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I am completing my postdoc position in about 9 months, so I am looking at eventual career opportunities. My postdoc did not go as expected: due to some internal problems, I reported my PI for misconduct. Although the committee reviewing the case did not confirm the misconduct, they stated that I should be allowed to pursue my research as originally intended. As a response, my PI isolated me from the research group.

Despite the above, I was able to publish four articles: two papers in international journals and two extended abstracts in conferences (in 2 years). Thing is that now I will never be able to get a reference from my PI and I would like to ask how determinant is such a factor for a future in the academic field? Is there any strategy that I could use to still keep open future opportunities?

3 Answers 3

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In my opinion, it would help if one of your recommendation letters addressed this issue in just the right way. Exactly what that means is a bit delicate, but let me take a try:

I wanted to give some context for the absence of a letter from Professor X in Dr. TMTTM's application. Professor X and Dr. TMTTM unfortunately did not get along. At a certain point the university intervened. No wrongdoing was found on the part of either party, and Dr. TMTTM was set up as a kind of independent researcher, a situation in which Dr. TMTTM flourished. I won't [better, can't] speak to the particulars of the relationship between Professor X and Dr. TMTTM, but I can say that in my experience Dr. TMTTM has been quite collegial. Indeed...

Now of course you don't write your own recommendation letters, so this is not copy for you; rather I just mean to claim that having a bit of explanation could smooth things over for you. In my mind, of all the reasons for your supervisor not to write for you, the fact that you had a personal conflict after which you did all your work independently is really a good one. With no explanation, I might have imagined something worse.

I suppose the above advice is predicated on the idea that those who look at your application are going to see the lack of letter from your supervisor as a definite hole. If you get sufficiently good letters from other people, that may not be the case. Or you may just decide to try for an additional postdoc position, for which having a strong letter from your PhD advisor seems more natural and important. After you do one more postdoc, no one will care whether you have a letter from your last postdoctoral supervisor: you can only have so many letters.

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  • I agree with the way
    – learner
    Apr 1, 2023 at 5:39
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The good news here is that as you are moving on in your career, it becomes less important to have a reference letter from your current supervisor. Instead at some point you will want to pivot into using letters from people less close to you that are still familiar with your work, and can attest to the impact that has had on your field.

Of course, step one in this process is producing great work that has had an impact on your field. In the absence of that you will still have to rely on references more familiar with you that can attest to your potential to impact the field. However, this does not have to be your current supervisor, it can be other senior colleagues you have collaborated with. In fact, it is quite possible, for any number of reasons, that your current postdoctoral supervisor is not the best positioned person to give such a reference. As such, not having a reference from your current supervisor doesn’t the same eyebrow raising effect as it might have when applying for a PhD position or first postdoc.

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@TimRias's answer is good. But there is also the point that interpersonal conflicts are not unheard of. It does happen that a student or postdoc doesn't get along with their adviser, and in those cases the adviser is typically not one of the letter writers -- that just happens, and those who read letters deal with it. It is not an automatic death knell to not have a letter from your adviser. If the other letters are good, someone on the selection criterion will say "That's odd -- the person doesn't have a letter from their adviser. I wonder what's going on?" and someone else will say "We'll never know for sure. It's not our business. How are the other letters?"

In the end, selection committees have to make decisions based on evidence and not speculation. Unless someone has heard specific stories, they will just ignore the fact -- far as anyone knows, the adviser might in fact be dead and really unable to write a letter.

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    A little anecdote (albeit at a lower academic level): I once asked my tutor at university what account is taken of school references in the admissions process. He told me that they were largely ignored. They only once had an applicant with a bad reference. First question at interview: "You didn't get on with your teacher Mr X did you?" In response came the entire story. The applicant was successful! Mar 31, 2023 at 15:22

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