I am currently looking for postdoctoral positions, and am considering applying overseas (in US right now). My advisor has expressed his opinion that I can not be successful in an overseas position because my wife won't want to move there and will cause trouble. She doesn't like to move, but has realized that it's necessary, even if it's to a foreign country.

To help in my job search, my advisor has arranged for mock interviews with other faculty members in the department. He has provided a list of questions to prepare for, including "How will your wife like living in INSERT CITY HERE?"

I'm not a lawyer, so I don't precisely what section of the law bans questions about marital status, but I know it's outlawed. Even in an academic environment, a professor hiring a postdoc sure seems to fit into the definition of an employer or supervisor, given that he has the authority to hire, fire, or otherwise direct job responsibilities.

I don't think it's appropriate for him to criticize my personal life, and I have done my best to keep it from interfering with my work. I am mad that he might use my marital issues to sabotage potential job offers. What is the best way to respond to his behavior, and how should I prepare for any potential problems it might cause?

By sabotage, I think he might give negative recommendations. He has told me that if someone asks him for a letter of recommendation about me that he might have to tell them that my personal issues will interfere with my ability to function in the lab. Because this statement happened in the middle of a discussion about how he doesn't think my wife can adjust, the only way I can interpret "personal issues" is "marriage".

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    I don't see how he is sabotaging your job search by suggesting that you should also prepare for interview questions that may be illegal or inappropriate; he is only coaching you, and does not have any say whether you should be hired.
    – JiK
    Jun 16, 2015 at 16:37
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    Just because these questions are illegal in the US, they may not be illegal in the countries you are applying to.
    – avid
    Jun 16, 2015 at 16:41
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    Being honest in a letter of recommendation is considered sabotage now? Jun 16, 2015 at 16:59
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    @FedericoPoloni: if the thing you're being honest about is something it's not appropriate to mention at all, then yes, being honest could be sabotage. In this case I can think of two possible grounds it might be inappropriate: discussing the questioner's wife at all when she is not the subject of the letter (irrelevance); or offering a definite opinion the supervisor has formed of someone he may not have had close experience of (speculation). Now, maybe it is appropriate, that's what the question is about, but if it's not then the fact they're honestly held views can't change that. Jun 16, 2015 at 19:39
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    Besides which, saying "user137's personal issues will interfere with their ability to function in the lab" makes them sound like a sociopath or a complete flake. So the threatened reference doesn't even sound particularly honest to me, unless that really is what has happened to date (questioner has failed to function in lab, citing personal issues). Of course, maybe "I have done my best to keep it from interfering with my work" means "I have failed to keep it...", and what the supervisor is really saying here is, "you've flaked on me and I'd have to say so". Jun 16, 2015 at 19:45

7 Answers 7


By suggesting that you prepare for questions about how your wife will like living in a new place, it seems to me that this advisor is actually trying to help you in your job search, not sabotage you. Even if you only interview in countries where this question is illegal, people who interview you may ask the question anyway (perhaps out of ignorance of the law), in which case it's usually best to answer. And even if they don't ask that particular question, the issue may come up as a result of other questions. I could be wrong (you know him better than I do), but if your advisor wanted to sabotage you, he wouldn't be going to the trouble of arranging mock interviews and confronting this issue head-on.

The letter of recommendation seems to me to be the more critical issue here. I think it depends on how your advisor became aware of your family issues. If these family issues have affected your work, then your advisor may feel he should mention it in the LOR.

