I'm currently a Ph.D. student. I'm applying for a post-Ph.D. faculty job, and so is one of my two Ph.D. co-advisors. I think we have a good relationship, and I am thrilled they are applying, and truly hope they get the job. I think this is mutual.

They recently decided to apply. Prior to their decision, they agreed to review my application and be listed as a reference.

Now that we are both applying, they have agreed to review my application, but only after they have finished with theirs, to keep them independent. Furthermore, they suggested they should not be a letter writer, but then said they would remain as a reference if I want, since I don't have that many others to choose from (being somewhat earlier in my career, having collaborated with others a bit less).

I've asked the Search Committee head if they are OK with me listing them as a reference. If my advisor and I agree to do it, does the committee have a problem with it? Their reply will guide my answer.

But I seek advice here too. Is it OK to keep the advisor as the reference? I trust them to write a good letter, even in the unlikely event that we are both selected, or I alone am selected. Is this unwise?

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    This is a terrible situation. Huge conflict of interest. It was correct of the other party to express a disinclination to be your letter write. You should have agreed to that... but I am quite surprised that a PhD advisor would be so selfish as to apply to a job in competition with their own student. Something is not right here... either the advisor is over-qualified, or you are under-qualified, for this job. I would have thought that the fact you were applying would cause your advisor to not apply, even if they otherwise would have done so... Nov 27, 2012 at 1:24
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    Yeah, this is definitely troubling. I wouldn't go so far as to say an advisor should never apply to the same job as a student. (If it's a high-level job the student wants to apply for but is highly unlikely to get, then it might be OK, and it could be understandable if the advisor has just been turned down for tenure and deperately needs a job.) However, it should never happen under ordinary circumstances. Unless one of you is an absolutely perfect fit, I'd bet the search committee will decide not to hire either of you, and that they will think your advisor was wrong to apply. Nov 27, 2012 at 2:29
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    One thing to consider is how much you trust your advisor. For example, the "I'll review your application only after I finish mine" condition feels weird to me. Maybe I'm overly suspicious, but it could be an underhanded way of ensuring that the advisor applies first (since whoever applies second may look like they are the one causing trouble by applying to the same job as the first applicant). Nov 27, 2012 at 2:32
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    @AnonymousMathematician I think the timing comment shows they care. They want to make sure I have no influence on their application. We'll both submit just a few days before the due date, so while HR might see an order, I doubt anyone on the search committee will know who applied in what order just a few days apart. Nov 27, 2012 at 2:47
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    @JobApplicant: It's still an awkward situation, but your comments make it sound less problematic than it could have been. Nov 27, 2012 at 3:11

2 Answers 2


It is helpful that you and your advisor have been in contact and have honest communication about this subject. It's commendable, and doesn't happen nearly often enough.

That said,, for this particular job, if you want to have any realistic chance of getting this particular job, you really need to have someone else replace this particular co-advisor. Otherwise, a rather confused hiring panel may take a look at both applications, wonder what the heck is going on, and throw out both applications.

However, for any job in which you're not in direct conflict, I think it would probably be OK to have your co-advisor as a letter of reference.


I would personally try and find a different reference. There just too much potential for conflict. The situation is somewhat comparable to borrowing a lot of money from family. Your former advisor is working in the same field, so you will be meeting fo the years to come. If this turns out badly, it will remain a nuisance for a very long. Short answer: just prevent the potential conflict of interest and find a new reference.

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