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Why You Don’t Need An Academic Recommendation Letter From Your Advisor

letter of recommendation academic | Cheeky Scientist | role of academic advisor

Written by Klodjan Staffa, Ph.D.

I never felt like I was doing enough in the lab.

When things went wrong, I was to blame.

When things went right, my advisor took the credit.

Still…

I persisted.

I thought that if I did everything I was asked to do without ever complaining, my academic career would advance.

I would eventually become a professor and be able to live the good life.

It all came down to trust. I trusted the academic system to take care of me. I trusted my academic advisor to have my best interests at heart.

I trusted him to show me how to be successful and how to navigate the intricate academic path.

I also trusted him to help me, or at least allow me, to learn about non-academic jobs.

I shouldn’t have been so trusting.

How PhDs Get Pushed Around

“You will have to make up time for these extracurricular activities.”

This is what my academic advisor said to me when I asked to take a few hours off one day to go to a PhD networking event.

I was deep into my first postdoc when I realized I wanted to start exploring non-academic careers.

But my advisor was against it.

He called me into his office to explain every outside event that I wanted to attend. According to him, no event was worth my time.

Whether it was a PhD roundtable, PhD career fair, a non-PhD networking event, planned visit to a biopharma and biotech campus, or PhD job interview—he’d scoff at the idea.

He’d tell me that I shouldn’t go and if I did I’d have to make up the time.

He’d make me explain myself like a little kid begging to go on a field trip.

Then, he’d berate me and belittle my work.

“You should be working harder to produce data for your papers.”

“Moreover, these events are not in line with your academic goals.”

He loved using the word “moreover” when he was angry.

These conversations would leave me feeling drained and helpless.

Eventually, I’d give in.

I gave in every time.

What do you do when your advisor doesn’t want what’s best for you? 

Wake Up Your Self-Respect

My wake-up call came 2 years after I got my PhD.

I was working as a postdoc on a risky project that wasn’t likely to pay off.

I went months without seeing daylight.

I’m serious. I didn’t see daylight. My peers called me “the one man lab.”

But my advisor still wasn’t happy.

To be fair, he was stretched in a million different directions and didn’t have a good picture of what was going on in the lab as a whole.

The busier my advisor was, the more out of touch he became. And being out of touch made him angry.

He became more and more controlling.

At this point, he wouldn’t even entertain the idea of me going to networking events.

He started sending me multiple emails every weekend.

Finally, one Sunday, I’d had enough. He sent me 3 emails before noon demanding data and something inside of me woke up.

Something inside of me came alive again.

It was my self-respect.

Your Advisor Is Not Your Daddy

Like a lot of PhDs, I was trained to see my advisor as some kind of father (or mother) figure.

What he or she said goes. No discussion, just blind acceptance.

I wasn’t going to live like this anymore.

My advisor was not my daddy, he was my employer. That’s all. Nothing more and nothing less.

I decided to have a talk with my advisor that following Monday.

But, instead of waiting for his secretary to look at his agenda and set up an official appointment, I went straight to his office door and started knocking.

The door was closed which meant, as he put it, no one was “allowed” to interrupt him.

He said, “come in” and asked me what I wanted with a snarl and without looking up from his computer screen.

I stood there silently until he looked up. Then I looked him straight in the eyes and said ,“I quit.”

I explained that my academic career was headed for a dead end and as such, I wasn’t going to stay in it.

Wow, I said it.

Finally.

As soon as I spoke those words, I felt strong again.

letter of academic reference | Cheeky Scientist | academic advisor responsibilities

Stop Worrying About A Recommendation Letter

Later that day, when I asked for a referral for the industry positions I was going to apply to, my advisor mumbled something incoherently.

I quickly realized I was not going to get an academic recommendation letter from my advisor. So…

I took matters into my own hands.

I stopped listening to lifelong academics and scientific journal editors who’ve never worked in industry and started seeking advice from people who had both PhD-level academic experience and industry experience.

I started going to PhD events and non-PhD events. I found time to get back on LinkedIn so I could update my profile, nurture my current connections, and make new connections.

The most important thing I did was joining the Cheeky Scientist Association. This was a game changer for me.

