The Sassy Scientist – A Tale Of Two Offices

The Sassy Scientist – A Tale Of Two Offices

Every week, The Sassy Scientist answers a question on geodynamics, related topics, academic life, the universe or anything in between with a healthy dose of sarcasm. Do you have a question for The Sassy Scientist? Submit your question here or leave a comment below.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. Lucie lives through those ages, so she asks:

My PhD supervisor refuses to write a letter of recommendation for a looming job opportunity. What shall I do?

Dear Lucie,

That seems quite harsh. Is it really a blunt refusal, or is your supervisor simply a little in dubio? I would suggest to really get to the bottom of this. Let’s play detective. In my view there are three ‘persons of interest’ in this inquiry; you, your supervisor and the new job. Is it possible to identify a sole culprit, or is your denial to a glowing recommendation letter a team effort?

First, let’s focus on the final option: the new job opportunity. Have you stopped to consider that this may actually not be such a great opportunity you first deemed it was? It appears you seek to take advantage of every and any opportunity to leave that horrid environment of unsupportive supervision. At least that is how a bad choice for future employment is perceived by any kind-hearted supervisor. Generally speaking, every and any opportunity is not the way to go forward in building a sustainable career. If your supervisor has already questioned whether you are really certain this is the way forward, this may be their intrepid way of holding you back. Back from future deception, that is.

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. Do you know what drives them in refusing to write a letter of recommendation? Are they simply hesitant because they themselves are insecure. Or are they doing this out of self-interest, i.e., is this ‘positive’ personal interest; they want to keep you close, all for themselves? Of course, it could also be ‘negative’ personal interest; you’ve been a complete mess, not keeping true to appointments and agreements made in good faith. In can fathom why someone would not want to dump such a personality on top of an unsuspecting colleague they want to call colleague still in a few years. A day wasted on others is not wasted on one’s self. Just waste one on yourself. A little critical self-reflection never hurt anyone.

Vengeance and retribution require a long time; it is the rule. Bad blood between you and your supervisor for many years to come is not advisable. Through all your efforts in completing a PhD study and seeking solace in academia, you must remember that nothing that we do, is done in vain. Just like the rest of us, you’ll get there. But no taking jobs beneath you!

Yours truly,

The Sassy Scientist

PS: This post was written with some quotes from Charles Dickens’, A Tale Of Two Cities, 1859. Did you find them all?

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I am currently employed at a first tier research institute where I am continuously working with the greatest minds to further our understanding of the solid Earth system. Whether it is mantle or lithosphere structure and dynamics, solid Earth rheology parameters, earthquake processes, integrating observations with model predictions or inversions: you have read a paper of mine. Even if you are working on a topic I haven’t mentioned here, I still know everything about it. Do you have any problems in your research career? I have already experienced them. Do you struggle with your work-life balance? Been there, done that. Nowadays, I have only one hobby: helping you out by answering the most poignant questions in geodynamics, research and life. I am waiting for you right here. Get inspired.


  1. This answer is potentially as toxic as academia.
    If your advisor has a good reason not to write the letter – and I mean he knows more about the opportunity than you do and thinks you should find a different place/path for your own case – then they should communicate it and you two should talk about it in detail. In that case, you wouldn’t have to ask. Same if they don’t think you’re doing a good job. They should just tell you. And then you wouldn’t have to ask, although it would be weird to get to the letter writing stage without doing a good job.

    If your advisor wants to “keep you close” while NOT DISCUSSING IT WITH YOU and SABOTAGING WHAT YOU ACTUALLY WANT TO DO WITH YOUR LIFE YOURSELF, it’s a huge red flag. The guy’s toxic and treats you like an object, not a person.

    And the fact that you have to ask and don’t know clearly what’s going on is another giveaway that something’s wrong.

    Plus, in the real world, I’d say apply to any opportunity and gain any experience. It will be worth it.

    Don’t you harm people with these answers and don’t you make them stay in harmful places.

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      Congratulations. You deserve a sticker. I think you have indeed recognised the very problem underlying this question: clear-cut communication. The premise of this post was that this was lacking for some reason: ignorance, miscommunication, absence, attitude, personal circumstances, professional circumstances, et cetera, et cetera …. I do not think it had to be stated that I do not know the particular reason in this case. This post continues then follows the suggestion of last week’s post that also supervisors are not omniscient beings, with impeccable people skills, flawless intuition for professional human interaction or a high EI.

      Knowing where you stand in your relationship with your supervisor and, as a direct consequence perhaps, in your relationship with academia as viewed by someone close to your professional life is an effective state-of-mind. This doesn’t necessarily mean that either of these aforementioned relationships is toxic. The notion I seek to communicate is that you can let your own mind race, and wander in case you have not sought properly – i.e., in the absence of effective communication – to find the answer to the question posed: Why am I denied a recommendation letter? In this you can then reach different final destinations to your pondering: a toxic relationship, well-meant but poorly executed mentoring, or a blatant disregard of other people’s evaluations of your work and choices. To reiterate the obvious: You need to get a first-hand response to the question.

      Just a final thought. Whereas you warn me not to advice people to stay in a harmful place (which I have not by the way; get out when you recognise you’re in one!) I will warn people not to jump into one. You do not want to endure any experience. This may be either personal, professional or both. Not everybody has a flawless perspective on their future career, with potential dead ends or at least severe deviations from a prosperous life in academia as a consequence. Maybe you’re the lucky one who has made all the right choices on your path, but most of us need (a lot of) advice from others. And I will end this with the self-evident: you need to communicate!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. The Sassy Scientist’s comparison of two offices highlights the importance of a conducive work environment on productivity. While the external environment may not always be under our control, we can always make conscious efforts to improve our personal workspace for optimal output.


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