How do I explain why my advisor isn't a reference?
September 20, 2012 6:44 PM   Subscribe

My supervisor/thesis advisor has dropped off the face of the earth as I'm applying for jobs, so I can't count on him as a reference. How bad does this look, should I explain it in writing somewhere, and how?

I'm applying for jobs outside of academia and my advisor is really incommunicado - he has no teaching duties this semester and nobody can seem to get in contact with him. He's flaky and super-busy writing most of the time anyway, and it sounds like his wife may be in a health crisis of some sort, so it's quite unlikely that he'll be easy to contact in any way.

As I apply for jobs, this leaves me without a good reference for what I've been doing in grad school the past two years. My other references are all from undergrad, and there's nobody else from my masters program who knows me well enough to speak well as a reference for me.

So - what do I do? Clearly I can't include my advisor as a reference, but does this look awful if I just have a mysterious dearth of references? Should I explain this somewhere? On the reference form? Cover letters seem both way too soon and wildly inappropriate to include this kind of explanation. Help me, MeFi!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I would ask this over at
posted by mecran01 at 6:49 PM on September 20, 2012

Or, on the Chronicle of Higher Education forum. (Just steel yourself for snark and bitterness.)
posted by synecdoche at 6:56 PM on September 20, 2012

I am an overcommitted academic with a lot of graduate students. I can easily imagine a situation where I have to answer an e-mail from a student and each day it just... doesn't..... happen. However, every professor understands that writing a letter of recommendation for your student is one of your core responsibilities. Write that professor and say you're sorry to bother him, but job applications are approaching fast and letters need to be in the department office by DATE X, hard deadline. This is not rude. You are helping someone who's flaky (for perfectly good reasons at the moment if his wife is having health problems) understand which things actually have to be done now and which things he can put off and feel guilty about a while longer.
posted by escabeche at 6:56 PM on September 20, 2012 [9 favorites]

"I'm applying for jobs outside of academia..."

Outside of academia? Depends a lot on your field. I can see people caring if you're in the sciences and your adviser runs a lab and is more like a traditional boss, or if you're in a field like art history where the back and forth between museums and academia is a well worn thing. I'm not sure that anyone will care as much if you're say, a philosopher.
posted by Jahaza at 7:07 PM on September 20, 2012

Are you looking for a letter of reference from the professor, or are you just seeking to list him as a reference but are worried he won't respond to any inquiries he might get? If the latter, I would list him on the reference form and note that he is on professional leave this semester (or whatever terminology describes his situation). That shows you are not afraid of/avoiding providing him as a reference and that any failure to respond is on him and does not signal any problem with you.
posted by sallybrown at 7:08 PM on September 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Use him as a referee but clearly note that he's on sabbatical.

If anyone else from your current program can vouch for you at all, I would use them as well.
posted by heyjude at 7:15 PM on September 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

You need to email or call him and say

"Hr. Dr. Whatever. I realize that you're quite busy right now, but as you know, I'm in the midst of job hunting. I'd like to get a letter of recommendation from you. I can provide you the information in whatever way works best for you. I have some deadlines on November 1 though, so it is approaching.

Please let me know what I need to get to you.


If he doesn't reply in 3 days, go to your chair.

This is not something to fuck around with.
posted by k8t at 7:16 PM on September 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

do you have an earlier letter of reccomondation from him? I had to send one out when an undergrad instuctor ignored my request for a second one when i applied for a PhD.
posted by brujita at 7:24 PM on September 20, 2012

You should go to your department chair long before you consider dropping your advisor as one of your letters.
posted by kiltedtaco at 8:21 PM on September 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

What kind of jobs are you applying for, and how important is it that your referee be able to speak of your work in detail, from personal knowledge? Since you speak of needing a "reference," not a "letter" or even a "recommendation," I am guessing that you just need to be able to write down a name and contact information at the end of your resume or on a list of references. My impression is that most prospective employers either won't bother contacting your references, or won't contact them with the expectation of having a long, detailed chat about you. If you're competing for jobs with people who have been working in the industry for a while, they may have "references" who will only state their dates of employment and eligibility for rehire, due to common company policies.

If your advisor is unreachable or unreliable, I think your department chair should fill in. Request an appointment with the chair, succinctly explain your predicament, and ask if the chair would be willing to serve as a reference for you. Offer some evidence of your performance in the department, preferably in the form of a folder of tidily organized printouts and photocopies: course grades, writing sample, advisor's positive comments on your thesis, c.v. listing any publications or conference presentations you've done, positive teaching evaluations, etc. (Don't go overboard—an informal dossier of about 10-20 pages is probably enough to give the picture without looking like too much to wade through.) I don't think you need to specifically point out or explain that your thesis advisor is not acting as a referee. Just list your department chair as your department chair and leave it at that.
posted by Orinda at 8:26 PM on September 20, 2012

Yes this is a big deal, and you would be absolutely in the right to escalate with the departmental chain of command. Writing you a letter is one of your adviser's ABSOLUTELY CORE responsibilities.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:09 AM on September 21, 2012

No matter how busy advisor is, there's going to be some way of reaching him unless he's in the witness protection program.

Start with the department secretary. Ask them how you can get in touch with your advisor.

If they say he's disappeared, ask a professor in the department who is likely to be your advisor's friend.

If that fails, and you've already tried calling and emailing and writing a real live letter, go to the dude's house and knock on his door.

At all times, be polite.

Then ask him if it would be easier for him if you write your own letter of recommendation for him to review and sign.
posted by zippy at 2:41 AM on September 21, 2012

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