I'm applying for approximately 87 different things this fall, most of which require lining up the ol' recommendation letters. But for the first time in more than 10 years, I didn't ask my dissertation director for one.
Advisor remains the biggest name I could rally to my cause, and a small part of me wonders whether that isn't reason enough to ask: the patronage-model-cum-magical-thinking that sustains grad students hasn't entirely left me. But a larger part of me is relieved not to have to go there, by which I mean to go back there, to that anxious, cringing, supplicatory phase of my life.
It's not about Advisor herself. I could ask, and she'd probably write for me. She's been good to me over the years. Nor do I think it's inappropriate to have one's advisor write on one's behalf many years after the fact: some people remain close to their advisors, in a relationship that evolves into friendship and even collaboration. But that's not true of our relationship: I see her from time to time and send her cards at Christmas and that sort of thing, but she doesn't know my recent work hardly at all--certainly not as well as the mentors I've acquired since graduate school.
More important, though, is my reluctance to revisit that particular phase of my scholarly life. Longtime readers will recall that my experience of grad school was Not Good. It's increasingly clear that the problem was with me, or with grad school as a phenomenological state, rather than with my program or my advisor; I've reflected before that grad school made me incapable of the friendships that I needed and wanted from my classmates, and I was probably similarly incapable of the advisor/advisee relationship that I wanted.
For the first few years after I got my degree, I worked very hard to develop a new, adult relationship with Advisor. And it worked well enough. But there are reasons both personal and professional--matters of temperament as well as specific events in our respective lives--that mean we're never going to have what Cosimo and his advisor have, or what some of my other friends have with theirs.
Once that would have made me sad or frantic: not having my advisor's love, in the way I wanted it, felt like a personal failing, a sign that I wasn't deserving of it. But some relationships are never quite the right fit, and some we outgrow, and most of us manage to find others who do love us in the way we want to be loved.
I'd been planning to ask Advisor for a letter. I'm sure she'd have written a strong one. But when it occurred to me in September that I didn't have to--that I had professional friends who were senior scholars who liked my work, that I didn't have to reenter that particular tortured headspace--I felt so relieved that I almost burst into tears.