I learned more about industry during my first two weeks as an Associate than I had learned during my entire career.

It was a thrilling experience to be able to interact with all the Associates.

I was filled with hope again and knew that it was only a matter of time until I got the industry position I wanted.

A few weeks later, I started going on interviews with companies like Roche and Estée Lauder, and quickly signed a six-figure contract with the latter.

Now, I wake up every day in New York City doing meaningful work I love while getting paid for it.

And I get to see lots of daylight.

Why You Shouldn’t Fear Your Academic Advisor

Many PhDs are afraid to stand up to their advisors.

But there’s nothing to be afraid of, especially if you’d made a decision to transition into industry.

Most academic advisors are too focused on securing federal funding for their laboratories to help you advance your career.

They have a very limited circle of friends and very few, if any, industry contacts.

This means they have no influence over you outside of academia.

They are powerless.

Many advisors will try use their letters of recommendation as leverage against PhD students and postdocs.

If you don’t work hard enough in the lab, you won’t get a letter.

If you don’t walk on eggshells and treat them like kings or queens, you won’t get a letter.

If you decide to leave academia, you won’t get a letter.

Who cares?

You do not need a letter of recommendation from your advisor to get an industry position.

No one in industry cares about these letters. No one.

Here’s the overall lesson…

If you’ve decided to transition into an industry position, there’s nothing your advisor can do to help you or harm you.

Getting an industry job is up to you and you alone, so stop fearing your academic advisor and start standing up for yourself. You don’t need an academic recommendation letter from them to be successful in a career in industry. At first, it may be difficult to say “no” to your advisor or any other academic big shot, but it will get easier over time. The important thing is to get started right away. Take action now to change the dynamic of your relationship with your advisor and change the trajectory of your career for the better. Be respectful of your advisor but remember to respect yourself as well.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association. 

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Klodjan Staffa, Ph.D.

Klodjan Staffa, Ph.D.

Klodjan is a Ph.D. and currently works as a Sr. Scientist in the Research & Development department of Estée Lauder Companies in New York City. During and after completion of his Doctorate, Klodjan published several prominent papers in a variety of scientific journals. He got the Brain Mind Institute (EPFL) best PhD thesis in 2013 as well as a fellowship from the Swiss National Science Foundation. Klodjan believes self-innovation is paramount in today’s competitive job market and encourages other PhDs to take action for themselves instead of allowing others to dictate their choices and careers.
Klodjan Staffa, Ph.D.
  • Den Harper

    I agree with you Klodjan here on the what is going on with postdocs in the academic. The role of advisor should be to guide the students in the proper direction and help them to get a successful academic career. They try to become your master by threatening you of recommendation letter.

    • Klodjan Stafa

      Hi Den Harper,

      you are indeed right! The way graduate students and postdocs are treated is unacceptable and the recommendation letter won’t be the gateway to grant transition into something else.

  • Emma

    In industry, no one will ask you about recommendation letters from your advisor. But for that you need to work hard and build your skills that matches industry standard. And after that you need to attend PhD events and make new connection with industry.

    It’s good to know that the Cheeky Scientist Association change your career, I would love to be that part of the association.

    • Klodjan Stafa

      Dear Emma,

      this is an opportunity you do not want to miss as you will be open to great advice, professional support and you will be able to figure out the skills required for the industry job of your choice. Being here and reading these blog articles is by far a great start. Best

      • Emma

        Thank you Klodjan, I’m already in wait list 🙂

        • Klodjan Stafa

          Marvelous!
          If I can be of help in anything, do not hesitate to get back to me.Best_K.S

  • Susan

    Hi Klodjan, your story motivates me a lot. I suffocate in my lab doing the same work over and over. The amount of work and pressure is too high, so it is difficult to balance your academic and social life. I also want to transform my career in the industry but need to guidance for that, and I think I come to the correct place. I am surely going to join Cheeky Scientist Association this time.

    • Klodjan Stafa

      Hi Susan,

      yes indeed you are in the right place! By joining the association, you will be having the right guidance and an incredible support to transition into industry. Best_K.S

  • Chloe

    Your academic advisor should be your pathfinder and help you to get a successful career. But most of them don’t have enough connection to industry so they are not able to help you in finding a well paid industry job. So their recommendation letter doesn’t matter that much if you go for an industry job.

