Dear former graduate student seeking new (and better!) opportunities,
I am sorry you’re facing these unnecessary challenges when all you want is to reach your goals and secure that next step in your field. I, unfortunately, know exactly how you feel.
I had an abusive graduate advisor, and when I left graduate school I worried that I would be ineligible for opportunities without that glowing letter of recommendation.
- Should I reach out and request a letter even though it triggered me to be in touch with my former advisor?
- Even if they did write the letter, would it be filled with all the negative energy this advisor directed toward me during my years in their lab group?
If I were you, here is what I would do:
First, 3 questions to ask yourself:
- Do you feel unsafe or uncomfortable when interacting with your former advisor?
- How honest can you be with the future employer that’s asking for the letter?
- Will your advisor write a negative letter of recommendation for you?
You should definitely not subject yourself to further abuse from this person. This advisor had the opportunity to provide the bare minimum level of support and guidance and failed miserably, instead using you as a punching-bag for their insecurities or outlet for their anger. This was absolutely not your fault. You never deserve to be treated this way. Avoid interacting with your former advisor, especially if you feel unsafe or uncomfortable doing so.
Did your workplace specifically request a letter of recommendation from your former advisor, or will a letter from a different professor or staff member suffice? In the case that they want a letter from your advisor, or question why the letter is not from your advisor, can you be honest with this employer?
Unfortunately, workplace abuse is common, especially in places with clear power hierarchies like in academia. You might be surprised that many employers can be empathetic to your circumstance. When I was applying to my first job out of my toxic graduate school lab, I was worried my next employer would look down on me for the abuse I endured (I still felt that it was my fault because of gaslighting). I developed answers to questions including “why are you leaving graduate school” that emphasized that I wanted to move forward positively, which was true, but also were a means to mask the fact that my abusive advisor forced me out of my program without a clear reason. Little did I know, one of my coworkers (who would become my manager) had also had an abusive graduate school advisor that forced them to leave graduate school.
In the case that I needed a letter of recommendation for this job, looking back I realize I could have been open and (1) state that I did not feel comfortable or safe obtaining a letter of recommendation from my former advisor because they were abusive toward me, and (2) suggest I request a letter of recommendation from a different professor.
There are multiple benefits to using this strategy when navigating this situation. Not only are you setting healthy boundaries with your former advisor, but also you are testing whether your future employer will be supportive of you. In the case that you explain the abuse and the employer insists on the letter, they are not being respectful of your boundaries that you are setting for your health and safety. Would you want to work for someone who treats you like that?
Abuse, harassment, and discrimination are widespread issues, especially in disciplines that are not diverse. If you have been or are currently a minority in your field or workplace, it is more likely for you to experience microaggressions, harassment, bias, discrimination, and abuse. Employers should be able to understand and empathize with potential hires who have endured abuse at previous school or workplaces if they truly support diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) in their organization.
I, certainly, would not want to work for anyone who sees me as problematic for being a victim of bias, harassment, and abuse. This is especially because navigating those incidents gave me new skills, knowledge, and experience. I am stronger, smarter, and more capable BECAUSE of the obstacles I have faced, not despite them.
With the heightened visibility of the #MeToo Movement and #BlackLivesMatter, plus the harassment trainings mandated in schools and workplaces, by now everyone should realize that at some point or another everyone will experience a form of abuse at work or school. It is ordinary and normal to experience abuse, so why do we feel like we must conceal our victimhood?
Being open about abuse and harassment is not easy. It is brave. It take courage. I have found that the more open I am about my struggles, the easier it is for me to identify who is supportive of me and who is not, and, thus, easier to set boundaries with or stay way from those who are unsupportive of me.
Finally, if you absolutely must provide a letter from this abusive advisor despite asking for an exception, and you need this job for your livelihood and have no other options, what should you do?
Do you know if the letter from this advisor will be negative or positive? If not, you must accept that you have no control over what is included in this letter. It can be enraging if your abusive advisor chooses to write false or exaggerated claims preventing you from reaching this next career step, but that is not in your control. I encourage you in this situation to just focus on the things you can control including the rest of the interview process, your self-care, and, ultimately, your decision of whether to accept the job or not.
Remember, you are the asset. If an employer decides you are not a “good fit” for their organization, there is likely a better opportunity awaiting you elsewhere where you will be valued.
Thanks for your question!