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How essential is having my advisor's letter for post doc application?

I had a pretty bad relationship with my advisor for more than 4 years since I joined his lab and sometimes the relationship feels like slow inflammation that can easily flare up. We had very different opinion on how I want to approach my thesis and we argue very often on the experimental approach and the angle of attack. After that, he turned passive aggressive and completely hands-off. I noticed that he started slow to response to my email and given me very small amount time for meeting in comparison to other people in the lab. However, I proved to him that my approach was right and wrote the full paper myself and got published.

Recently, I got contact by a post doc employer who interested in my own work and request letter of recommendation. I asked my advisor for letter and he told me that I should write my own from which he can modify. I feel this is quite strange as he had wrote for all the other people in the lab, including a departing post doc who is currently interviewing for job. He told me he had done the same for other people but obviously he lied to me.

I further asked if he can provide me a copy of a completed version of the recommendation but he refused.

My question is should I still trust him to write my letter and is it essential? This post doc position is a great opportunity for me and either way I do is a big gamble.

Update: I decided to let my advisor wrote a letter for me and I think I may have made a big mistake. Since he wrote my letter, I asked the post doc lab head if my letter is completed and I no longer be able to hear back from him. Before that, he was quick to response to my email and showed great enthusiasm. As an insurance, I use one opportunity I have less desire to as bait to test the water and I still have one more shot at another position I really want. Now, I'm thinking requesting open letter from advisor from now on for any future position or use letter service to check the letter.

Any suggestion? Thanks.

update: Great news! Got interviewed and offered at top ones! Thanks everyone!

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    Different parts of the world have quite different practices regarding letters of recommendation. In the US they are usually considered very important, in Europe not so much. Where are you located, and where is the institution to which you are applying? – Nate Eldredge Oct 3 '15 at 3:26
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    I would never ask for a LoR from someone who doesn't like me. That's just begging for disappointment. – user16092 Oct 3 '15 at 15:49
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    @TomDworzanski: Unfortunately, as the answers below suggest, not having a letter from your PhD advisor is also begging for disappointment. It's quite possible that your best bet is to hope that your advisor can set aside personal issues and write a letter that reflects your abilities. – Nate Eldredge Oct 3 '15 at 16:13
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    Actually, drafting your own letter of recommendation is not that unusual. It gives you the ability to emphasize points of interest to you. – Jon Custer Oct 3 '15 at 17:36
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    @GennaroTedesco What? Coming from somebody who worked his entire career so far in central Europe, this is completely wrong. Personal connections (yours, or your advisor's): yes, very important. Formal LoRs: nobody cares, generally assumed to be overhyped template text (which most LoRs of European professors indeed end up being). – xLeitix Oct 4 '15 at 11:00
26

Once it became clear that you were not going to follow your advisor's advice on important issues, it might have been better to switch advisors to one you could work with. Instead, you continued, in effect, without an advisor. The limited meeting time, slow e-mail response, and requiring you to draft the LOR all suggest to me an attitude of "Why waste my time giving advice that won't be taken anyway?".

You cannot be sure he is lying about having other people draft their own LOR unless you have talked with every person for whom he has ever sent one. He may feel he knows some students well enough to write an LOR from scratch, but needs a draft for others.

The best you can do at this point is to write what you consider to be a reasonable LOR and give it to your non-advisor.

23

One thing that hasn't been addressed yet:

I further asked if he can provide me a copy of a completed version of the recommendation but he refused.

You seem to view this as a danger sign, but I would not. Practices regarding letters of recommendation vary around the world (and you haven't said where you are), but at least for the US, the custom is that a letter is sent confidentially from the writer to the recipient, and the candidate (about whom the letter is written) never sees it. The idea is that this makes it more possible for the writer to speak freely.

I'd expect your advisor to refuse such a request even if your relationship was great and he was writing you the awesomest letter ever. It would be very unusual for him to agree to show you the letter, under any circumstances. I don't think it was an appropriate request for you to have made.

Of course, it is possible that he is planning to write an unfavorable letter, but there is really no way to know without reading his mind. To my mind, this particular fact (that he wouldn't show you the letter) isn't really evidence one way or the other.

19

That happened to me, but worse. My postdoc supervisor unilaterally rescinded my grant, I was never completely sure of why.

What I'm currently doing is to include my other advisors/professors and explicitly say that I had a disagreement with him, that he rescinded my grant, but I was cleared of any wrongdoing (the funding agency gave me a new fellowship a few months later) and that's why I didn't ask for a LOR.

My current supervisor was aware of the whole deal from the get-go and he was fine with it.

Be honest, be clear, do not hide anything.

