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I am in the final stages of my PhD and have been applying for postdocs for the last six months. Recently, I heard back from the job I applied for, we had a phone interview and he was very happy with my experience and skills. In fact he was looking for a new postdoc with the same experience what I did in my PhD. We communicated through emails in a very friendly way and he invited me to visit his lab. We scheduled the visit but he wanted to talk to my references before that. He sent an email to my present PhD supervisor and asked him what would be a good time to talk over the phone. My supervisor didn't reply to him for at least a couple of weeks. I know this because every week, I used to get an email from him to remind my PhD supervisor to reply to his email. Finally, my PhD supervisor replied and they talked over the phone. The potential postdoc mentor suddenly took a U-turn after that. He said i may not be a good fit and he will stop this right here.

I am really freaking out in this situation. I initially had problems with my PhD advisor because he is very aggressive and loves to make racist jokes. But I managed to handle his sense of humor and aggression. But I feel like he is racially prejudiced to me and will spoil my whole career.

  • Did you suggest him,did you suggest anyone else? – Mark Nov 24 '17 at 22:21
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    What advice do you want now? You ignored a big red flag, and kept working for that guy. That prof who looks for a postdoc might even have a good point: If you put up with that, what else are you prepared to ignore? – Karl Nov 24 '17 at 22:32
  • @ Mark I gave the recruiting prof a list of 3 references and Phd advisor was mentioned as one of them – user83349 Nov 24 '17 at 22:39
  • P.S. Not judging you, just want to give you an outside perspective. There's not much you can do, can't tell prospective employers your old boss is an asshole and racist. Best thing you can hope is he keeps ignoring people who ask him about you. – Karl Nov 24 '17 at 22:40
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    By the way: what is your actual question? – aeismail Nov 25 '17 at 3:11
14

I will share some information with you, based on two things you mentioned:

a) You said your advisor is very aggressive and loves to make racist jokes

b) You suspect your advisor soured your postdoc application through negative remarks to your prospective employer

This sounds like a situation which might be investigatable by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), if your PhD institution receives any federal funds.

If you decide you would like this investigated by OCR, you would need to file a complaint within 6 months of becoming aware of alleged discrimination. A complaint of this kind can be filed by an individual working alone without a lawyer.

You might be able to find a lawyer would would help you with the complaint pro bono (free) or with a reduced cost.

It would be helpful to cite as much specific information about (a) as possible. However, you can send the complaint letter quickly and then submit more specific information subsequently. It can be helpful to file these complaints quickly rather than not quickly, because some regional OCR offices are extremely backed up.

If OCR feels that your complaint letter fits with their purview, and meets some other basic requirements, but your letter doesn't include specific information such as dates of incidents and descriptions of incidents, then you will be asked to provide specifics.

If you want to learn more about this: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/howto.html

The part I feel most unsure about is the employment aspect. However, the How-To page I linked to mentions

Some of the civil rights laws enforced by OCR also extend to employment.

Each university has an office that addresses discrimination issues, so you could in principle bring the issue to them. However, many people have found it more effective to either go ahead and file with OCR, or draft an OCR complaint and share the draft with the institution (as a draft).

Alternatively, you could instead try an informal approach: make an appointment with a department administrator and share your concern. The response you get could help you decide about next steps. Here's a relatively gentle way of starting such a conversation:

I had a job interview that seemed to be going great --until suddenly it wasn't going great any more. I'd like to get some constructive feedback so that I can do better in subsequent interviews. But it would be awkward for me to ask my advisor directly for feedback. (Answer truthfully but with a very neutral tone if you're asked why.) Can you help facilitate me getting some constructive feedback from Prof. So-and-So (your advisor)?

If you're part of a graduate student union, it might be helpful to bring the problem to them to see if they can provide support.


**11/25 additional notes 11/25:

  1. Your university may have an all-purpose grievance procedure that can be used in general situations, even when there's no alleged racial discrimination.

  2. In the answer I wrote yesterday I was only providing information. Now I'll provide a couple of strategy notes. If I were in your shoes I would probably start with the informal approach I outlined yesterday, and try to keep it in the department. I'd avoid using any language that might alarm the department administration, and keep the tone very calm and neutral. But at the same time, I'd be working quietly on collecting evidence and witnesses, and starting to draft a complaint. Putting the facts down on paper can be an extremely useful exercise.

  3. I recommend that you avoid escalating your concern beyond your department. But if your university chooses to do so, I'd recommend you do one of the following, pretty quickly:

    (a) find an ally or a lawyer

    (b) submit a complaint to OCR

    (c) submit a draft OCR complaint to your university

    Reason: some universities play hard ball. It would be safest to protect yourself in case your university turns out to be one of those.

