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I got interviewed for a research position in statistical epidemiology in a London uni last month. It went well and I got the conditional offer at the end of the interview. I got in touch with my PhD supervisor and secondary advisor. Both of them said they were more than happy to provide references and congratulated me on my new job.

I started my new job today. When chatting with my boss, he mentioned that my supervisor wrote a glowing letter for me. However, my secondary advisor was critical of me not meeting the deadlines and lack of diligence. This temporarily happened during my second year when I got Covid complications and had to take a 3-month leave in the end. But my medical circumstance wasn’t mentioned in his letter. My new boss sort of joked about it and asked if my secondary advisor and I had some personality clashes. However, I cannot remember any clash between us. I didn’t see him as frequently as I met my main supervisor. He were polite to me all the time. My new boss then went on saying it was a bit funny that these two references contradicted each other in this way. One saying I took initiatives and met the deadlines and the other saying I didn’t. Fortunately, my main supervisor was a much more prestigious professor and has known me much longer. So they believed her words.

I was reflecting on my previous behaviour and research and wondering what I have done (except having Covid complications and more or less unable to work for 3 months) to make my secondary supervisor critical of me. I was a member of UCU and went on strike a couple of times during my PhD years over pay and working conditions for teaching and research assistants. My secondary advisor did ask me about this and told me he wasn’t in the union. Could it be a possible reason? In the meantime I wonder if it is normal that your current boss leaks your reference details to you.

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    Yes, the second advisor seems to think you are unreliable because you are politically involved. It is a behavior much more frequent than expected. Unfortunately.
    – EarlGrey
    Jun 6, 2023 at 13:30
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    @FerventHippo A leap of logic? OP tells us that 2nd advisor explicitly asked about going on strike "did ask me about this and told me he wasn’t in the union.". What else do you need?
    – EarlGrey
    Jun 7, 2023 at 15:03
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    @EarlGrey I agree with OP that it is possible but I think it is hyperbolic to assume, as you do in your comment, that the political involvement is the sole/main cause of the comments of the second advisor. Jun 7, 2023 at 15:06
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    @EarlGrey It is a leap of logic. OP has had a multi-year relationship with this secondary supervisor, and has provided us with only two pieces of information (COVID complications and UCU membership) that might explain the supervisor's opinion. How many other conversations/interactions did they have over the years they have known each other that might explain it? We can't read the supervisors mind or know their decision making, and it's a huge leap to focus on union membership over other potential factors. Perhaps the second supervisor genuinely believes that OP is sub-par?
    – academiaTA
    Jun 8, 2023 at 6:57
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    @academiaTA Put yourself in the mind of the 2nd advisor. Would you say you are happy with giving a reference to the PhD student and then would you go on writing such a bad reference ("lack of diligence" is especially offensive)? Only an idiot would do that. And since 2nd referee is an idiot, they would think that everyone else is an idiot, especially this PhD student involved in politics. If you do not put yourself in the mind of the 2nd advisor you will not understand them, if you think mine is a leap of logic, how do you explain their behavior?
    – EarlGrey
    Jun 8, 2023 at 7:53

5 Answers 5

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Who knows why your secondary supervisor was so critical. Presumably, from their perspective, what they wrote was true. It isn't uncommon for people in those positions to be nonconfrontational about references/letters of recommendation, even if they don't think they can write a good one. Maybe you overestimated their enthusiasm and they felt obligated to write something. Also, in my experience, many people are not great letter writers. Often what is perceived as a "balanced" or "unbiased" assessment is read as very critical. There can definitely be a "secret language" to recommendations and if someone isn't careful a "good" (but not "great") recommendation can come off as lukewarm or even negative.

In any case, I would bet that your new boss was trying to tactfully say "don't use this person as a reference in the future". They may also have been giving you the opportunity to explain, but since you were already hired, I think it was more a courtesy heads-up. I wouldn't think about it too much since it seems like that letter was not reflective of your work and personality (based on the glowing review from your direct supervisor).

