I was working as a research assistant in Germany for 3 years in the field on cell and molecular biology to write a doctoral thesis at the end of the project. But unfortunately, my supervisor was very, very toxic and it took a great toll on my mental health. I finally quit the position without a thesis and now I am looking for other positions.

Many positions require a reference letter from my previous employer (which would be my current toxic supervisor in this case): I do not possess such a letter and surely won't be getting one. Should I apply for other positions anyway as I have all the other credentials and documents necessary for the post?

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    But unfortunately, my supervisor was very very toxic and it took a great toll on my mental health. --- can you explain?
    – user366312
    Mar 26 at 10:21
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    @user366312, my supervisor used to yell at me during lab meetings, was never satisfied with my work, and always used to keep a check on me when I came and went, used to come and stay I don't work enough even though I used to work more hours than my work contract. You could never predict what might tick her off. The last straw was when she also asked me to make sure I don't get pregnant, something the employer cant tell the employee legally. All of these things took a toll on my mental heath in course of 3 years.
    – daisy.26
    Mar 26 at 15:04

2 Answers 2


Since you are in , if you were an employee of the university, you have a right to an Arbeitszeugnis, which is legally enforceable. If your supervisor is not responsive, talk to the HR department at the university. You have the right to an Arbeitszeugnis that is not prejudicial to your further career. If your supervisor writes an unrealistically bad one, you can take legal action.

I would recommend that you write a short and polite email to your supervisor, requesting an Arbeitszeugnis, simply because they should be your first point of contact, and it's the professional way. If they don't answer within (say) a week, call HR and explain to them that you wrote that email and did not receive an answer, and ask how to proceed. Keep it simple and professional. Don't go into your conflicts. Your goal at this point is to get an Arbeitszeugnis, not to right past wrongs.

If you were not an employee (e.g., because you were living off a Stipendium, having the status of a student rather than an employee), you can still request an Arbeitszeugnis, but you may not be legally entitled to one. There may be rulings about this, but I do not know them, and a short internet search for "Recht auf Arbeitszeugnis Promotionsstipendium" or similar did not turn up anything useful. If you had a Stipendium, then I would absolutely contact the paying foundation for advice. Even if your Stipendium has run out. These people have seen a lot and can be quite helpful.

In the Stipendium case, it won't hurt to ask for an Arbeitszeugnis. If do don't get one, you can apply to other places and note your situation in your CV, then your target would at least know that you were not an employee.

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    I'm pretty sure than in the British transposition of EU employment law, calling someone's salary a "stipend" doesn't, in itself, stop them being considered an employee. I'm quite surprised to hear it's different in Germany. Mar 26 at 16:27
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    @DanielHatton An "Arbeitszeugnis" is not a secret or a reference letter, HR delivers it to you.
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 26 at 17:00
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    @DanielHatton you Google "language Arbeitszeugnis" in german and compare the "secret" wording to see what grade that gives. If it's less than "good", your employer needs to provide a reason.
    – DonQuiKong
    Mar 26 at 18:42
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    @DanielHatton: that is why I explicitly wrote Stipendium rather than "stipend". A Stipendium is money paid to you to cover your expenses by a charitable foundation like the German National Merit Foundation or one of many others. The key point is that you are not employed, your status is that of a student. You don't need to ask for vacation time, you don't pay social security contributions, just as when you did your "regular" undergraduate studies. I caveated here because I truly am unsure about your legal right to an Arbeitszeugnis here - there may be rulings, but I don't know them. Mar 27 at 7:43
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    ... from the point of view of the university and the advisor, a Stipendium looks exactly the same as a self-financing Ph.D. student, or one who does their Ph.D. in their free time while working a regular job. The advisor's role here really only is one of advising the student in their Ph.D., they don't have the right to direct the student the way an employer or manager could direct their employee. It's blurry, and probably a wonderful field for employment lawyers to dig into the precise difference. Mar 27 at 8:16

I had a similar issue and I didn't add my supervisors from my previous PhD attempt. I used my previous references. It worked for me and found an amazing Ph.D. position. If you get questions about it you don't need to say they were toxic.

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    My main research experience is in this institute and that too of three years, So it is a little difficult for me to take out the experience completely. Thank you for the suggestions! I wish you good luck in your PhD!
    – daisy.26
    Mar 27 at 5:46
  • I had 2.5 years of experience too in Austria and Germany. Good luck with your applications!
    – cagdas
    Mar 27 at 5:57

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