Academic Job Search — Know Who Thy Friends Are

Professors are frequently asked to write letters of reference: recommendation letters for undergrads applying to grad school, graduate students and postdocs seeking postdocs or jobs; evaluation letters for tenure-track faculty who are being considered for tenure, as well as for faculty at various career stages who are being nominated for honors or awards. If I agree to write a letter for someone, I will not write a negative one. If I cannot in good conscience write one that is positive, then I will refuse to write a letter entirely. 

If someone gets a PhD degree in my group, I endorse that person and I vouch for them. Hey, PhD is thicker than water, right? It’s not without reason that a PhD advisor-advisee relationship constitutes a lifetime conflict of interest in the context of the NSF proposal review. I will write letters for students and postdocs as often and for as long as they need them, until one of us drops dead. I would never have a problem with any of my former students or postdocs seeing the letters that I have written for them.

In the context of evaluating tenure-track applications, the issue of the letters of reference comes up for candidates who have survived at least the first and often even the second cut.

For most faculty candidates, the PhD and postdoc advisors are at the top of the reference list, which indicates that the candidate considers them someone on whose enthusiastic support he or she counts. In the vast majority of cases, this trust is warranted: the PhD and postdoc advisors usually promptly respond to the requests for letters and send recommendations that are detailed, informative, and usually glowing. This expediency holds even for the busiest and most famous among former advisors, which goes to show that if something is important to a person, they will find the time to do it.

But then there are others…

For instance, I know a successful mid-career colleague who did not put the PhD advisor on the list of references at all back when he was first applying for tenure-track jobs. I don’t even think the two of them got along that poorly, I mean the colleague published a lot and well as a grad student, but I can imagine he might have been a handful on account of having a very strong personality. I really don’t think the advisor would have written a bad letter, but I suppose you never know. The colleague had decided he had stronger and more enthusiastic references elsewhere and, while he knows this conspicuous absence of the PhD advisor’s letter raised red flags with some hiring committees, he was ultimately able to land a good tenure-track position and is now very successful.

Then there is my favorite from a few years back, where the PhD advisor wrote a paragraph-long email basically saying the candidate was good and productive. Nothing bad, but a freakin’ paragraph. It raised all sorts of questions about the candidate and I think ultimately contributed to them not getting an offer.

I have seen cases where the PhD advisor or the postdoc advisor is near the bottom of  a lengthy list of references. Usually, from the CV, you can see a clear correlation  with the person not having published very well during the PhD/postdoc. In a few cases, the advisor had a reputation as being very difficult to work with. Unfortunately, all this does cast a shadow of doubt on the applicant, but it does also reveal that the applicant knew what was going on, knew that this advisor was not to be counted on. In my experience from the search committees, I am going to say that having a so-so relationship with the PhD advisor can be remedied by great postdoc experiences. I have, unfortunately, seen candidates with a great PhD but a ho-hum postdoc, or a good first but not a great second postdoc, and they usually don’t fare well on the market. It is a sad truth that a bad postdoc can totally tank your academic career, especially if it’s the most recent one.The unnerving part is that who you land with is luck to a great degree, so you may be in deep doodoo through very little fault of your own.

I also remember the case of an applicant from a few years ago, who looked great on paper, had a great record from his PhD,  and listed PhD advisor as first reference. The reference letter from the advisor never came, even after reminders. Before you wonder whether the advisor had died, became incapacitated, or was otherwise indisposed, I should tell you that the advisor did submit letters for other candidates in the same search. So the absence of a letter was definitely meant to convey a lack of endorsement. Whether or not this was a petty or a real issue, it hurt the candidate. What is most surprising to me is that the candidate was not aware that there was an issue, that the advisor would not be supportive. Maybe the advisor was sneaky and passive-aggressive, or even openly deceptive — all sweet on the outside but seething with rage and disappointment on the inside. Could it simply be delusion on the part of the candidate, refusing to believe that the advisor  would not provide support? Could it be that everyone’s egos were just a little too big for the candidate’s good?

But, there is no need to sink into the depths of despair at these unfortunate anecdotes. Most PhD and postdoc advisors are really, really supportive of their group alumni. However, some professors are not nice people. Some students are not nice people either. Sometimes there is just too much of a mismatch between what the two parties expect from one another. In an ideal world, the advising relationship would be dissolved in these cases and the junior person would go work for someone more supportive. In an ideal world, people would also talk openly, and the advisor, who holds considerable power over the student/postdoc, would be able to convey what they are unhappy about and what needs to change. But, this is not an ideal world, so you, the candidate, had better rely on your gut and common sense and try to be honest with yourself as to how much support you can realistically expect and from whom during the application process, because the competition is so fierce that committees will readily relegate you to the “do not interview” list if there are doubts cast upon your merit by the people who are supposed to know you best.  