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    This. If he wanted to sabotage you, he would not arrange mock interviews.
    – Alexandros
    Jun 16, 2015 at 18:01
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    The best way to defuse the issue may be to have a good answer worked out for the mock interviews. Jun 16, 2015 at 19:10
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    Alexandros makes a good point: arranging mock interviews is (by my standards, anyway) hitting the highest end of the "helping the student out" spectrum. Rather than having evil intentions for the OP, it seems much more likely that the OP and the advisor are having some kind of boundary issues: somehow the advisor feels that it is appropriate to incorporate his knowledge of the OP's personal life in his professional assessment. That's really bad, but based on the rest I think the intentions are probably good. Jun 16, 2015 at 19:11
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    Arranging mock interviews could be part of a CYA strategy so the advisor can later say to his dept and university, "look I even arranged mock interviews, how could I have intended to sabotage him?" That's beyond the thinking of a typical academic, but it's possible. Jun 16, 2015 at 23:28
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    @Chan-HoSuh: That's ridiculous. If you wanted to sabotage someone, surely there are ways that require less of anyone's time -- for example, just not writing a letter of recommendation. Why would anyone go to such length? That makes absolutely no sense. Jun 17, 2015 at 2:12

I feel really sad for you professor. From what I read, it looks like a person really tries to help you and in return you accuses him on sabotaging you.

He went way more than a nice professor would do to help you to find a position:

  • has arranged for mock interviews with other faculty members in the department
  • provided a list of questions to prepare for

Don't you think it takes his time and time of many other people to do this? Don't you think that if someone would like to actually sabotage you, he would not need to do all this (just ignore you and give you bad references).

Also expressing opinion is not sabotaging, it is just an opinion of a person with better experience (which might be wrong). A lot of students would be happy to hear opinion of their professor about their abilities, and should be prepared that sometimes it is different from what they would like to hear.

Regarding a recommendation letter. When someones write a recommendation letter, he puts his word that what he wrote is true. If he will write you an excellent recommendation letter and later you will appear a really bad student, people would not trust him anymore. For this reason, if he believes that there is a problem, he should write about it (it is not called a sabotage). So either find a way to persuade him that his belief is not true/outdated or find another person who would write you a recommendation.


First, it would be unusual to arrange mock interviews solely for the purpose of sabotaging someone. It would be more customary, at least in the US, simply to slack off on helping you find another position. On occasion, it might be a ham-handed attempt to convince you of something. I wonder if it is possible that your advisor has a genuine, if unwelcome concern? I understand that, in your opinion, your advisor is violating one of your boundaries by advising you on this issue. Given that his boundaries are different and that your future performance affects his reputation, I'd suggest addressing the issue directly.

On one hand, he may have valid concerns. I have had experience with people with spouses with mental health and personality/flexibility issues. Those issues typically significantly intensify in unfamiliar environments with limited support networks. If such issues have affected your performance in the past, your advisor is doing the right, and courageous thing (if somewhat passively), by bringing these issues to your attention. If your spouse is one of those individuals, or if you are, moving overseas is likely to set you up for failure and your advisor for a loss of reputation. These problems can get really bad. In this case, the best approach might be to seriously consider your advisor's advice and then see if you can find positions that mitigate those concerns. For example, places with a good support network, or places where your spouse is likely to start working immediately. If not, you might consider looking for work more locally, even if outside of academia. In some cases, you may need to consider whether or not your spouse is a good fit with your life plans and make some tradeoffs. Given that it seems something has concerned your advisor enough to make significant efforts, that should be a real warning signal for you.

Alternately, it is possible that your advisor has an unwarranted concern. This can happen - sometimes from cultural grounds, sometimes just from different life experiences. In this case, it makes sense just to clear the air and talk about and address your advisor's worries. You may also find that some of those worries come from real experience. A few of my colleague's wives were perfectly healthy, but ended up leaving them after being unable to adapt to a foreign country. Divorce is always tricky.

Now, in countries where such questions are illegal, they still aren't surprising. The reality is that whether or not your family is okay with moving is often the most predictive variable in whether or not you're likely to stay in a position you accept. Or, to put it another way, I've answered questions about my family's comfort level with a move in essentially every single interview. The ones where I didn't either were clearly not good fits or were really close to my current residence. My approach has been to indicate that I've done my homework - located reasonable places to live and confirmed with my significant other that place X looks like a good place to live. If I haven't done my homework, I tend to indicate that my significant other is open to the move, but that we'll need to visit the place together to make a decision.


http://www.learnvest.com/2013/07/4-inappropriate-interview-questions-and-how-to-answer/3/ In this link, for the question "What does your significant other do?" it is recommended "to answer honestly while deflecting with humor ('He’s a lawyer. I hope you won’t hold that against me.'), and then simply turn the conversation around: 'By the way, what does your spouse do?' The key is to keep it light."

