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I'm a recent Ph.D. graduate looking for a postdoc opportunity in the US. I recently interviewed with my potential PI, and at the end he said we will discuss later. A week or two after the interview, the PI contacted my Ph.D. advisor for a reference. My advisor said that the PI had asked him for a online meeting. This was great at first, because it meant that he was interested in hiring me. However, what made me feel a little uncomfortable was that he never asked me for my Ph.D. advisor's contact information. I think it's natural to ask me first, as far as my way of communication is concerned. I would've been happy to give him my Ph.D. advisor's contact information. He and my advisor eventually had an online meeting in a positive atmosphere. My advisor says that he seems to be very interested in hiring me, and my advisor also said good things about me. Anyway I wonder if this is a red flag for the PI's communication style or personality. It the first time for me being at a academic job market in the US (and I'm not the one from english-speaking culture), so maybe I'm being too sensitive and reading too much into it. What do you think about this?

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    Where I'm from such informal communication is not uncommon. The only thing slightly unusual would be that you were told about this before the final decision. I wouldn't say this is a red flag.
    – user9482
    Nov 30, 2023 at 9:29
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    Did you mention to the “postdoc PI” that your PhD PI knew you were looking for postdocs? If so, I would say it’s totally fine that they contacted them directly. If not, I would still say that it’s fine since as an end-of-PhD student you are expected to be on the job market for Postdocs anyway.
    – user126108
    Nov 30, 2023 at 12:06
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    Were is your PI located? At lease in continental western Europe I would consider this behavior the norm. All the reference letter writer in the US seems strange to me.
    – usr1234567
    Dec 1, 2023 at 19:03
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    @usr1234567 and in the UK we list source of formal references, but the informal references as in the question are important too.
    – Chris H
    Dec 2, 2023 at 21:00

6 Answers 6

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No, it's not a red flag at all, you are overthinking it.

While on the face of it the situation looks a bit like back-channel reference solicitation, which if frowned upon, I think this situation is different. It is universally assumed that while looking for your first postdoc job, your advisor will be your main reference. So functionally, all they did is cut some social dancing for the sake of efficiency. Consider that it's quite likely that they have met or corresponded before; this would make them asking you for contact details even more artificial.

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    @toby544 My advisor is well aware that I am searching for a postdoc position and has also been informed that I visited the lab of a potential PI. I've shared these details with my advisor, so that shouldn't be a problem.
    – oklu
    Nov 30, 2023 at 11:10
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    @oklu, but "simply" is a wrong word: it is a few clicks to look up a person online, contrasted to digging up your email address, writing you a polite email, waiting for a reply etc. So, the relevant question should be not about "contact info", but whether he should have asked if you mind him contacting your advisor. Maybe it would be polite to do so, but not practically necessary: if you did mind, you would have brought it up during the visit.
    – Kostya_I
    Nov 30, 2023 at 13:31
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    @toby544, if the advisor has nothing good to say about the candidate (whether or not for right reasons), there's no real way to conceal it: no recommendation equals poor recommendation (absent some explanation). One cannot realistically interview for a first postdoc job and assume that the opinion of the advisor will never enter the picture.
    – Kostya_I
    Nov 30, 2023 at 13:44
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    @oklu - if you are in alignment with the potential PIs group, why would you think your advisor has never met them? Certainly seems likely they would at least know of them, and may also be aware of various mutual collaborators. The academia world is pretty small, particularly for people who have been in it for a while.
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 30, 2023 at 14:52
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    Many years ago I got my postdoc with even less 'social dancing' - I ran into a lab director at a conference who said 'I hear from your advisor you are graduating soon - when can you start?' I had no issues with their back-channel communications.
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 30, 2023 at 14:55
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In my experience this is not uncommon. (Although I guess the uncommon element is that you were not asked for a list of (potential) references when you applied, or did not give your advisor as a reference when asked.)

Asking colleagues about their opinions about on potential hires is fairly common practice. Usually this involves people the potential PI knows well, and whose judgement they trust, which could include the (former) supervisor.

Depending on the jurisdiction there may be some rules that need to be taken into account. For example, the fact that you applied somewhere, can be protected private information, that the potential employer isn't free to share. Similarly, there might information about the applicant that the supervisor isn't (legally) allowed to share. But, many of these can be skirted around by staying vague on the reasons why the exchange about the applicant is being held.

I wouldn't say that any if this is a red flag, per se. It tells you something about the potential employer. In particular, that they are probalby not the type to follow strict protocol, but that might not be a bad thing, depending on your own inclinations.

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It is 50% of a red flag.

Some PhD students have advisors who behave badly or unreasonably. Others might have all kinds of other reasons for not wanting their advisors to be approached like this. For example they have told their advisor something about where they are looking for jobs, or they have not told them certain things.

The potential PI should have asked you first before contacting your advisor, and this incident suggests that the potential PI is somewhat inconsiderate.

