Is this person sabotaging my chances at getting a job?
February 9, 2014 7:41 AM   Subscribe

I have recently finished my doctorate and am interviewing for postdoc positions. I gave my main PhD advisor as a referee. Twice now I have failed at getting a job after the reference check despite being assured that the job is mine after the interview. What gives?

I spoke to my advisor in more detail. He seemed honest and said that neither of the 2 jobs were right for me. When I asked why he gave me odd reasons. He said that the first guy that called him for the reference check gave him a bad vibe because he sounded arrogant and like he would be a nightmare boss.

For the second job, he admitted to questioning the guy on what are his plans for taking holidays this year (among other things). He explained that he is just looking out for me and doesn't want me to be used to do my possible future boss's work.

My advisor also said that he would give me a glowing reference if he felt the job was right for me.

I am concerned. Is he just being a bit over-protective or is he really out of line? I am hesitant to give his details to the next job I apply to. I feel that what's the right job for me should be my decision rather than his. Should I try to discuss it with him or just remove him from my application? The problem is that a good reference from him would be extremely valuable.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Your advisor is being very proprietary about you and your career and in that sense I feel he's' being hugely out of line. I'm glad he's proud of you, but it's not his decision what job you take or who you'd work for. You need experience at these jobs and that he's sabotaging the reference process is not okay.

If I had a lot of mutual trust with him I would try to discuss it with him. If I didn't think I would trust him to take that kind of feedback well I'd probably try to get a reference from one of my co-graduate students instead of including my advisor on future applications.
posted by kalessin at 8:02 AM on February 9, 2014 [6 favorites]

Wow. Incredibly over the line--it's your job to decide which jobs might be right for you. If he wants a say, then that happens in a private discussion with you....not in deliberately tanking things behind your back. A very bizarre personal dynamic: is he personally jealous? does he want to keep you in town for some reason? I've never heard of anything like this before.

My advisor also said that he would give me a glowing reference if he felt the job was right for me

This doesn't make sense, at best, and is pathologically controlling, at worst: a reference is about you, not about whether your next supervisor would be a good boss for you.
posted by blue suede stockings at 8:03 AM on February 9, 2014 [42 favorites]

Yes, he is trying to control this and it's completely inappropriate. Remove him
posted by gt2 at 8:03 AM on February 9, 2014 [11 favorites]

Wow, that is really out of line on his part. It isn't up to him to scare off your potential employers because he believes the fit isn't right.

Does he have an ulterior motive? Does he want you to work somewhere in particular, or stay at your current institution? In any event, you're either going to have to stop using him as a reference or make sure in advance of doing so that he feels the "fit" is right and is planning to be supportive.
posted by killdevil at 8:03 AM on February 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

It sounds like your advisor may mean well, but he is clueless, meddling, and completely out of line.

It's not his job to figure out whether a job is right for you, it's your job to do that. A person who agrees to be a reference should just candidly answer any questions a prospective employer has... and that's it.

It sounds like you should find a different reference to give.
posted by Old Man McKay at 8:04 AM on February 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

The problem is that a good reference from him would be extremely valuable.

No, the problem is that he's always going to find a reason not to give you a good reference. Take him off your applications but keep hitting him up about opportunities so you can maybe still get one from him if he changes his mind.
posted by Etrigan at 8:06 AM on February 9, 2014 [15 favorites]

My advisor also said that he would give me a glowing reference if he felt the job was right for me.

This seems to suggest that he is giving purposefully bad information to your potential employers. Regardless of the reason, that's a shockingly terrible thing to do.
posted by kiltedtaco at 8:16 AM on February 9, 2014 [16 favorites]

As someone who's received a borderline actionably bad reference from a former boss who still acts like they're best friends with me, you want someone in University admin who can confirm the barest details of your research. If they need a personal reference, find someone other than your advisor.
posted by scruss at 8:20 AM on February 9, 2014

Can you ask him for a generic written reference to hand out and a verbal contact for someone else. Explain at the time that the written reference cannot personally speak to the potential employer due to his time commitments but you hope the second person will be adequate (to be clear, I am not suggesting someone pose as your advisor).
posted by saucysault at 8:21 AM on February 9, 2014

Overprotective is not the right word. He is not a parent and this is the workplace.

He is out of line. By any chance is there a possibility that if you dont get a postdoc on time, you'll be staying at the current place and working some more on what you are already working on? Some folks try to keep their students as long as they can, delaying graduation or such so it does happen. What probably is rare is deciding for you how good/bad a fit you'll be with a potential employer.

I'd try a couple of things, or combination thereof-

1. Remove him from your list for now. Keep applying. Dont keep from applying thinking how it will pan out- you cross that bridge when you come to it.

