After I gave a career development seminar a few years ago, a graduate student asked a question that really stumped me. The student had a suboptimal relationship with their principal investigator (PI), and they were hoping to graduate soon, apply for postdoctoral positions, and never look back. The student didn’t want to list the PI as a reference, because why list someone who won’t give you a positive recommendation? But, the student asked, don’t you kind of have to do that? Would employers wonder why that person’s name was missing? If the student listed, say, a friendly postdoc or research scientist from the same lab instead, would that recommendation hold less weight?
I understood the student’s concern. I’d love to pretend one sour relationship can’t spoil a scientist’s chances of getting their next job. After all, plenty of wonderful scientists encounter a boss during their careers that they just don’t mesh with, and that shouldn’t doom their whole future. But honestly, science isn’t always fair.
Science, especially in academia, is a small community. It’s so hierarchical that it’s almost authoritarian, with grad students having very little recourse against problematic PIs. So when you’d rather not use your PI as a reference, what do you do?