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I received a PhD in the US a bit more than a year ago. Recently I interviewed for a postdoc position. The interview went very well, and I think there was a great match between the planned research topics and my experience. Unfortunately a few days later I received a vague email rejecting me from the position.

The timing struck me as far too fast. They had asked me for phone numbers for some references before the interview. I did not put down a former supervisor of mine because they have declined to provide me a reference and they would not provide a good reference. I called one of the people I did put down as a reference and they confirmed that they never heard anything about me applying to that position. They were sympathetic and speculated that my former supervisor was called and that killed my application.

I have applied to a large number of postdocs and have noticed a pattern: The interviews and presentations go great, but I never get an offer. I would like to ask my former supervisor if they are responsible for the rejections. How can I bring this topic up productively? I have no direct evidence that my former supervisor is responsible. If they are responsible I would like them to stop what I view as defamation. (It may be worth pointing out that I do not defame my former supervisor.)

If this topic can not be discussed productively with my former supervisor, what should I do instead?

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    Rejections are always hard, sorry to hear you're having a rough time with it. I do think we have a duplicate for the heart of your question, though. academia.stackexchange.com/questions/58652/… Oct 16 at 19:04
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    Where is this and in what field? Maybe someone familiar with that area can tell you whether it is common for the hiring committee/supervisor to contact references you don't list. Right now I don't see any evidence for your reference's speculation blaming your former supervisor.
    – Kimball
    Oct 16 at 23:06
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    Another possibility: you're completely misinterpreting how the interview went. Obviously I'm in no position to even speculate but I'd suggest a sanity check with some of the people familiar with the matter, like aforementioned reference, just in case.
    – Lodinn
    Oct 17 at 2:00
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    This question was way more interesting before I read the last word of the title.
    – einpoklum
    Oct 17 at 18:45
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    How about replying to ask to help you understand why you were rejected?
    – SQB
    Oct 18 at 7:12
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As others have noted, in most fields postdocs are very competitive. For the lab director and/or hiring committee, there is also a lot at stake. Choosing poorly can mean the postdoc "flakes out". At best, a slot and resources are wasted. At worst, a promising stream of research goes nowhere. The topic may become stale, experiments or analysis may be flawed, or completing the work carries baggage (an unproductive, unsatisfied (co)author to cart along) so harder to get someone else to finish it off.

What this means is that directors or committees are pretty risk averse, and pretty likely to shy away from candidates with something strange in their file, like silence or a weak reference from their advisor. That's expecially the case if someone else is in the pool whose file is more normally complete.

Therefore, without knowing specifics of the situation, my Occam's Razor hypothesis is not that your advisor is actively torpedoing you in some way. Merely that the absence of their strong recommendation, with no countervailing clear evidence of your brilliance obviously visible in your file, indirectly turns you into an also-ran in the post-interview deliberation.

Made-up but plausible committee dialogue:

As you know, X's file is a bit strange. There's no letter from their advisor, though their other references are OK. We brought them in, and their interview went quite well. Personable. Pretty good talk. But you know, it's weird with that advisor. I wonder if they'd fit in? Then we had Y. A more normal file. Their advisor, Z, wrote a very nice letter. Other references good. Personable too. OK talk; probably not quite as good as X. But maybe they were nervous. Z's letter explains how significant their results are and that they're very independent. ... ... ... You know, Y's just a safer bet.

If this is true, you're not sunk, you just have to work really hard to make your file stand out. Have great publications/conference presentations. Be a super presenter. Get one of your other references to really advocate on your behalf, i.e. be your advisor stand-in. You just need to be super on other dimensions to make others overcome their risk aversion.

If my Occam's Razor is dull, i.e. your unphoned reference's speculation that your supervisor was called anyway is true, it is also unnecessary to assume your supervisor actively torpedoed you by saying something bad. They merely may have damned you with a factual (i.e. not at all "defamatory") statement like:

Yes, X was my student. They completed the degree requirements. Yes, it is true I did not send in a letter of reference. X and I discussed it and I felt others could probably write a more enthusiastic reference letter. No, there was no significant problem, they completed the degree requirements satisfactorily. I don't really have anything else to say.