2. Sounds like the two of you can have an honestopen discussion. Talk to him- tell me that you only need a glowing reference in writing or on the phone. And any reservations that he has, you would absolutely love to discuss with him afterward and you will only make a decision after discussing his thoughts on what he thinks is best for you.
(yep, the idea is to distract/misinform him. If and when you come to the end of this scenario and you still want to take up a position that he thinks is a bad fit, you can come up with a creative personal reason, for instance, to do so. You dont even have to answer him at that point. But you do need to play your cards a bit carefully here)

3. Check out your univ's career services and if you can talk to any of them for advice and how to navigate the situation. I bet they have seen this before and will have some thoughts on this.

4. At the right time, if and when you need to, it might be appropriate to give some idea to the potential PI what the problem is (I'd approach the career folks on if/how to do this).

Congratulations on getting a PhD and all the best for an exciting future!
posted by xm at 8:42 AM on February 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Wow. OK, this is a big problem, since if you *don't* have a letter from your adviser, it will color the rest of your application in most searches, unless the adviser him/herself is widely disliked, perhaps (and then there will be negative bias against her/his students anyway).

So you gotta get this sorted out. Apparently, your adviser thinks you should be vetting your options through him first? I always appreciate knowing where my students are applying before I get the prompt for the reference letter, but I would rarely veto an application as a bad fit a priori (and then I would at most suggest my criticism, and certainly not let it enter my letter of reference in any way if I still agreed to write for it!).

Maybe you can have your adviser upload a generic letter to Interfolio that you can use for lower-tier searches, save the custom-tailored letter for the jobs he approves of you pursuing?
posted by spitbull at 8:42 AM on February 9, 2014 [12 favorites]

I agree that he's really out of line, but I think it's worth your while to discuss it with him before replacing him based on what he's already done. If he sees himself as looking out for your best interests, he should be amenable to your clarification that it's in your best interests to decide on a job for yourself. If he can give you a glowing reference ever, he should be giving you a glowing reference always. He is supposed to be saying "Here's what I know the candidate is capable of based on my experience," not "Here's how I, from my armchair, envision the candidate getting along with you in particular."

If, after that conversation, you get the vibe that he's going to keep on sabotaging your interviews, then it's time to DTMFA.
posted by Beardman at 8:42 AM on February 9, 2014

Beardman and others are right about the big picture too -- I should have said the other side of this, which you seem to have figured out, is that he is your adviser. You cannot afford to damage that relationship until you are launched in the career (if ever), and you don't have the power in that relationship, so you have to tread carefully with an eye on the long term too, which is a shame, but people bringing in experiences from the corporate world of "supervisors" who wrote negative letters are really talking about a different context from the academic reference letter, whether you think it's good or not that academia still functions as it does.
posted by spitbull at 8:46 AM on February 9, 2014

Is he first on your list of references? Maybe you could move him to last on the list and put referees you trust up at the top, so that the search committees only hear whatever crazy things he's saying after they've head some nice things from more stable people?
posted by oinopaponton at 8:51 AM on February 9, 2014

have you asked either of the potential employers why they passed on you? that seems to be the best way to learn if it is really your advisor's reference putting them off.
posted by jimw at 8:59 AM on February 9, 2014

you want someone in University admin who can confirm the barest details of your research.

No, you really really don't, unless your discipline is extremely corporatized somehow. I mean, maybe it's possible that these are b-school postdocs or something, but that seems really REALLY unlikely.

In an academic search, an application packet without a letter from the adviser is at a significant disadvantage unless your adviser is widely known to be pretty crazy and/or an asshole.

Letters of recommendation in academic job searches are obviously skewed towards the positive but are also, really, quite frank. A letter that just confirmed the barest details of your research, instead of enthusiastically explaining it to the reader and describing its likely outlets while also noting and explaining any obvious flaws in your vita, would be a deeply harmful letter to have in your packet.

In your shoes, I would try to arrange a minimally-confrontational meeting between you, your adviser, and your DGS.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:01 AM on February 9, 2014 [7 favorites]

You might want to talk to other people he's advised to see whether this is a thing he does to everyone (and ask what they did to overcome it) or whether he's specifically targeting you (in which case you might need to talk to someone higher up in the chain).
posted by Etrigan at 9:01 AM on February 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Those commenting that don't live in academia aren't being helpful here.

What's your relationship with your advisor like outside of this?
What has gone down with other advisees in their job hunts?

My (awesome) advisor was similar in that he was less supportive of jobs that were not a good fit. And based on other people I've seen, this is pretty normal.

