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I'm a postdoc having a difficult relationship with my adviser. Rather unexpectedly, he started literally bombarding me with all sorts of mostly unjustified accusations, including that I'm not productive enough and all sorts of personality-related complaints. I'm in the process of applying to a new postdoc. Will have the first interview in 1.5 days. Given the present situation, I don't expect a good recommendation letter from my adviser. However, I have already listed him among my recommendations.

What should I do?

  • A. Not say anything about the relationship with my present adviser during the interview.

  • B. Be upfront and mention that I have a poor relationship with my adviser and can provide more details if needed.

I'm quite confident I'm treated unfairly and can explain the situation to my advantage.

I talked to two professors whom I trust, and both of them suggested I should not say anything about this in the first interview. One of them thinks that I might get a good LOR after all; this is his justification. I would prefer not to rely on this. Thus, I don't know what is the best option. I will get another, strong recommendation letter from a very reputable professor who helped me in the past.

Any help would be greatly appreciated. This is a follow-up to my previous question.

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A bad review from your present advisor will probably hurt you significantly. However, I think you will do more damage if you try to discredit your advisor's reference ahead of time: you risk sounding like a poor employee, particularly if your advisor is respected in your field.

Instead, I would prepare evidence to counter a possible negative recommendation. If you expect your advisor may critique your productivity, emphasize work you have completed in your interview. Unfortunately, if you have failed to publish your work in your current position, that may be difficult to prove, and the responsibility for that is not only on your advisor but on you as well.

If you anticipate critiques of your work ethic, how well you play with others, etc, and your other reference has not yet submitted a letter, you could ask them to specifically highlight those qualities. If they already submitted a letter, hopefully they already addressed these issues.

I would be careful about how you describe your relationship with your current advisor in the interview: keep the high ground, and don't make judgments of value. If you produced one good publication where your current advisor expected two, don't say "Bob had ridiculous expectations for my productivity" - instead, try something closer to "I worked on two projects with Bob - we were able to publish project 1 after ___ months but ran into setbacks on project 2."

  • 7
    Wow, that's brilliant! I think I can put your proposal into action. The new professor already knows about my former submission and thinks good enough about it, if he decided to go on with the interview. – anubis Nov 29 '16 at 21:41
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    Keep in mind that other people have likely seen it all. If you are professional in the interview, without blackpainting your current advisor, and you get good LORs from earlier posts, many people will understand that the current supervisor is not objective and there may be other, non rational, reasons for them to write you an unpleasant letter. It is well known that some people do not want to let their strong staff go and therefore will not produce fair LORs. Stay true to yourself, do not criticise your current employer, be factual. – Captain Emacs Nov 30 '16 at 11:34
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An interview is never the place to bring negativity into the discussion. Always, have nothing but positive things to say about all your committee members. Even if you were treated unfairly by this person, anything negative you say only makes you look bad. Include him in the references...he is/was your advisor. If he gives a negative response to those who inquire about you from him, then that reflects on him, not you. By all means, take the high road, it will show your personality and professionalism in a positive light.

  • The fact that you included them in the reference list shows that you trusted them (and that they clearly weren't worthy of that trust if they really blackball you). – Captain Emacs Nov 30 '16 at 11:35
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I would ask your current supervisor if you can expect a good reference letter or if you should look for another reference in the future. Perhaps it would give you the opportunity to talk about his negativity towards you and to find an amiable way to continue to collaborate. And it would let you justify to him or discuss frankly his expectations and yours and try to come to an understanding.

If he is going to give you a negative reference, which he probably won't do because, in that case, he should've said he would not write a reference for you, then you can prepare your game plan.

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    Thanks for advice, that's another good point. I asked him for a recommendation letter before our relationship deteriorated, so nothing to change here. Now I try to reach an agreement with him to at least soften the blow he might give me. – anubis Nov 29 '16 at 23:01
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    Supervisors sometimes get prickly about things but, being cerebral, have little recourse to declare their feelings hurt. If the relationship has been good in the past then it is salvageable. Maybe he doesn't realize how much his comments have affected you. I've found that treating them like any other, adult human being is the best way. : – KMORRI Nov 29 '16 at 23:05
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    We are on a path to reach an agreement. Now I'm optimistic about finishing the current project with him. He could have made his points so much nicer! Anyway, thanks for all advises. Answer above is still a good and totally safe way to go, regardless of what sort of letter he will write. – anubis Nov 30 '16 at 1:37
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Under the perspective of an interviewer: the value you hold of your advisor is the value that you might be inclined to hold of your prospective boss.

Hence under all circumstances talk positively of your supervisor. State that his guidance was indeed helpful and that his feedbacks were constructive and indispensable. If your advisor's LoR were positive after all, your qualities would be attributed. It will still support you even in the case of a negative LoR.

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Negative LORs have to be fully backed up with actual evidence. These are professional working documents and have consequences on career advancement.

Any form of negative reference can be considered libel (written) or slander (verbal) without supporting proof and should be reported immediately to the departmental administration. This is why they get the big bucks - to prevent expensive escalations.

Junior advisers are more likely to err on a LOR. Take quick and firm action if this occurs. Admin can yank an adviser's leash quite effectively. Everyone can benefit from a little adult supervision now and then.

  • I haven't heard of a successful libel suit for a bad letter, at least in the US. It would have to be pretty blatant to have any risk of that kind (like an unfounded accusation of serious misconduct). More importantly, a letter need not be explicitly negative to be damaging - because this letter is on the request of the applicant it is expected to be glowing - even a lukewarm letter could be seen in a negative view by the future lab. – Bryan Krause Nov 30 '16 at 23:53
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    Yes, a downright accusative letter is very unlikely. An adviser not willing to help his postdoc will more likely write a lukewarm letter that raises a few flags. – anubis Dec 1 '16 at 0:09
  • Since LORs are intended for an audience with high literacy levels, a damaging LOR can be encoded without explicitly using obvious negative language (actus reas). Such sophistry can still be considered libel if it is decoded to be the intended effect (mens rea). Success in any legal action is irrelevant, since as indicated, department admin would intervene long before such an outcome. They review LORs as a matter of course. They have the right to withhold glowing endorsements for those who have not earned it, since the reputation (and by extension, revenue) of the department is also at stake. – Dominic Cerisano Dec 3 '16 at 0:37

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