The solution for the future is still the same. Excel elsewhere in your file, and find a reference who can be a supervisor stand-in. Proactively (writing a letter, calling up the committee, whatever...more than waiting for a call that doesn't come.)

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    I appreciate your analysis of several plausible situations and advice tailored for each. Thank you.
    – JEs9X
    Oct 18 at 2:18
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    Absolutely. The lack of a recommendation from a direct supervisor is a pretty big red flag. Oct 18 at 15:29
  • I think making up dialogues and situations will only waste the OP's energy. The idea that the advisor did not write a good letter seems to stem from OP's lack of information and desire for an explanation, it seems. The most useful thing to do is to ask for feedback from the interviewers, maybe during a Zoom call, where they may be more candid than through a formal email. Oct 19 at 11:21
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There are so many applicants for each postdoc positions that it is practically impossible to know why you were not selected. Unfortunately in something like this there is no prize for second best.

I would be amazed if a hiring committee were to contact your supervisor if said supervisor was not one of your referees; it might in fact be illegal in some jurisdictions. Omitting your supervisor will raise questions for most committees, but the most common way to clarify this is that someone from the committee would ask you first what is behind this omission.

Don’t get me wrong: it might be that one hiring committee reached out to your former supervisor, but this would be the exception and not usual practice. Thus, by observing that you are often “close”, you are de facto reducing the probability that a single unnamed referee will have sunk you.

One way to understand the culture of your subfield when it comes to contacting referees would be to discuss your perception with one of your referees, and in particular ask if they have ever been contacted by hiring committees when not on a referee list.

Finally, remember that in most circumstances, you will have very limited (if any) information about the other candidates, and how well they did, so even if you think things went for you they might easily have gone better for someone else. The decision of the committee can sometime depend on trivial factors; the very last option is to think your supervisor torpedoed your application.

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Many places, sabotaging a student would be a highly improper act and the attempt to do so rejected. Unless the advisor has especially wide reach I doubt that it would happen frequently and I also doubt that a respected academic would tarnish their own reputation in an attempt.

However.

A weak positive recommendation can be interpreted as a negative one. "Damn with faint praise". This can be unintentional, actually, as happened to me once, due to a misunderstanding of language.

Also, times are very competitive in many fields. You can come across very nicely in a meeting, but your other materials don't back up a prediction of success. There seem to be many more candidates than positions at the moment and COVID has messed up many things.

I can't think of much you might do directly, especially based on a suspicion.

But indirectly you have some control over the other materials in your application package. If they are very strong then it puts you in a better position.

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    This can in fact happen unfortunately. Without mentioning names someone I know had a famous PhD supervisor and it turned out that the supervisor was writing very weak references for them which caused them to eventually end up getting a job at a somewhat mediocre university.
    – Tom
    Oct 17 at 15:02
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If this topic can not be discussed productively with my former supervisor, what should I do instead?

When you've had an interview but aren't selected, you can always ask for feedback. They may or may not be willing to provide feedback. If they're willing, the feedback may or may not be useful. But in the end, you have very little to lose in asking (nothing terrible can realistically happen by asking politely). The times I've asked for feedback after an unsuccessful interview, I learned I had been ranked second, which by my interpretation meant my application was pretty good, but I just had bad luck someone else was a (slightly) better fit. Knowing this helped my self-confidence for the next application (plus, I received some precise answers on my weaknesses and even interview tips too).

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    I think this is the best advice for OP. If the advisor had in fact "torpedoed" OP, then admitting as such would open them up to litigation. OTH if the advisor had unsolicited "torpedoed" OP then they can freely give the advisor up "We were going to hire you, but Dr. Advisor told us you were a psycho-killer - so we went with our second choice. 2nd choice is not as smart as you, but not a psycho-killer."
    – emory
    Oct 18 at 22:56
  • Yes. Much better to ask for feedback on why your application failed than to ask your former supervisor if they've torpedoed you, implicitly accusing them without any evidence. Oct 19 at 17:56

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