If I had strong evidence for the racism allegations, and did not have an ally or a lawyer, I would likely go with (c). A draft complaint could give you some useful leverage. When OCR investigates, it requires that the university submit a lot of documentary evidence (both about your particular situation, and also about its policies and procedures), and it conducts interviews. Institutions generally find this onerous and often would prefer to resolve the potential complainant's concerns pretty quickly, in order to prevent an OCR complaint from being filed.

Note that filing an OCR complaint provides protection against retaliation.

Note also that it can be a frustratingly slow process. Therefore it would be good to try to get your goals clear before you talk to anyone. I imagine your goals at this point are

  1. Graduate

  2. Get a post-doc

I hope you find a good administrator in your department.

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I am really freaking out in this situation. I initially had problems with my PhD advisor because he is very aggressive and loves to make racist jokes. But I managed to handle his sense of humor and aggression. But I feel like he is racially prejudiced to me and will spoil my whole career.

A resource you should consider before escalating (such as aprante001's recommendation to file a complaint with OCR) is to approach your university's office of the ombudsmen/ombudswomen. This office serves as an unofficial conflict resolution agent within an institution and advocates impartially and anonymously.

Think of it like a PI (Private Investigator) working for you to gather the details and try to resolve the problem before you call in the Cavalry (Office of Civil Rights). Because once you escalate, there is often no means to de-escalate. After all, are you 100% certain that the result is your adviser badmouthing you? Even if you are 100% certain, is there evidence to support it with a p-value of <= 0.05?

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First of all, everybody is free to write whatever he wants in his recommendation letters and to tell people whatever opinion he has about you and you cannot influence that. So, you need a really solid reason to accuse your PhD advisor of any "racial prejudice" against you (perhaps you have one, I don't know). If he just says that you have no talent and are hopeless and you can bring up only that, no matter how much the legal action will damage him, you'll lose your reputation forever. So play this card in a smart way if you choose to play it at all.

Second, try to get recommendation letters from people who know your work and can explain its value to your potential employer in a clear and convincing way. A bad letter from a PhD advisor is a big minus but it can be remedied if you have a substantial evidence that you are a good professional doing valuable things. Proving that your PhD advisor is an asshole (if he is) adds absolutely nothing in this respect.

Unfortunately, the best advice would be to change your adviser a few years ago, but nobody has a time machine. So good luck, stay smart, and remember that your main objective is to prove your value to a potential employer and to get a position. The revenge (if you are thinking of one) can wait until you are standing firmly enough to pick up fights and deliver the blows (though, most likely, by that time you'll not care about it anymore).

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I think you had a narrow escape from a similar situation. The professor who requires the references is very unprofessional.

  1. If you require some references, you do it before the invitation. Because the person might have rejected other interviews/visits. This is very disrespectful to the potential postdoc.

  2. The references might be in several forms. The most popular is written and signed form. However, if one requires an alternative form of discussing, this is their responsibility, not yours. The professor should have asked your supervisor himself before you agree for a research visit. Using you as an interface is, again, disrespectful.

  3. Assuming that you did not do something that can give you serious trouble, one should always keep in mind that every PhD student might have some conflicts with their supervisors. Thus, if he cancels the visit based on a negative comment, then he will do more when he's your employer. What if you have a conflict with someone during your research visit? Any negative comment has a high potential to damage your job.

I think your best course is to move on and find a more professional supervisor to work with.

As for handling the interviewer; now that you have experienced a terrible incident, best is to prove your abilities yourself, preferrably with a research visit. If another potential employer asks for an interview, you can briefly tell the incident, and tell them that you want to make a research visit regardless of their decision.

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  • Thanks so much apparante001 Frank FYC for your valuable feedbacks. I always felt myself less competent whenever did mouthing to me and that has considerably lowered my self esteem. I emailed him this when he shouted on me in front of 20 people in the lab. Reading these comment, i feel like i dont deserve that treatment. This forum is actually giving me the base where i can again rebuild my confidence, – user83349 Nov 25 '17 at 20:43
  • Thank you Padawan for your comment. If i can manage to get a job without giving anyone trouble i would prefer to choose that way. Can you add something more to it? I have one more interview early next week so i was wondering if i should let my interviewer know my current situation that i am not among those lucky folks who get help and strong recommendation from their PI. I am sure the interviewer will contact him at some point. I am wondering what would be the best way to handle the interviewer! – user83349 Nov 25 '17 at 20:53
  • @user83349 I have edited my answer according to your comment. However, I must say that I don't have the best experience in such situations. Only negative review was from a professor whom I've worked in a project, which basically meant nothing to noone. – padawan Nov 25 '17 at 21:25
  • @user83349 where you are looking for job? what sector? – SSimon Nov 26 '17 at 5:29
  • I am looking for Postdoc researcher positions – user83349 Nov 26 '17 at 16:53

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