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I received my PhD in 2009 and my adviser will not provide a good recommendation for me. This is mostly because we have fundamentally different approaches to science, and in retrospect I see that I could have avoided a breakdown in our relationship if I had been more deferential.

At this point, I leave his name off of my list of references, but I suspect that a diligent potential employer might call him anyway. I would be willing to discuss any concerns that were brought up in such a call - indeed I think that doing so will help me to find a good fit in a new position - but I do not know if I should, or how to state this fact in my job applications.

I am currently finishing my post doc, and one recommendation has been to take another post-doc so that I at least have two supportive references from postdoc advisers - and that the additional publications will place less weight on recommendations. Still, others have told me that not having a good reference from my adviser is a kiss of death.

How can I most effectively handle this situation?

  • Long term, what is your career goal? Are you aiming for a tenure-track academic position, considering industry? – Amy Mar 7 '12 at 17:39
  • @Amy I am mostly interested in doing research in industry, a government agency / national lab, or an NGO. – Abe Mar 7 '12 at 17:47
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    I don't know in which country you had your PhD, but would it be an option to ask for a reference to members of your PhD committee? – user102 Mar 7 '12 at 19:04
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    @Abe: I don't see it as a problem, since he will serve as a reference for your PhD work, on which I can assume he has some level of expertise. – user102 Mar 7 '12 at 19:36
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    @eykanal "Do note that industry positions are much less likely to contact your references" - that has not been true in my experience, at all – Amy Mar 8 '12 at 0:01
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I've personally seen a few careers survive this exact problem (caveat: I don't necessarily see the ones that don't), but it isn't easy.

The best way to surmount this problem is to be referred into a job in an industry/government/NGO lab - and have someone within the organization pulling for you. If you're doing an academic post-doc right now, that's fine, but you need to start connecting to people who work in the kinds of places you want to work. If you do another post-doc, do one for a company or a government lab. If you've got someone who can pull you into the fold at a company or lab, you've got no issue at all.

Here's my advice if you are sending out cold-call applications:

The issue won't come up in the application stage (don't mention anything negative about your experience in your cover letter, or your application will get trashed). The trick will be how to handle yourself during the interview stage.

You say here:

"in retrospect I see that I could have avoided a breakdown in our relationship if I had been more deferential."

You're going to need a much better story than that. Because you are going to have to explain it at some point (probably when someone asks why you haven't listed your old PI as a reference), and that line will throw up red flags about your ability to handle being managed. You'll have to be prepared to talk about it in some detail, but focus everything on what you learned from it. How do you handle conflict better now? Have recent examples ready of your excellent interpersonal skills.

Avoid talking about this problem for more than a few minutes in an interview, but don't hide the fact that you've have this issue in the past. Employers will call your references, and chances are good that it will come up. Even if one of your references mentions it with you in the best possible light, if it's the first time the employer has heard of it they will feel like you've withheld information. While companies will generally not call someone you haven't listed as a reference, they will get in touch with everyone they know who may have also worked for your old boss, gotten a degree from your old department, collaborated with your old group. This may be an issue if your field of study is small. If you've changed your research focus somewhat since then, this is less likely to happen.

You can overcome this, but BE PREPARED. And once you get your first non-postdoc job, it'll all be downhill from there.

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    thank you for this is a very useful answer and encouragement. For the record, I never would consider using the quoted phrase in an interview. Here I used it to briefly paint the nature of our relationship. Indeed, I agree with many of my advisers observations, although we interpret these observations differently (e.g., either as a strength or a weakness). My current work demonstrates the strengths of my approach (without necessarily dismissing, and often embracing, his approach). – Abe Mar 8 '12 at 1:13
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    Re-reading it, my reaction to how you phrased your question does sound rather harsh. But believe me, it's only because I have heard people say truly ridiculous things in interviews that aren't too far off this! I think if you can tell a story like "Hey, he was wrong about a lot of stuff, but I've learned since then he WAS right about this one thing..." that's a good spin. – Amy Mar 8 '12 at 1:22
  • I don't understand why people don't expose their jerk advisor in public! I am going through a similar situation right now and I am going to expose him. It is our job to save hardworking PhD aspirants from these academic black-holes. – usr032456543 May 1 '17 at 4:17
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Here in Germany, this wouldn't be a problem, as the PhD adviser is normally excluded from providing references for hiring processes in academia, since it's assumed the advisor would support the student.

