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junior faculty

I had a fraught relationship with my advisor in grad school, so I sympathize with the OP. Unfortunately, in order to get a job in academia (at least in the US - in the UK, letters play a smaller role in the hiring process), you are reliant on your advisor for a letter. So, how one ought to go about this situation would depend on the quality of the letter. It is hard to judge in this situation given the lack of details. If the advisor refuses to write you a letter (or if you have a placement director who screens the letters who can tell you about the quality), or if you decide that you simply won't ask your advisor for a letter (if you have another strong letter writer) - in some way, this situation is the most straightforward. But I am guessing that the OP is asking precisely because they feel that they must appease their advisor in some way or endure an abusive relationship for the sake of a letter at the end. This is extremely unfortunate, and it is a sad fact that the power structure of academia allows for these kinds of abusive relationships to exist.

One thing to consider is whether you have access to other influential letter writers. If another "big name" can write you a strong letter, then you may not need a letter from your advisor. If you end up getting a letter from your advisor, if you use Interfolio, the letter can be kept there so you don't have to further interact with your advisor. The same letter can be re-used for at least 2 job cycles (maybe even 3), especially if there are no major changes in your CV / AOS.

FWIW, after I left my Ph.D., I basically stopped interacting with my advisor. I have a cordial relationship with them, but I am relieved that they no longer have any power over me. I went into a postdoc after my Ph.D. and now have relationships with other senior philosophers so I no longer have to ask my advisor for a letter going forward.

It is good to remember that the successes and failures of advisees reflect on advisors. In many ways, your interests align - if the advisee goes on to do well, the advisor gain citations, and their research program can spread through placing successful students (this has the model of success for many influential philosophers). So I hope your advisor recognizes (as I think most academics do) that there is nothing to gain in "poisoning" your application by writing a bad letter. In the end, it is still in their professional best interest that you do well on the market. They have a reputation to maintain, for hiring departments to take their letter and their students seriously, it is ultimately in their interest - if they agree to write you a letter in the first place - that the letter is positive.

William Vanderburgh

My impression is that reference letters matter more in departments that prioritize research. For ones that prioritize teaching, other evidence matters more. So maybe shaping your search resolves the issue? Curious to hear from other departments on that one.

Can someone else on the committee write a strong letter? Or the chair or grad director of the department? Start that conversation by saying you are reluctant to rely on the advisor--it is a difficult subject to broach, but most people in those positions should be used to dealing with difficult things (and have probably heard the bad things about that advisor before).

As long as you have three good letters in your application, there's no need to explain why one from your advisor is missing--if necessary, a brief and diplomatic response to a campus interview question would be enough. We have all had bad professional relationships and we know they don't tell the story of a career.


I went through a similar situation. My PhD supervisor was hostile. We did not get along. I didn't ask him for a letter of recommendation. (For that matter, I didn't even acknowledge him in my dissertation.)

I knew very early on in our relationship that I couldn't count on him. So, I started developing strong relationships with other scholars through my affiliation with a few academic societies to make up for it. All of my letter writers came from relationships that I developed outside of my grad department. It sounds like it is too late for the author to do this, unfortunately. It can be done, but it takes time to develop those relationships.

Here is the thing that I want to stress to the author, which is good news: at no point during my time on the job market, or in my subsequent academic career, did anyone ever ask why I didn't have a letter from my supervisor. As far as I could tell, a good letter from a good scholar is all that any hiring committee looks for. Not having a letter from my supervisor has never had any impact on me.

Also, I have served on many hiring committees. In that capacity, I have never heard any committee member ask, "Why doesn't this candidate have a letter from their supervisor?" You can get by without your supervisor perfectly well.

Finally, to reiterate something Marcus said, power structures are everywhere. If you can find a career that doesn't have one, please let us know!


I think the poster should know that SOME hiring committees do think it is a concern that you do not have a letter from your supervisor. It raises questions, questions we sometimes cannot even ask. So, with so many great applications to choose from, the safe thing to do is set yours aside. That is the reality, in some departments.
You can imagine what sorts of concerns people raise when they see such a file.


Just to add to Concerned: many years ago we were hiring and one of our finalists didn't have a letter from his supervisor. The question was raised by one of my colleagues: I wonder why he doesn't have a letter from his supervisor? But in the end, the candidate was strong and liked by the committee and so people put a good spin on it (he'd been post-doc ing for a couple of years, so some responded to this question by saying: it is a strength of the candidate that there were able to get good letters from other people not from their PhD granting institution.) But notice this would be harder to do (if not impossible) for student fresh out of their PhD program. We did end up hiring him.

so my sense is that, the question will be raised in some quarters - if you've managed to solicit strong letters from other people in the field, and if you're a couple years out from your PhD - it won't matter too much (but again, whether it matters - or could even be perceived as a positive - will depend on how long you've been out and how strong your other letters and file are).

Mike Titelbaum

Just wanted to echo that at least at the R1 where I work, if a candidate just coming off the PhD didn’t have a letter from their advisor, we would notice. Wouldn’t necessarily be disqualifying, but we would notice. Especially because a good advisor letter is different than other letters; it usually goes on at much greater length about the dissertation project and that project’s context in the field.

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