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desertwoman

Has this happened to anyone before? (LOR problem/relationship with professor damaged)

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Has anyone else produced their worst writing or research for a professor they admired and/or needed a letter of recommendation from? Here's my situation: During my last undergrad semester, I was taking a graduate level course with my then favorite professor whom I very much admired. Typically, students performed their best in their favorite classes with professors they want to impress. However, I experienced a significant amount of stress that semester.  For over half the semester, I was moving every few days while trying to secure permanent housing and keep up with course work (and I have an anxiety disorder). I did manage to keep up with the work and do well on the quizzes, but I had a much later start on my research paper than intended. Maybe I still could have done well, but when this professor declined to be my adviser (she was near retirement), I fell into a depression. I ended up earning a 93% on the paper, but I feel (based on some of her comments) that even this grade was given out of mercy. Figuring she would decline a direct request for a letter, I asked if I could "contact her in the future for a letter of recommendation." She said I could contact her, but I because her wording was vague/indirect (she didn't say she would write the letter-- just that I could contact her), I felt she was probably trying to spare my feelings and put off having to come up with an excuse to decline. 

Yet, since she did say I could contact her, I decided that I would try to produce a new project to prove my capability to her. So, I submitted a proposal to an academic conference (the first one I've ever submitted), and it was accepted. I then emailed her asking for assistance with the project, but instead of even congratulating me she responded curtly/coldly. A few days later, I emailed her again, offering to withdraw the proposal (I submitted it before even beginning the project) and explained that I wanted to better demonstrate my research/project management skills while not under intense stress. (She did know about my housing situation.) When she ignored this email, I complained to the department chair. I didn't just mention these emails but other exchanges where I perceived her to be "moody." While he did compel her to reply to the unanswered email (where she declined to help with the project, albeit more politely), he did not mediate the situation or attempt to help us repair our "relationship." He actually took my complaint to the dean and associate dean. 

Long story short, I later tried to reconcile with her by apologizing (by email since she was living out of state that semester) for "overreacting." (Though I"m not sure if I actually did.)  I also told her about my anxiety disorder (and that I had documentation of it) and even some of the depression I experienced when learning she would not be my adviser. Instead of expressing sympathy or understanding, she ignored that email as well (which I did ask for a letter of recommendation in). What hurts me most is that I think this has less to do with the complaint than my work. Maybe she just doesn't feel I'm capable of graduate school after that paper. I'd like to get others' perspectives on this. While my circumstances were truthful, are there any extenuating circumstances in grad. school? (Again, this was a grad. level course.) If the issue was the complaint, then she probably would have accepted my apology and agree to write. (Agree? Disagree?)

So, has anyone else experienced the deterioration of a relationship with a professor they liked/admired and/or performed poorly for them? Also, will not having her letter kill my chance at grad. school? I have a 3.93 cumulative GPA, 6 graduate level credits in history (an A in both courses [including this one]) but no other significant research projects in history or publication etc. (I was an interdisciplinary studies major and didn't decide I wanted to pursue graduate studies in history until later on.) I should also specify that I"m first planning on earning my master's degree, so it's not like I"m applying to ultra competitive Ph.D. programs. I'd welcome everyone's thoughts and comments. 

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Ok there is a lot to unpack in your post, so I will do my best.  Yes I have had relationships with professors collapse for a variety of reasons, but I won't hijack your thread with my tales.  

Generally LORs can and should come from the best person who is able to speak to your work ethic and aptitude for the rigors of a grad program (advanced study, research, etc).  The professor you're describing doesn't sound like the best person.  While she is aware of your past circumstances  and you did well in her class, she has retired and gone out of state and likely moved on to other things.  She isn't obligated to keep working with you beyond what was required for the course even though you'd like that and surely there are other professors who are more accessible at this time.

As for the conference proposal, the best approach is to contact a professor first to describe the project you'd like to do and secure their support and advising before you submit anything.  Submitting first and then hoping they'll help you later often yields a negative result as you've experienced.  I suspect she viewed the request as last minute when she likely had other priorities she preferred to focus on.  I also suspect that she felt the involvement of the dept chair was an attempt to strong arm her into something she never committed to doing in the first place.  It is possible that your latest email detailing your mental health was interpreted as an attempt to guilt her into helping you, whether you intended it that way or not.  

