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

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.

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.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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Klodjan Staffa, PhD
Klodjan Staffa, PhD

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.

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