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I completed my PhD earlier this year and I will be applying for postdocs and faculty positions.

My thesis is quite different to the field I'm applying to. Additionally, my relationship with my advisor ended on a sour note, causing quite a bit of tension. Thus, I doubt they can give a strong reference letter which shows my research skills in this area.

However, I have published and conducted research with other academics in this field who are willing to provide reference letters. Many of them are well-known and I have more than enough to fill out the reference requirements for applications.

Do you think I should exclude my supervisor from my reference list? Why or why not?

Thank you

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If you completed your PhD, then your thesis advisor probably knows you better than anyone else. If I was an employer I would want to see that letter of reference.

Since the relationship has soured, I would do my best to try and repair it. Start slow, acknowledge any shortcomings you have made, and ask to see if there are ways to meet in the middle and repair a bad situation. Approach it without asking for a letter of reference initially, and just do it as someone that wants to repair a situation.

If they still are apprehensive, at least you tried your best. If they accept, it'll help you in the short and long term. You've gotten a potential colleague, peer, friend, etc. back. And the letter of reference they write would probably be even better for you, since they could talk about your ability to try and resolve conflicts and move past previous transgressions. If I was an employer, that would be a huge perk. And if nothing else, trying to repair a relationship is often what the world could use more of. So why not try?

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People will probably wonder why the advisor excluded, of course, but a bad relationship is probably more important than the change of fields.

With a good relationship the advisor can attest to a lot of things that apply across fields, such as your dedication likelihood of success.

Perhaps you can have a chat (face to face) with them to better asses what their recommendation would look like. This is the sort of thing that has to be done in person, though. Email won't do.

But if you have other strong letter writers it might not matter much and you could explain the lack of a letter based on the new field.

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Whether you exclude your PhD supervisor or not, he will be asked to write you a letter of recommendation in 90% of cases. If you are applying for a fellowship, a letter from your PhD supervisor is often necessary. You have to normalize your relationship with your Ph.D. supervisor or be ready to get many surprise rejections until you become a faculty (still not guaranteeing you are safe).

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    In the US, at least, it would be improper for someone other than the candidate to ask the supervisor for a letter. I hope and expect that this is more generally true, though it may not be universal.
    – Buffy
    Nov 28, 2023 at 16:29

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