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I am currently applying for a PhD degree in Canada and one of my potential supervisors from the UK asked if he could ask my Master’s supervisor for reference. So I emailed my ex-supervisor about this but got an automatic reply saying she’s on maternity leave.

However, I have her Facebook and Instagram info, so I can message her there, but is it appropriate to do so? She gave birth around three months ago, and we have not been in contact for around two years.

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    If you emailed her then you have already asked, actually. If she replies then she is willing. The auto bounce doesn't mean she hasn't seen it.
    – Buffy
    Nov 4, 2021 at 18:06
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    Are you actual friends on Facebook or do you happen to have the contact details? Nov 5, 2021 at 6:48
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    @JackAidley we are friends on FB and Instagram but haven't actually sent messages after I graduate.
    – Pajxy
    Nov 5, 2021 at 7:21
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    I think it depends what kind of relationship you had with her, did you used to message each other on Facebook/Instagram prior to not speaking with her for two years?
    – Joe
    Nov 5, 2021 at 9:19
  • If she's not responding to professional email, what do you thing the chances are that she'd respond to private messaging?
    – jamesqf
    Nov 6, 2021 at 17:06

3 Answers 3

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This is from an American perspective, not a British one, but absolutely do not message her on Facebook or Instagram! Especially if you have not been in touch for two years. I would never consider messaging a supervisor in such a way to ask for something professional, and that goes 10x while they are on official leave for any reason.

Explain the situation to your potential supervisor and get in touch with your master's supervisor's department chair or director of graduate studies for advice. They may know when her maternity leave is up or may be able to get in touch with her1. In the worst case, they can provide the best reference they can.


1: Some people on leave may be checking their email infrequently for matters like this. Of course, she is entitled not to, but they will know her personally and know whether she's open to requests like this or is entirely offline.

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    OP said that they actually are friend on Facebook, so the situation isn't the same as if he were contacting here out of the blue. It proves some kind of willingness to keep touch outside of work boundaries.
    – Echox
    Nov 5, 2021 at 9:08
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    @Echox It doesn't matter, she is on official leave from work. That doesn't mean "try to contact me in other ways so I can do work." Asking for an informal reference is not life-and-death. Even if they occasionally chatted, it would still be inappropriate. And, honestly, depending on the writer, could harm your letter. Nov 5, 2021 at 14:11
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    @AzorAhai-him-, writing a reference letter is not part of official "work". It is neither paid for, nor is it even mandatory! Hence, her official leave is only partially relevant here.
    – Dilworth
    Nov 5, 2021 at 18:44
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    @Dilworth Most professors I know personally, and many on this site, describe it as part of their duties. Since professors are not paid hourly, I'm not sure you can say whether or not it is paid for. It's not mandatory in the same way deciding not to give someone an exemption to join your class is not required (i.e. it's using your professional judgement to decline). Nov 5, 2021 at 18:48
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    @Dilworth Well then, we'll agree to disagree. Nov 5, 2021 at 18:54
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You have already used this person's professional email address, so your request is made. She will check your email and respond to it when she is good and ready. Many office workers set automated emails when they are on leave but continue to check email and deal with important matters; nevertheless, they are under no obligation to work while on leave. It is not appropriate to badger an academic through their private email/social media while they are on leave (and doubly so since she's just had a baby).

The simplest thing to do here is to let this prospective supervisor know that you have contacted your former supervisor with this inquiry, but she is presently on maternity leave. You can give this new prospective supervisor her (work) email address for direct contact and he can also email her if he has an inquiry. If necessary you can contact your department head (or relevant staff that run the masters program) to obtain assistance in getting an alternative reference.

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    Thanks Ben, but is it also inappropriate to give my former supervisor's contact to the new supervisor since she has not actually agreed to be my referee?
    – Pajxy
    Nov 4, 2021 at 23:09
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    As I understand your question, your prospective supervisor has asked for a reference from your past advisor. Professional email addresses for academic staff are public knowledge; they are included on staff web-pages, etc. They are essentially like office phone numbers, etc., so unless there is some countervailing reason to the contrary, you can share them with whoever you want.
    – Ben
    Nov 5, 2021 at 0:40
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    There's a big difference between someone googling your supervisor's email address and you giving that address to them as a reference, though - even if it's a technical difference.
    – Joe
    Nov 5, 2021 at 5:13
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    @Joe, true, though one's former supervisor is (perhaps in perpetuity) in a professional relationship that (as we all know) may involve future employers'/supervisors' inquiries. Nov 5, 2021 at 22:44
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"However, I have her Facebook and Instagram info, so I can message her there, but is it appropriate to do so?"

Yes, it is "appropriate" to do so. In other words, you would increase the chances of getting a letter if you do so, and only very marginally decrease it. The reason is obvious: you make her understand that it is important to you.

Furthermore, Academia is not a usual work-place. It is certainly not a corporate work-place, and for most parts it's not even a "work": many of the major aspects of academic life are on a volunteer basis. Hence, while it may be seen as "unprofessional" to contact your boss on Facebook if you work in a traditional industry/corporate (e.g., insurance company), it is not entirely inappropriate to contact academic colleges on social networks.

Clarifications: it is impossible to know in advance if your supervisor is going to be happy or not to receive your message.

It is also important to understand different cultures, and know where your previous supervisor works: if she is from UK/US, then she may indeed be more inclined to see her job as akin to a "corporate" job, IMO. If she is from Central Europe, she may be less so (again, IMO).

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