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nine to five


I recently completed a graduate program at McGill University. But even after graduation, my supervisor expects me to work on that project, without any stipend or salary. But this is not the only problem. I have been rejected by potential employers four times because he wrote a bad recommendation letter for me.

I have been working seven days a week for last two years in his lab and now that I have graduated, he is hindering my job search, for which his letter of recommendation is mandatory, as he was my research supervisor.

I literally have e-mails from potential employers who say they were interested in hiring me but wouldn't because of the poor letter of recommendation.

I cannot afford to loose more opportunities. What should I do?


Billy Anderson

Founder of The Courage Crusade, Toronto

This is tricky since you clearly need his recommendation. Regardless, it's never advisable to cut what can be untied. So, how do we untie this?

Firstly, what was your original agreement for the project? Were you to be involved until you completed your studies or until the project was completed? Either way, you need to deal with him based on how he feels about it, not on how you think he should feel. Whether or not he's being unreasonable is irrelevant; he needs to see it himself, not be told it.

I recommend you have a frank conversation with him where you state your point of view and ask for his input, without making accusations. I would begin with an e-mail so he can digest it first and isn't caught off-guard. Perhaps something like the following:

"I was wondering if we could have a quick phone call to discuss something important that I'm upset about.

"Based on your letter of recommendation, I get the impression you're not happy with the work I've done for you. I'd like to hear your thoughts because not only does my ability to get employment hinge on your letter, but I also value our relationship and the time you've invested in me."


Greg Chung-Yan

Psychology department head, University of Windsor

People think that academia runs according to its own rules; it being out-of-touch with the "real world." I suppose there is some justification for this view, but the same job-hunting principles apply, no matter the industry. When you ask people for a recommendation, make sure you are confident they will not only write you a positive letter, but that they are familiar enough with your work that they can provide concrete examples supporting their opinion.

Readers may wonder why someone would ask their research supervisor for a recommendation if that person has a history of writing negative letters. It is because when an academic hiring committee reviews a job application, they expect that one of the references will be from the person who has the most familiarity with the applicant's academic qualifications – most often the research supervisor. If the supervisor does not provide a letter, it seems unusual; but I am not aware of it being mandatory.

Assuming you've had a candid conversation with your supervisor about the fairness of his letters, if your supervisor writes letters preventing you from getting jobs, stop asking him. Find others who are familiar with your work to write you letters, and ask them to specifically address the areas of concern for which your supervisor has criticized you.

It is not unheard of for supervisors and graduate students not to get along or have a falling out. If the other elements of your application are strong, then the lack of a letter from you supervisor is not an insurmountable obstacle.