I think that a face to face meeting where you are honest about your goals is important. He may be working off an entirely different set of assumptions.

Also remember that he knows the market better than you do.

Scenario: Bob, I wanted to chat about job search. I greatly appreciate all that you've done. I just want to make sure we're on the same page. To be honest, I have a strong goal right now of finishing. Even if this means taking (subpar) postdoc, I need to start earning income. I realize that (subpar) postdoc has drawbacks X, Y, and Z, but I am okay with that because my ultimate goal is A. And I'm under the impression that I don't need to have a prestigious postdoc to get to A, like I would if I wanted to get to B.

He is likely working off the assumption that you want the most prestigious R1 TT position and is trying to get you there. Just a guess...
posted by k8t at 9:26 AM on February 9, 2014 [6 favorites]

I don't know how much it varies from field to field, but in mathematics a reference letter --- a generic one, not an institution-tailored one --- is the standard way for your references to communicate how awesome you are. If this is at all viable in your field, and if there's a way for you to request one without poisoning your relationship, I'd say, go for it.

It seems extremely inappropriate to me for your advisor to actually resort to dishonesty to try to railroad you into the "right" job. If they think you're good, they should be willing to tell everyone. If they think you're too good for job X, they need to take that up with you, not with the search committee. FWIW, I've read a few recommendation letters which made it clear the advisor, at least, had very specific plans for their student's future which didn't include our type of institution or position, but, y'know what? When that's in a letter which is otherwise complimentary about their student it's not all that problematic, because it's not the advisor's choice and we're not actually asking their opinion on that matter, and we ignore that point unless we also get a vibe from the candidate's own communications that they don't much want to work for us.
posted by jackbishop at 9:26 AM on February 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Let me be blunt, as someone with a couple of decades in the trenches: for most fresh ink job candidates, the endorsement letter from the adviser, which is effusive in its detailed elaboration of the importance of your developing research and indeed always does contain some criticism as a basis for the credibility of its enthusiasm, is *the single most important part* of your job application in the fields I know well, which straddle humanities and social sciences. The most important thing an adviser ever does for a PhD student is craft that letter and keep it updated, sometimes for years to come. The obligation is fucking solemn. It's what it means to "advise" someone to the PhD.

A lot of younger graduate students don't understand this, so it's worth emphasizing for the future utility of this question. If your adviser is not going to write that kind of letter for you, but otherwise you cannot detach from him/her, for whatever reason (might be the greatest substantive mentor in every other way, might be the only option, whatever), you need to cultivate a close and sympathetic relationship with another faculty member who is likely to serve on your dissertation committee who can serve as an informal substitute for that role in the future. The way the academic world works, you can't hardly get in the door without an introduction from someone others are going to trust to endorse you truthfully and in detail. It's why people cultivate connected and powerful advisers, correctly so; but sometimes they can be connected and powerful to a fault, too busy to really focus on one student at a time, presumptive about the significance of their mere affirmative endorsement (I've seen 5 sentence reference letters in job searches, which are just guaranteed to harm the candidate by sending the message that their adviser did not give enough of a shit to write a real letter). The best often hit 3 or more pages, single spaced, like a mini tenure letter.

If you don't have someone to write that letter for you -- someone who will be recognized as a trustworthy judge of talent both laterally and longitudinally in the field and whose reputation commands some level of respect -- you are at a disadvantage, possibly a severe one, in the job search process. Even if you are sure you will have such a relationship with your adviser, it is always advisable to cultivate a backup person who you feel confident would step into the role. Advisers do change jobs, lose their marbles, get too big for their britches, or turn out to be different than you thought.

For the OP, this is why you must work this out with the adviser personally. I would not myself recommend having a meeting that includes the DGS (speaking as someone with many years of DGSing under my belt too). Here's the thing: it is in the adviser's interest for you to be placed, and placed well. Any rational adviser gives this matter full and unbiased attention. There are legitimate reasons and adviser may guide you towards or away from particular jobs, and that's a conversation to have in advance of applying. On the one hand, for example, he could really think you are selling yourself (and thus him) short by angling for a temporary position, let's say; on the other, he could have more than one student in a given search and be signaling a ranking of those candidates to his colleagues on the search committee in question.

