because you will ask it in 2-3 weeks ;) , if they express the need. Be smart, you have to outsmart a manipulative person.
    – EarlGrey
    May 3, 2021 at 10:54

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