Applying this to your advisor's mock interview question, how about the following: "My spouse is looking forward to joining me in my international adventure. Are there language classes for new employees and spouses?"

He has told me that if someone asks him for a letter of recommendation about me that he might have to tell them that my personal issues will interfere with my ability to function in the lab.

Ask him what he was referring to when he said that your personal issues will interfere with your ability to function in the lab. First, you need to know what was going through his head.

Edited to add: "This statement happened in the middle of a discussion about how he doesn't think my wife can adjust." I don't think what he said, or is contemplating doing, is illegal. But your family life isn't any of his business. He's your thesis advisor, not your life advisor.

In the worst case, you could do one short postdoc in the US, and then, with a good recommendation garnered from the postdoc, you could then head overseas for a second postdoc.

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    That sort of turn around might be okay in the USA, but I'm confident it will have highly negative effects on your employment chances in Asia.
    – virmaior
    Jun 17, 2015 at 7:25
  • @virmaior yes, but if you dont know that, then your in for a world of other problems. Jun 17, 2015 at 12:25
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    Ask him what he was referring to when he said that your personal issues will interfere with your ability to function in the lab. First, you need to know what was going through his head. — It is my feeling that OP knows exactly what is going through their advisor's head, but these details are not being spelled out in their post.
    – Mad Jack
    Jun 17, 2015 at 13:57
  • +1 For He's your thesis advisor, not your life advisor.
    – Nobody
    Jun 18, 2015 at 8:59

Bringing your wife with you to another country has immigration consequences. Depending on where emigrating from, where you're immigrating to, and what visa / work permit rules that country has around Post Docs, your wife may or may not be able to immigrate there with you, she may or may not be able to work there once she gets there, she may require special, separate permission to enter the country, etc. I would expect any interview for bringing someone in from a foreign country to at least touch on what arrangements might need to be made or what limitations might be involved with bringing the candidate's spouse to the country.


The best way to respond to his behaviour is to recognize that he is right.

The key element in failing postings is spousal problems. If your wife is going to miss her family and perhaps not even getting a job, statistically one of two things is going to happen:

1) You break up and she moves back.

2) You give up and you both move back.

I suggest you talk to him about your wife's change in attitude, and you think about what she is going to do once you get to Europe.


I would not be so concerned about this point. I am Italian and married to an American. We live in Sweden: zero bureaucracy for her. Someone raised this point as being a potential issue, it is not if you move in a EU country at least (as far as I know). I agree with whom says that this question might come up. It is illegal in the US, but it might not be illegal in single EU countries (as a matter of fact, I do not think "marital status" is protected even by special EU laws). But do not get discouraged. As someone suggested, try to come up with positive answers that put you in good light. Your prof is helping you with mock interview, this is huge. If you are worried that s/he would sabotage you (by writing his/her concerns about your marital status in her/his reference letter), just try to come up with sensitive positive answers about this topic during the mock interview; it would tranquilize him/her about it. In any case, remember a thing. If he/she really mention your marital status in your ref let, this could play against his/her reputation! Imagine what a female reader in the university where you apply to would think about your professor reading such a comment...

  • By the way, I also am on the job market. It happened that I stumbled into some material posted into the Cornell University website. Among the possible questions to ask during the academic mock interview (and thus probably questions that might be asked during an interview), there is one that explicitly refers to family conditions and how your spouse would feel moving in xxx. I am surprised, since I have understood from this post that this kind of questions is probably illegal....better be ready for anything and get the best out of any condition.
    – Fuca26
    Jun 20, 2015 at 15:45

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