There is no advantage to you whatsoever to treating this as (or allowing it to develop into) an adversarial situation. The advice treating it like that is already the case, I feel, is idealistic. Your options are to communicate more effectively with your adviser or find a backup person to serve the same function with respect to your references, and let them know you need the adviser-grade letter from them.
posted by spitbull at 9:45 AM on February 9, 2014 [17 favorites]

I would not myself recommend having a meeting that includes the DGS (speaking as someone with many years of DGSing under my belt too)

Fair enough.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:52 AM on February 9, 2014

Dr. Karen Kelsky authors the blog The Professor is In which offers a lot of advice on situations just as crazy as this. She also consults for a fee. I know new PhDs have no money, but if something on her blog doesn't help, it might be worth a consult with her. I've corresponded briefly with her myself (I'm a PhD student) and the academic job hunt seems so challenging right now, her advice might be worth the small investment.
posted by pantarei70 at 10:31 AM on February 9, 2014

I employed Dr. Karen from The Professor Is In but I don't think that this situation warrants that yet. (Although she is awesome!)
posted by k8t at 11:30 AM on February 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

This exact same thing happened to someone I know very well when they were trying to get a job after getting their doctorate and working for awhile as a post doc. Person was the protege, surrogate child, mentee, etc etc of their PhD adviser.

The PhD adviser wanted the person to stay their right hand man doing research in their ivory tower until the end of time, after a couple years of this obviously they were ready to go out on their own and much to the dismay of their adviser, not to a teaching position (which for other reasons was highly unlikely anyway), but into the private sector.

Job interview after job interview goes great, but they don't get it... Finally, a really great job comes along. They are told in the interview they have the job, but need to verify credentials and do a basic reference check and then.... they don't get it. They call up the point of contact at the job who at this point they feel they have a rapport with and just ask point blank I understand you went another way, but this keeps happening and I would really appreciate your honest feedback as how I could improve. The POC tells them well we called your adviser (who was one of the top experts in their field) and he said while you're good he has serious reservations about you taking this position... And when one of the top people in your field says that you listen to them.

So they dropped the adviser as a reference and instead went with another professor that they knew well, although they were no where nearly as "famous" as the adviser and promptly got the next job.

Years and years later adviser is still mad as hell that they left. Regularly lets them know they are a sell out and how they are wasting their talents in the private section instead of doing real work with him... Despite still being more or less close, they get into mini professional wars every few years as the adviser tries to discredit their work and will then not talk for a year or two. This has been going on for over 20 years.

So some food for thought. I would drop your adviser as a reference and see how your luck changes. This is very much an issue in some corners of the academic world.
posted by whoaali at 11:39 AM on February 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

Question to academics: could the adviser be motivated by a desire to protect his own legacy and name? (The answer might be obvious but I ask because I think getting at his motivation might suggest one approach over another.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:55 AM on February 9, 2014

This kind of crap happens.
- how famous is your adviser? might he/she be trying to protect his/her reputation as having grad students who stay in (and excel in) the same field?
- how old is your adviser, and how many other students have they graduated? Might they just be screwing this up because they don't realize how inappropriate this is?
- Have they done this to other students, or is it just you? A slightly inappropriate question, are you female (especially in the sciences)? This could actually cause an unfortunately large bias, both in terms of the kind of jobs that adviser might think are appropriate to you, and adviser's being too okay with making decisions for you.

Unless after reading this thread you decide it's better to avoid and never ask prof for a reference again, I'd try sitting down and addressing what seems to be the problem, but doing it in the most pleasant way possible. I'd go for the approach of "I really value your advice, and I really need your support, let's talk about what's best for everyone."

- It's not good for him. It would look bad for the lab if you kept on getting no job offers. He doesn't want to be talked about badly by colleagues at conferences. He doesn't want to lose potential students to other groups at the university because they hear their job prospects would be better with another adviser.
- Aside from generalizing to other students besides you, this particular thing is not good for either of your reputations. What if nightmare potential boss is at a conference and good potential boss mentions you or your adviser; there could be immediate gossip that would prevent you getting an interview at a lab that could otherwise be a great fit for you. If your adviser had an unpleasant phone call in which he and unpleasant boss decided to dislike each other, this effect could spill over into next year's graduating students.
- It's not good for your professional development. If you can't practice your negotiating skills on a job offer that you may or may not need to take, you won't be as ready to get a good salary at the dream job. It's important to practice analyzing a potential work environment and learn how to spot potential pitfalls for yourself.
- For now, I'd leave out the part where you feel undermined, and how not getting any job offers makes it easy to get discouraged and feel useless and incompetent even when you logically know it's not your fault, and how if you had some success it would make you feel better about this, and give you confidence to get more success. That's too touchy-feely for the average academic.
- Instead of asking him to stop doing something (undermining you) see if you can ask him to start doing something (educating you about work environments). Tell him how interested you would have been to discuss his impressions with him after the phone call, especially in a way that wasn't so unilateral. Tell him you want to learn to make the decisions yourself, but you really need the kind of honest information that you just can't pick up during the interview. You need a spy more than you need an army or a land-mine-detector.
- Is the kind of job that you want different from the kind of job that he has? It can be really disconcerting to nerdy professors who love their jobs to find out that not everyone wants to do what they do. It would be important to sit down and explain what you're looking for in a job. Go ahead and be a little flowery and dramatic: what parts of grad school do you love, what concepts/tasks inspire your passion for the field, what do you imagine yourself doing, what is your dream job? Point out that everyone wants something different in life and everyone loves something different about the field/their work. Try to get him to understand that you are responsible for, and enthusiastic about, choosing your future... and it's implied here that you're handling it and don't need him to help you choose.
(as an aside, if he's not coming around to your way of thinking, see if you can find out what job he would recommend you for wholeheartedly, so that if you apply to that job you can send them to talk to him.)
- When you get your next job process (if you decide to use him as a reference, which for me, would depend on how various conversations go) talk to him right after the interview about how it went, tell him all the good qualities of the lab. Tell him things you're not worried about (you know you'll get publications, for example) and fairly innocuous not-his-problem things you might be worried about (it's in Kansas, for example), and you can decide for yourself whether you leave out or mention to him any potential professional red flag you saw (none of his post-docs seem to stay longer than 1 year)