12 comments

  1. It is so depressing to reads this. These smart people are doomed because of some snobby professor and rigidity and stubbornness of academic practices after spending years of their best years in graduate school or post-docs at low salary and no real life skills.

  2. That’s weird because we expect our mid-level hires to *not* have a letter from their adviser in their packet. The adviser was there when they were graduate students, but we’re more interested in what they’ve done since then. Usually we read the letters last, generally only after we’ve made our mid-level short list and are trying to turn it into an actual short-list. Sometimes we’ve done the first round interview (phone or conference) before all the letters come in!

  3. nicoleandmaggie, is this about my mid-career colleague mentioned in the text? I was talking about when he was applying for jobs as a newbie tenure-track assistant prof, some 10+ years ago. I guess I will have to clarify that in the text. Thanks!

    Yes, I agree, we don’t look for advisor letter for midcareer folks either. It’s about what they have done recently and we’ll often ask for letters from the prominent outside people whom we choose, i.e. these letters are like the evaluation letters we collect for tenure or full-prof promotion.

  4. when I applied for promotion within the uni (from the first level after PhD to the second) we were told not to put our PhD advisor on the list, but to “spare” them for promotion applications later on. So Early-career applications: no PHD advisor on the list, mid-career applications: yes, PHD advisor on the list

  5. What about candidates who have moved away from the PhD advisor’s area during a postdoc? Is it still a red flag if the PhD advisor is not at the top of their reference list? In my field it’s not uncommon for students to move to a more applied area during their postdoc, and some are now so far apart from their PhD advisor’s area that the advisor wouldn’t even know their current work!

  6. Luna, that’s a great point. I would say people on the committee would probably understand that you made a big switch during postdoc and would look for signs of productivity in both PhD and postdoc, and if they both seem good then the placement of PhD advisor on the list of references is not a big deal. I would still not put PhD advisor at the bottom of a long list without a very good reason, because that just looks suspicious. You can put them 3rd or so on the list. Even though PhD advisor may not know your recent work, they know you and your potential very well and will be able to vouch for creativity, initiative etc. Also, when you ask PhD advisor to write you letters, it’s always a good idea to send them your current CV, some recent papers, and maybe even your research and teaching statements — they may give you useful comment on the application package! (Of course, this all assumes your relationship with advisor is good and they are supportive of you.)

  7. xykademiqz and other: What do you think the chances are for a midcareer tenured scientist to move from a very low ranking research institution to a quality R1? Assume a solid performance in publication and grants on par with an average/good R1 faculty, but nothing spectacular (no Nature/Science or $multimillion grants). Does anyone really sympathize that the effort to get things done in a low ranking institution might turn into much better results in a quality R1? Is it really much harder to move with tenure?

  8. MidCareerTenured, that’s a very good question and a tough one to answer. If you don’t mind, I will put it up as a separate post soon, and we’ll see what others say. I have no personal experience with mid-career moving, but I can tell you what I have seen during recruitment and from the experiences of others who have moved. Moving mid-career generally requires that you have an “in”, someone who will champion your case somewhere. This is considerably more common than getting interviewed after just applying cold. It is certainly possible to move laterally or somewhat upward without being a superstar; the question is always what you would bring to the new institution. If you are a respected name and have a niche, you will find a place that wants you, but it may take some time and you probably need to send out some feelers through trusted colleagues.

  9. …..And then you have the case like I did where your advisor sexually harasses you, but not until you are just about to defend your PHD. .. and threatens that if you don’t perform sex with him he will prevent you from ever getting an academic job because he can through his letters of recommendation. AND you are at a university that has nothing in place to protect students so that there is no where to turn.

    I managed to survive all of this **without performing sex with him** and get a tenure track job, but whew, it was horrible and a long story. So, sometimes there are very good reasons to not have a letter of recommendation from your advisors…

  10. Science Prof., that’s awful!!! I don’t know what to say… I am so sorry.
    Some people are just unspeakable, horrible pigs (no offense to pigs). Kudos to you for kicking butt professionally in spite of the terrible predicament.

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