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    Thanks, but what about graduate student applying for post doc? The post doc employer contacted me is from a quite prestigious lab. – user10694 Oct 3 '15 at 2:28
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    This is a very good advice. Just be very honest about the situation. But please do not tell your future advisor things like "my advisor is a liar" because that will not be good for you. – Andrej Bauer Oct 3 '15 at 7:48
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    +1, good advice. One more point: be factual. No emotional comments, just the facts. I have been on the receiving side of such a case and I appreciated the frank approach. There were other LORs (not that I cared much about them) but also recommendations from colleagues which helped to a certain extend to anticipate the character of the applicant. She ended up getting the job. Looking 15 years back it was a good decision. – WoJ Oct 3 '15 at 12:07
  • @user10694 Doesn't really matter the specific position, the idea is exactly the same. – Fábio Dias Oct 3 '15 at 13:56
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    This is a very good advice. Especially when the OP published a paper as sole author (if i understand correctly), this will strongly support his case. – qsp Oct 3 '15 at 18:25
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I think your attitude at this point has to be, "What I really need right now, and all I need right now, is a strong letter of recommendation. To heck with the past."

Your former adviser has actually made you a very good offer: write the letter yourself. Thus, do write a letter that focuses on what the project was about, what you believe you contributed, and what the results were -- including that the results were very meaningful and that your thesis led to a publication. Do mention which outlet the piece was published in. If you think it's relevant, you may also write something about how you think you developed as a researcher during the project. Focus on output and don't dwell on inputs, i.e., don't write something like "Mr. X worked long hours, including lots of weekends".

You have, of course, no control over how your ex-adviser may see fit to edit the letter once you hand it over to him. However, if you limit your letter to what's factually correct and essential to your potential future employer, I think there's an excellent chance that the ex-adviser may simply sign the letter and send it to whomever you say needs the letter. I see two reasons for being optimistic. First, don't underestimate the power of inertia: If the adviser wants to apply any edits (minor or major), he will have to do the extra work. Given that you described his eventual behavior (accurately or inaccurately) as passive aggressive, he may decide it's too much work on his part to edit the letter. Second, don't underestimate the desire of many established researchers to have successful advisees. If he were to write something unflattering about you, that may well be read as a sign of failure on his part. If he's at all rational, he'll want to avoid the risk of creating such an impression.

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    I think this is a good analysis. The advisor's reported actions are consistent with trying to minimize the time he spends on advising the OP. The minimum time handling of the LOR would be to ask the OP to draft it, and forward it unchanged if it is factual. – Patricia Shanahan Oct 4 '15 at 13:11
7

You are very unlikely to get a good post-doc position without a strong letter from your advisor. If you don't provide a letter from your advisor, that looks like a huge red flag, and most people hiring are not going to consider your application.

If your relationship with your dissertation advisor was poor, that puts you in a lousy position. However, having your advisor ask for a template letter to work from, while not ideal, is not necessarily terrible either. It doesn't indicate the greatest investment on his part in your future success, but it doesn't mean that he won't write a strong letter either. And I wouldn't assume that he hasn't done something similar with some of his other former students, either, even if you haven't heard about it.

  • I think I can't see through my advisor is because he lies. This impression is from my every day interaction with him for 4 years. He is always nice and friendly. He told you he can write stellar letter but he doesn't. This is very scary and turning me into paranoia. – user10694 Oct 3 '15 at 2:31
  • By the way, I'm completely happy to write myself but the scary part is his final "modification", which cannot disclose to me. – user10694 Oct 3 '15 at 2:44
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    Why would you want a letter of recommendation from a "lying" advisor? You are very quick to use the word "lie". As far as I can tell there is some blame on both sides, at least as far as human relationships are concerned. – Andrej Bauer Oct 3 '15 at 7:47
  • As a general rule, this is untrue. At least, I'm the living counter-example. Stuff happens, as long as you are honest and stick to facts, isn't that much of a red flag. Most of the time, its nobody's fault... – Fábio Dias Oct 3 '15 at 13:58
3

Blaming others or yourself at this point is useless. I would do the following to go around the issue, by politely asking the following two groups of academics:

  1. Your Examiners: During the viva, you will have a number of examiners, these are one of the best people to ask about recommendation letter, as they know you by your final product (i.e., your thesis) and therefore they will go right to the point. Right in here, you could get at least your two recommendation letters; that is required for most postdoc jobs.

  2. Other Professors In Your Group: Unless you have been a total social disaster in terms of communicating to the other academics in your research group, while you have been a Ph.D. student; you could ask a number of professors you know in your group. Ask them for a one on one meeting, explain your situation and kindly ask them for the recommendation letter. If you have been a bright student, believe me they have nothing to complain about and will give you a letter.

3

You are understandably nervous that something in the content and tone of the final submitted version would give away the strained relationship between you, and work against you in the application process. It is impossible for me to say whether he would be able to write a nice letter without some subtleties of his feelings toward you and your work slipping through. But I can say that it is damaging for you, psychologically, to experience this degree of anxiety and apprehension, and that a letter with subtle negativity, or a lukewarm tone, would harm your application.

You could try this:

Prof. So-and So, I know we've had our differences. We're two strong characters with a passion for science, and we have different approaches. Given the fact that things haven't always been smooth sailing between us, I wanted to ask if you are really comfortable writing a letter of recommendation for me, or if you think it would serve me better to try to find someone else.

You need to find some way of reading him, and getting a handle on what sort of letter he would send.

If in doubt, don't include him as a reference. Do send the committee a brief explanation. Keep Fábio's experience and happy ending clearly in your mind.

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