  • Brenda N

    Thank you Klodjan for such detailed and eye opening article. I gain some confidence to think about my career in the industry job. I don’t like this boring lab job, I want to explore new technologies and trends in industry, I want to apply my skills and knowledge there. How can I join this association? Thanks.

    • Klodjan Stafa

      Hi Brenda N, you are very welcome!

      If you want to open up your eyes to a variety of new trends in industry that will set you apart, then you should definitely join the Cheeky Scientist Association. You will be given a full array of materials and you will have support from professionals that will help you get the industry job of your choice. I am here to guide and advice. Best regards. K.S

  • DrHanson

    Yes, this is true. “If you decide to leave academia, you won’t get a letter.” My friend is going to quit academic life and want to join a startup. When he told his advisor about it, he got mad at him and also threatened him about recommendation letter. But I send him this article and told him not to worry about it.

    • Klodjan Stafa

      Hi DrHanson, thank you for sharing my article with your friend. People should never fear taking action but rather look at the opportunities that industry offers them and embrace those new avenues whether is a startup/consulting/biotech etc. Your friend won’t be regretting his choice at all. Best

  • Jacob

    “Your Advisor Is Not Your Daddy”, I know the meaning of this line. Stop following your advisor blindly, he is your employer. So he should not treat you like a servant, he should respect you and your opinion. After all it is all about you and your career so you should stop following him and start thinking on your own.

  • BobPhD

    I think for transitioning our career from academic to industry, we do not need permission or recommendation letter from anyone who try to demoralize us. We should develop our network in the industry and likewise people so the transition will be easy. And I heard from my cousin about your association and I think it can help me in transitioning.

  • Dominik

    I read your story at starting of this post and how you ditch the academics and turn your career into the industry. It’s a common story of postdoc now a days. Everyone wants to get a well paid industry job, but fear of leave academic and being unemployed prevent them. Your story can be an example for me and them of how to transform your career in industry.

  • Alicia Peters

    Hey, I am following this website for a long time. I get to know many things about academic and industry. How it works and how you should behave in such situations and survive them. Currently I am doing my graduation and this helps me a lot to attain my career path until now. I am thinking of doing a PhD in computer science after my post graduation, and I believe that this website will help in future also. Thank you.

  • Roselyne

    I completly agree with your article. My PI want more and more and there is nothing that will satisfie him. Thank you for writing this, I’m felling I’m not alone :). I just want to add a comment though, i’m actually in PhD and i want to go to industry. It is true that we shouldn’t count on our advisor for this and said no to all the extra work, but for me I’m still dependant because of the thesis. I think it is the case for all PhD student, until you had defended or at least send the manuscript, you are dependant and we cannot said no…yet !
    By the way, the cheeky scientist seems to be a wonderfull association for PhD, but it is only in the US (I’m in France)?

  • lastpook

    Wow, such a relief to find this article! I had that kind of conversation with my PI, telling him reason after reason why I want to leave the lab: family, work/life balance, money after all. And he was just repeating his mantra “you’ve gotta get papers first, you’ve basically done nothing, no one will hire you”. Screw this! It takes at least whooping half a year to get the data (if you’re lucky not to have external “collaborators” and everything works flawlessly, and you spend 12 hrs in the lab 6.5 days a week!), write the manuscript, wait until some snobby oldfart reviewer will send it back and suggest to do as many experiments as you’ve just done, and send all the “corrections” back. In the group it takes at least two years (!!!) for a postdoc to publish a research paper. This is such a waste of time and life!

  • lilknaap

    Hello Klodjan,

    Its an eye-opener article to most of the aspiring graduate students.
    I’am somewhat in your situation, however at the masters level. There’s no way any professor would even entertain a master students profile without a recommendation from a thesis supervisor. Does this mean a dead-end to a Phd applicants ambitions? I would like to know your thoughts on this.
    Best wishes.

  • gianna

    I could not find any ‘prominent paper in a variety of scientific journals’ by this person. Why lie about it? I honestly don’t understand why smart students should follow this post and have their potential shut down by a person that didn’t make it.