Good luck with everything. This is the kind of situation that there's no one perfect answer for; it really depends on whether you think he's really on your side, or just pretending to be, and depends on a lot of other things besides. Hang in there, do what you think is best, and stick to your guns!
posted by aimedwander at 2:25 PM on February 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would drop your adviser as a reference and see how your luck changes.
This would be professional suicide in academia. Answers in this askme that are not from academics will not help you in the unique world of academia.

Seconding spitbull's comment the endorsement letter from the adviser, which is effusive in its detailed elaboration of the importance of your developing research and indeed always does contain some criticism as a basis for the credibility of its enthusiasm, is *the single most important part* of your job application, which holds true in hard sciences too. His advice on workarounds would be better than excluding the supervisor.
posted by variella at 2:27 PM on February 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ask him for a written reference, then provide different phone references in the future. If he balks, he's never going to give you a good reference anyway, so raise your concern about his behavior with the administration.
posted by davejay at 7:49 PM on February 9, 2014

I recommend you do not "raise your concerns with administration" any higher than your DGS. Your adviser has tenure, presumably. He is under no official obligation to recommend you at all, let alone in positive terms. That would be career suicide. Do not do it.
posted by spitbull at 6:34 AM on February 14, 2014

Also, in academia a phone reference is always secondary to a written one, usually an informal probing of any weaknesses signaled in the written one. Very few jobs call a reference without having a letter from said reference first.

People who are not in academia, this is just not at all like corporate hiring where references are more binary testimonials to character and competence or lack thereof. An academic reference is a detailed critique of the substance of the candidate's work and promise for the future. (This is also true of references for grad programs to some extent, and including non-academic references from employers or piano teachers or whatever is one of the signature mistakes of many PhD program applicants.). It really has nothing in common with the formalities of HR protocols in the corporate world, other than having to adhere to mostly the same laws.

The educational context does have some unique legal constraints of its own, too. But for example I have to be very vague and euphemistic in describing the way a student has overcome an impoverished background or learning disability in a reference letter, no matter how central that story may be to my own admiration for the student. That's the same as a corporate reference. But I also have to compare my student to others in her generational cohort and others I might be recommending, in subtle ways, without favoritism (letters are mostly "confidential," but eventually that student may become a department chair and have access to search records, and thus her own letters, and in the UK no letter can be truly confidential due to open records laws. So you have to be careful that your comments could withstand being exposed to their subject, a big issue for those who write academic letters of reference, I assure you (in the Olde Days letters could be blunt as hell).

Mostly, I am putting my own reputation severely on the line when I recommend someone for a tenure track job, especially. I have every reason to be biased in favor of my student, and some strong incentives to exaggerate a bit (placement is THE measure of an experienced adviser, and my record is damn good, so far 20 years in, so I guard it jealously and put a lot of effort into placing my students).

That bias is offset by my record as a scholar and as a truthful referee. I have much more at stake as a referee than the vast majority of corporate supervisors would. I'm not recommending an employee; I'm predicting the future of a colleague who will permanently and publicly carry my imprimatur and even "brand." If I'm wrong, my other students and my program and my own reputation will be harmed.

All the world is not yet a fully rationalized bureaucracy or workers' rights teach-in. The reality for PhD students is that if your adviser is in any way your adversary, or untrustworthy, you're doing it wrong or s/he is, but you can't change the system and you need another mentor in the field.
posted by spitbull at 7:07 AM on February 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

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