However, while there is reason to be concerned about your advisor not giving you a good letter of recommendation, all is not lost. Since this is not your previous position (you're coming from a postdoc), the PhD advisor's weight will not be as significant. It's still important, and you better have a very good "elevator speech" explanation why he might not support you. But the fact that you have a postdoctoral advisor means that you do have some credentials; if he can write a strong letter in support, it might further give credence to the idea that your there was just dysfunction between you and your PhD advisor.

  • "Here in Germany, this wouldn't be a problem, as the PhD adviser is normally excluded from the decision-making process in academia, since it's assumed the advisor would support the student" is wrong. Especially in the German academical system, it is exactly the opposite of what you stated. – gented Aug 2 '16 at 12:31
  • @GennaroTedesco: A Doktorvater or Doktormutter cannot normally be used as a reference for a faculty hiring situation in Germany. – aeismail Aug 2 '16 at 14:18
  • Well, that seems to be in discordance to most cases I have seen. Where have you taken such information from? :o – gented Aug 2 '16 at 14:22
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    From the hiring processes I've participated in, both as the candidate and as a member of the committee itself. – aeismail Aug 2 '16 at 16:40
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There are some good answers here. I would like to add that this happened to me also. For a long time, I was also apprehensive and worried about prospective employers noticing that I don't list my advisor as reference, how to defend myself in interviews etc. but then I realized the best solution is to be upfront about it. When you are hiding something, people think you are guilty vs. when you are upfront about it - people tend to sympathize, plus most importantly you have no fear.

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Falling out with your supervisor is bad, but it's not insurmountable so long as there are other people who like your work and will recommend you. Remember: even if your former supervisor is the leader of their field, there will always be some people that disagree with them!

In the UK you can only list two references anyway, so your postdoctoral supervisor and another committee member other than your supervisor would probably be fine.

The main issue is actually the interview. You need to be sure you have a good understanding of where any of your professional relationships have broken down and how you would address similar situations in the future. This may be too scary, but one good person to discuss this with and get ideas from is your former supervisor! Even if you know you will never use them as a reference, both of you will be in the same field for much of your remaining careers, so it's worth burying the hatchet if possible and finding a new, more adult relationship. Students often think their supervisors feel more strongly about them than they do, since students have only one supervisor and obsess about that relationship, but supervisors have many students and other responsibilities and basically just need everything to go as smoothly as possible.

If communication really is no longer possible, it still isn't necessarily the end of your career, but if communication is possible that would be my advice.

  • Great advise! That was my first idea too. Are all the bridges really burnt? – ikashnitsky Aug 3 '16 at 0:15
  • I don't think any of my own bridges are burned, but I wasn't writing about me, I guess I'm not sure what your question is? I did switch supervisors during my PhD though. – Joanna Bryson Aug 3 '16 at 23:29
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I also had a falling out with my PhD supervisor but managed to secure a good postdoctoral position in spite of it (I'm told the letter of reference provided by my PhD supervisor was "very concise", but I was lucky that my skillset was rare and urgently needed by the group I joined).

When applying for positions at the end of my postdoc, I did not use my PhD supervisor as a referee, but instead used my postdoctoral advisor and two other senior academics with whom I had worked during my postdoc. My postdoctotal supervisor said that it might look odd not to have my PhD supervisor as a referee, but in fact, it wasn't a problem. It did help that my postdoc work was very collaborative, so there were several people who knew me and my work very well and were prepared to speak well of me. If your postdoc has been shoter (mine was a 3 year position) or if you have not been able to develop collaborations with other academics during your postdoc, it may well be that another postdoctoral position would help. If your PhD supervisor is well known and well regarded, it might also count against you if you did not get on (in my case, my PhD supervisor was obscure and was thought odd by most of those who knew him). Regardless of all these considerations, if I were you, I would apply to both faculty positions and attractive postdoctoral positions, and see how you go in practise.

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