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I spent the last 7 months looking for a postdoc after my PhD graduation. My toxic PhD advisor killed my previous postdoc, as they have withdrawn their offer after his non-negative but not enough positive input. I thought seriously about removing him from my reference list, but it was unavoidable as my other references know him and always mention him as being the one that knows me the best while submitting their own letters of recommendation.

I sent him two emails asking him for a meeting at his office about a month ago to discuss his negative input and to sort out things, but he never answered. He thinks that I am not aware that he sabotaged that other postdoc opportunity. I am currently applying to a better postdoc position, and I stupidly included him again as a reference. I sent a fresh email thanking him in advance for the support he is willing to provide by writing that letter, and again I got no answer at all. I am afraid now he would do the same thing for that position.

How can I stop him from sending his letter, and what can I do in case he also kills my changes for that position? By the way, the other two references have already submitted their references, and they are both positive.

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    You have my sympathies. The bad news is that, unfortunately, if your doctoral advisor is working against you, you are probably going to have an extraordinarily hard time finding a research position.
    – Buzz
    Jun 20 at 4:47
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    "as my other references know him and always mention him as being the one that knows me the best" Can you discuss your issue with them? It is obvious that your advisor knows you best. Why are they even mentioning this? Can you make them aware of your problems with your advisor?
    – Roland
    Jun 20 at 8:44
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    The question anyone reading this post is going to ask is "Why does your adviser want to sabotage you?" Few people do it because they just are truly evil. Rather, most people actually have reasonably good reasons to write negative letters, but your post does not comment on any of that -- and without that piece of information, you're unlikely going to get useful answers here. Jun 20 at 9:20
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    @Heidi If you characterize your advisor as inherently evil, then it is understandable that your relation is not good. Jun 20 at 10:28
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    It's impossible to know from just one side, but I have definitely known supervisors to sabotage their PhD's postdoc searches in hope that they would remain in their lab as a highly productive, cowed, underpaid postdoc. In one case, the letter was so transparently manipulative that the recipients disclosed its contents to the candidate, because they could tell that there was something fishy, and so the candidate eventually managed to get a position. Good luck, OP.
    – Ottie
    Jun 20 at 17:01

2 Answers 2

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There are a number of questions on this site from graduating students who have a toxic relationship with their advisor and as a result feel the advisor can’t or won’t write them a good letter of recommendation, and want to know how they can still move forward with their academic careers.

The standard answer for this seems to be to not include a letter from the advisor, but to carefully and as diplomatically as possible explain in your job applications why you are not including such a letter. This has some chance of working, since people in academia are generally aware that not all advisors are as professional, ethical, and diligent about advocating for their students as they should be.

If you have already given the name of the advisor as a reference, I can only suggest to contact the employers you applied to and ask to remove the adviser from the list of references and to ignore any letter received from them. Provide an alternative reference if possible. And again, you’ll need to write a pretty compelling explanation of why your adviser’s reference should not be treated as a good faith, honest reference. The point is that the mere fact that you expect their letter would be negative, or not positive enough, is not sufficient, since from the employer’s point of view there is no reason to think that a negative recommendation is less credible than a positive one. You need to find a way to help them see that it’s the positive (hopefully very positive) things that your other references will write about you that represent the “real” you. This of course depends greatly on the details of the situation with your adviser, so I can’t give more specific advice. But that’s the general approach that I think I’d recommend following. Either that, or find a way to quickly mend your relationship with the adviser so that they’ll be inclined to write a more positive (and more truthful) letter. Good luck!

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    Thank you very much for your feedback. There's nothing I can do at this stage as he already sinked my application.
    – Heidi
    Jun 20 at 19:11
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    @Heidi I’m confused. Your question was about what you can do, so I gave you the best advice I could think of. It’s not guaranteed to work, but it’s worth a shot at least. If you say there is nothing you can do, then what are you asking exactly?
    – Dan Romik
    Jun 20 at 19:17
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    Thank you very much for your advices, I would have followed them if he didn't killed the job for me, I was notified earlier that they don't think I would be a good fit for them, that's Why I wrote that there's nothing to do anymore at least for that job.
    – Heidi
    Jun 21 at 0:02
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    @Heidi I’m very sorry to hear that. Best of luck with your career in any case.
    – Dan Romik
    Jun 21 at 2:06
  • Thank you so much.
    – Heidi
    Jun 21 at 5:52
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We are just anonymous people on the internet, we know only your side of the story, so apologizes if maybe I am missing your point.

The bad news is that you have a difficult path in front of you, the good news is that you already survived your PhD in such an unfriendly environment to you, so the difficult path will be a tad easier.

You got your PhD, you completed this huge building block, but now you need to start from scratch, you will sail among peers in treacherous sea, better alone than in bad company, stop thinking the link to your advisor will help you in any form, he already showed you he will not. The only way he may help you, via his reputation, is already present: if his name is of any help, it already stands on your thesis, so that is enough.

I suggest to get in touch personally with researcher in your area. It was hard before covid, it was harder during covid, now it is halfway beetwen hard and harder. Best way is to attend a conference, a symposium, even a workshop lasting 3 or more days. To get you in the right mood, present a poster. If you do not manage to get your old advisor funding the trip, pay it with your money (consider it an investment). Once there, get in touch with researchers. During the formal moment, try to gather as much scientifical inforamtions about reserarch challenging your advisor work (you need a fresh restart on your knowledge, to clean yourself from the toxic relation, maybe you will discover his contributions are scientifically crap. Or marvellous, who cares, the goal is to rebuild the scientific image you have of your advisor, and forget about them as person).

At informal moments, try to get in touch with former students of your advisor. Ask them how was their experience From what you describe, it is likely that your advisor behaved similarly in the past. Ask them for advice. Ask them for openings.

In short: you only need 6 months of contracts with someone else, to replace your advisor from your referee's list. If you really want to stay in the academia, be open, any position will help you, do compromise on the location, even on the topic of your future position.

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    Thank you very much for your feedback. I tried everything I could to overcome this hard situation and to not take It personal, but as you Said, It Is hard to get a position especially now, I Just Don't understand why, Why would you do that to your former student? The two postdocs are prestigious and he isn't taking It. I avoided making drama the last time even though I knew that he was behind the offer withdrawal, but this time I can't tolerate another marvellous action from Him, if you won't write a positive letter then dont do It at all!! He said he will write a good letter then stabbed me..
    – Heidi
    Jun 20 at 10:45
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    If you do not understand it, ignore it! It works in science, as well as in personal matters (to some degrees). Just ignore him. Don't count on him, you have a PhD, you will learn what you can and what you cannot do on your own. Good luck!
    – EarlGrey
    Jun 20 at 14:18

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