I don't agree with Kostya_I who says "all they did is cut some social dancing for the sake of efficiency."

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    I appreciate your response!
    – oklu
    Nov 30, 2023 at 15:41
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    I think it is unreasonable to expect that a potential postdoc supervisor wouldn't talk to your current advisor. It is no secret who your advisor is and they would be the best source of information on how a researcher works. Unfortunately, if you don't have a good relationship with your PhD advisor, you are going to have a hard time. Dec 1, 2023 at 15:27
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    @NuclearFission Your last sentence is true, but that doesn't mean we should just shrug our shoulders. We should try to spread the idea that people like the potential PI should be considerate and ask the PhD student first.
    – toby544
    Dec 2, 2023 at 9:24
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For me it’s 50/50 red flag. If you have officially provided list of references, then your potential postdoc PI should be contacting them first. If you haven’t provided contact details of your major advisor, then contacting with your major advisor without letting you know may reflect your potential post-doc supervisor’s style of management. Some people may like it, but I personally don’t think that good. It could potentially be harmful if you don’t have good relationship with your major advisor—-common in PhD level. Your PI should have at-least asked you why you haven’t provided your major advisor’s contact details and if it is okay to contact your advisor.

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    Thank you. Now I feel like things are getting complicated, but at least I trust my gut. No matter how the behavior is fall into the 'normal' category, I am the one who will have to deal with this PI if I go to that lab. So it's a choice I need to make in light of all of this.
    – oklu
    Dec 5, 2023 at 11:26
  • @oklu, I suggest defining what is your comfort level and trusting your feelings. Sometimes extra flexibility may be harmful while frequent micromanagement may be an good learning experience as well. Dec 7, 2023 at 16:24
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There are some things to take into consideration. If you applied to be my postdoc for example, then I need to secure about $115,000/year just to pay your salary (you probably only see 55-70k depending on location, but overhead, health insurance, everything else adds up on my end). That is a sizeable chunk of change from a grant - thus a big investment to just go in blind.

I will almost as a default assume your main reference will be your advisor. They know you and your research habits, and your ability to integrate and contribute to a group better than anyone else. If they are not, that is a MAJOR red flag. It will prompt me to investigate.

So, I will be inclined to reach out to your advisor, people I may know at your institution etc. Perhaps I may even know your advisor from some professional interactions.

Most faculty are well aware that advisor-advisee relationships do not always work out, especially at the interpersonal level. We take advice and comments with a grain of salt and we weigh them against your other references and your CV. For the most part, unless you have created serious issues in that group (delinquent, abrasive or confrontational, etc...) most people will find something positive to say about their former students... because ultimately you getting into a good postdoc reflects well on them in the long run. So unless you are trying to hide something serious, it's rarely an issue that would impact you (in my experience).

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  • On the other side, most professors are fighting for tenure. Not all professors can do research or mentor students ethically. I've seen a large number of professors, if not the most, are guided by only their tenure needs. Some even impose their vested interest to advance someone else career by taking advantage of students. These are all reasons why students should be at least made aware of potential faculty contact and a reason why the major advisor was not included in the list of references. Sometimes, students want to change their career trajectory and their major advisor is irrelevant. Dec 8, 2023 at 15:34
  • Only untenured professors are under consideration for tenure; most departments tend to have a balance of assistant/associate/full at most times until they become top heavy and have a string of retirements which leads to a string of hires. To impose the notion of unethical behavior on most pre-tenure faculty is about as fair as pushing racial or cultural stereotypes. Though I do sympathize that you may have had certain experiences which led to your current interpretation. Going from Ph.D. to postdoc is not a change in career trajectory, it is literally the most natural extension.
    – R1NaNo
    Dec 8, 2023 at 19:11
  • So unfortunately, a poor relationship with a doctoral advisor has lasting impacts which puts the onus on the advisee to explain, because the convention is that people in academia talk. So lead with why you do not wish to include their reference. It is uncomfortable. But unfortunately for you (and all of us in academia), a postdoc advisor is also another type of mentor, and they are likely going to want to speak to your prior mentor as they embark on a similar (but more advanced) relationship with you.
    – R1NaNo
    Dec 8, 2023 at 19:12
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    Also I am not sure why a downvote was necessary. It provided an experienced and honest answer based on current convention/realities. I.E. to help you understand why you encountered what you did, and why it is broadly not perceived as unethical among faculty. Sometimes hearing the other side of it is useful rather than simply an echo chamber.
    – R1NaNo
    Dec 8, 2023 at 19:18
  • Yup! Something I never understood in academia is why downvoting is necessary. Dec 8, 2023 at 21:21
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Not a red flag. If I am looking to have someone join my group, get paid off my grant, etc., I have to do my due diligence and I am not going to ask permission to do it. The PhD advisor is the first person I want to talk to. Now, there may be certain circumstances wherein I wouldn't necessarily take everything they say at face value, but I'm sill going to hear what they have to say. (I see others have written essentially the same thing).

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