What if the PI recommendation letter is missing or is bad?

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Before condemning a job application to the recycle bin for want of a great letter from the dissertation advisor, please take a moment to consider: perhaps it’s the advisor who is the problem?

Some people are prone to jump to unsubstantiated conclusions on this issue. Here’s a related story of mine. While interviewing for a job, I had a really weird conversation. The chair of the search committee asked me, “Why doesn’t your application have a letter from your major advisor?”

I was boggled. I had left grad school almost a decade earlier. I was well established as an independent scientist. I had been a postdoc, and after that, had served on the faculty of two different institutions for seven years. I was running my own grants, working with a whole new set of people. Why would a letter from my advisor way back from grad school be necessary, especially considering that my work had diverged into a different direction than my advisor’s field?

I chose three letter-writers for this job application: a senior professor from my current department, someone highly esteemed in my subfield who knows me well, and a current collaborator who also had been a mentor for almost two decades. I didn’t include a letter from him, but my advisor was prepared to write me a great letter, as we stayed in touch, saw one another regularly at meetings, and he was (and continues to be) a valuable mentor.

I learned, after the fact, that I almost didn’t get the interview because of this issue. By a huge stroke of luck, the chair of the search committee just called up my advisor (as they knew one another). They said they were going to drop me from the shortlist because of this, but thought they’d call just in case. My former advisor reassured them that I was great and all that, and explained that we both thought that I had evolved enough beyond his lab that having other letters would represent me best. (By the way, I didn’t get the job, which in the long run was a good thing, considering how I wound up in a such great place to work now.)

I never even entertained the possibility, after being an assistant professor for several years, that a missing letter from my advisor would still be considered a red flag.

Which I think brings up a much bigger problem — a lot of people treat a missing (or a bad) letter from a PI as a major issue. A dealbreaker. This doesn’t necessarily compute. The fraction of underperforming or problematic trainees shouldn’t be any higher than the fraction of horrible PIs.  (If you believe the respondents of this twitter poll, then there are plenty of graduate students who can’t rely on their PIs to write them a solid letter.)

If there is a problem with the letter from the PI, isn’t it equally parsimonious to conclude that the problem is PI or the trainee? While most folks are good to their students, sometimes grad students get stuck with a dud, or a monster. Maybe a missing or bad letter from the PI shouldn’t make you wary of the candidate?

There are a lot of wonderful people who, for reasons beyond their control, they won’t get wonderful letters from the major advisor of their dissertation.

Those familiar with the game of applying for jobs realize that people with crappy PI situations absolutely need strong letters from someone highly reputable, who is well situated to explain the situation. However, if the PI is eminent enough, then it’s really hard to find someone who is willing and able to write such a letter, who will have equal credence. It’s very hard to get people to stand up against academic bullies, especially famous ones who exploit their students.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m looking at job candidates and there is a weak or missing letter from the PI, my working hypothesis will be that the problem isn’t the candidate but the letter-writer. Then I’ll look through the evidence in the file to see if this working hypothesis has support. I’m not going to ignore the PI letter situation, but I’m not going to immediately count it as a negative until I get some corroborating evidence.

When students end up in a toxic lab, they often get isolated and have trouble finding support. Which means that if you’re a faculty member in the department with one of these toxic people, you owe it to these students to get to know them and offer support and a thoughtful letter of recommendation that tells the truth about their PI.

4 thoughts on “What if the PI recommendation letter is missing or is bad?

  1. Or you discover as I did, quite by accident, that your PI wrote a pretty poor letter of recommendation in that it was not well written. My solution was to supply 4 letters and not worry about the poorly written one.

  2. Crazy….in my case, I brought my own funding and directed my own research, so my advisor was more an administrator in terms of my work than anything else —-I mean, not enough direct contribution to the work to qualify as an author on subsequent papers. Getting letters from others actually gave search committee members a BETTER picture of my work.

  3. I am haunted by a case from about 15 years in which I did not take action on behalf of a job candidate. Probably the only thing I could have done is notify her of the truly mean-spirited, degrading letter that her major prof. sent as a reference, but I was conflicted about the ethics and never told her. I have searched for her on the internet and she appears to have disappeared from academia.
    The scenario: This female candidate was shortlisted for a job at our university. There were three letters, two that were quite glowing, and the above mentioned letter from her advisor. The advisor is VERY famous and now at a top tier institution. HIS reputation is one as being a bully with a short-temper and unreasonable expectations. I have interacted with him directly and found him to be less than pleasant to say the least. The search committee refused to accept my perspective (I was untenured at the time) on the letter-writer and said they didn’t want another “rabid female” around. Unfortunately, I still work with some of these people.
    Was I wrong not to notify her a letter for which confidentiality was promised? I feel somehow responsible for her leaving academia.

    • I teach with a guy like that advisor and am concerned he’s crashing careers right now. Alumni are saying things, but I have zero evidence because of fear of retaliation. Trying to address this is darned hard—word needs to get out that his recommendations may reflect animus, not objective academic assessment.

      I don’t know about sharing the letter (I’m trying to understand exactly the same confidentiality question), but you can write the Chair/Dean of the bully’s Department and relate what you witnessed, including the alumna’s name.

      Good luck!

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