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    This is exactly what I would have written. Some people spend their whole lives trying to parse tea leaves (=the second hand knowledge you have about parts of a letter you've never seen, including opinions you have no knowledge of). Don't be that person. Don't spend energy on trying to figure out what it might all have meant -- you got the job, that's all that matters. Move on and just don't use that person as a letter writer again. Jun 5, 2023 at 18:59
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    Also important to keep cultural differences in mind. What is a glowing letter of recommendation by German standards could be perceived as lukewarm in the US, and a glowing letter from the US could be taken as weirdly overenthusiastic in Germany. Jun 6, 2023 at 8:27
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    In economics, many departments have a Placement Director: someone in charge of knowing where PhD candidates get a job, among other duties. One of their duties is to collect reference letters from all writers for each candidate before they're sent out to academic employers. If the director detected glaring discrepancies (such as in OP's case), the director would privately inform letter writers and warmly encourage (but not force) each of them to agree on the bottom line message. I don't know if this is standard across fields or universities, but I feel like it should be. Jun 6, 2023 at 18:12
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You cannot know why your secondary supervisor was critical, and quite frankly, it is not useful to speculate.

However, the fact that your new boss shared this with you is very beneficial as it means you can avoid using the secondary supervisor as a reference ever again. It's clear regardless of what they wrote or why, it hasn't been received positively.

Focus instead on maintaining a collegial relationship with your primary supervisor so that they will feel comfortable providing another glowing reference in future (should you ever need one again).

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    Exactly. This is the actionable point. Jun 7, 2023 at 16:16
  • This is a great way to go, but it is not an answer to OP question. (Could it be a possible reason?)
    – EarlGrey
    Jun 8, 2023 at 14:45
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Without asking your second supervisor, you will never know why they wrote you a less than glowing review. Without asking your new boss, you will never know why they chose to share this information with you.

But if I were in your position, I would infer that your new boss has done you the kindness of quietly letting you know which former supervisor you can count on for good reviews and which you can't. Even if that wasn't the intent, that is definitely they effect.

I would also infer that your suddenly asking your second supervisor what you did to cause this would alert them to the fact that your new boss has had this conversation with you. And to be absolutely clear on this: This is one reason not to ask your old supervisor. It's your decision, of course, but I would nod solemnly to your new boss, thank them for the information, keep it always in mind, and move on.

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In the meantime I wonder if it is normal that your current boss leaks your reference details to you.

I don't know if this is "normal", but this does not look ethical. I would think a person providing a reference expects their reference to be treated as confidential.

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I was a member of UCU and went on strike a couple of times during my PhD years over pay and working conditions for teaching and research assistants. My secondary advisor did ask me about this and told me he wasn’t in the union.

Which is an information you did not ask him. As you wrote in the answer, he was a polite person. So instead of telling you are an unreliable idiot for taking part in political activities, he simply told you that second part ("I am not an unreliable idiot and therefore I am not in any union").

He then went on expressing his deep displeasure in a "polite" way in the reference letter.

Please note that I do not share the view of the reference letter, quite on the contrary, I have been judged being an unreliable idiot for my political involvement during my career (sometimes in a subtle way like OP has been, sometimes with much less hypocrisy).

The human mind is a big mistery, always capable of surprising you in the worst possible sense.

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    this is certainly a take lol Jun 6, 2023 at 22:59
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    I have a feeling that the downvoters misread this answer. It doesn't say OP was an unreliable idiot; but it says the author of the poor reference may felt so. Which seems plausible. (I don't think it's productive to speculate though.)
    – Neinstein
    Jun 6, 2023 at 23:21
  • @Neinstein thanks. As I said, the human mind is a mistery. I will add a disclaimer.
    – EarlGrey
    Jun 7, 2023 at 6:34
  • @overfullhbox would you mind expanding a bit?
    – EarlGrey
    Jun 7, 2023 at 6:36

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