As for the complaint, the dean and associate dean are likely going to look for evidence of mistreatment and if none is found then it'll likely be case closed.  From what you've said I'm not perceiving you were mistreated, but I'm not an administrator.

Regarding what you should do now, it seems best to leave this professor alone as she is not interested in working with you.  That does not mean you aren't capable of getting into grad school or successfully completing a PhD.  You need to branch out and find someone new to work with.  Figure out what your interests are and start talking to more faculty in the history dept or closely related fields to see if there's any openness to either helping you create your own project or allowing you to help with one of theirs so you can gain some research experience.

And though you didn't ask about this, I'd just like to say if you are not seeking treatment for both anxiety and depression it would be a good idea to do so.  Applying to and surviving grad school (whether Master's or PhD) is an exhausting journey and the more you prioritize your mental wellbeing now the better off you will be.

 

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  I agree with many of your perceptions, and I can see how this professor thought I might have been trying to guilt or coerce her into helping with the project. That wasn't the case, but I believe much of the problem stemmed from the way the chair handled everything. He really should have mediated the situation so we could have worked everything out (even by Skype or email etc.), and I've since complained about him to multiple levels of administration. 

It seems bridges are so easily burned in academia, but this was the first time I had such an experience and took it very harshly. I will start contacting other faculty to work with and hopefully get a stronger letter of recommendation. Thank you for the thorough reply. 

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Maybe this is just at my school, so ignore me if this isn't how your school is set up, but department chairs here don't have time to "mediate" relationships between students and professors unless it's a big deal (e.g. someone in conflict with their dissertation committee chair or retaliation for a sexual harassment complaint or something). I'm not saying I agree with this approach in academia, but it's kind of the way it works, at least at my school.

I understand feeling hurt when a professor you cared about didn't respond in a way that was helpful (I've had that happen; it stinks!), but from your description, it doesn't sound to me like she did anything professionally wrong. Professors often don't have time to respond to emails, and she went out of her way to respond and tell you that she couldn't help with a project that wasn't even for a class you were taking with her. Not responding to the follow-up to that (which again had nothing to do with being enrolled in a current class) is hardly a reportable offense. It's also important to recognize the context in which your complaint was made. Women have historically had an immensely difficult time getting tenure in academic institutions that have historically been dominated by men, and are often labeled "moody" or something similar (over-emotional, bossy, etc.). If I were her, I certainly wouldn't appreciate the exchange you described turning into a matter with the dean that could tarnish her record and make future employment challenging. I'm glad you apologized for that, but I just wanted to lay this out so you can better understand why the relationship might have gone downhill.

As the poster said above, moving on sounds like a good plan. I would also reconsider your approach if a situation like this happens again. If email isn't working, maybe ask to talk to the professor in person during office hours or even over the phone. Tone is hard to convey in email, if the professor has time to reply at all. Just recently, I found out during office hours that a professor who was ignoring my letter of rec request emails was actually thrilled to write me a letter, but just missed the emails in her inbox. She wasn't trying to be cold; she was just busy. I'm pretty bad with office hours, but I have to admit that face-to-face or verbal contact is super helpful, even if email is more convenient and comfortable.

I hope this helps clarify some things for the future. I wish you luck in forging new relationships with other professors. ❤️

P.S. Just to add, as a student who has anxiety and has had the experience of telling professors about my situation and not getting a response, my heart does genuinely go out to you on that front. Even though I maintain my opinions above re: whether what she did was actually something she should get in trouble for, I realize that opening up to someone about personal problems is hard, and not getting a response feels bad after making yourself vulnerable. Not everyone is good at handling anxiety and other mental health stuff. Hopefully you'll find good support people who are able to work with you and respond to your situation. I finally did, but it took a lot of time and disappointment. You'll get there!

Edited by lkaitlyn

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On 9/16/2019 at 11:31 PM, desertwoman said:

He really should have mediated the situation so we could have worked everything out (even by Skype or email etc.), and I've since complained about him to multiple levels of administration. 

I would stop sending these e-mails. Professors can't really be compelled to take students, even if one was it would be awkward at best. Sending emails up the chain might just aggravate the situation, is unlikely to further your cause, and might make it less likely that people will want to help you. I would be leery of helping someone if I thought that if/when things didn't go their way they would be firing off emails to people i report to.

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