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Worried about a less-than-stellar LOR. Should I approach them?


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I first took this professor's class which I received an A in. I got to know him from going to office hours a lot. He offered the research position without me even asking for it. I worked in his lab for 6 months. Everything went pretty well and the research was presented by me and another undergrad at two undergraduate research forums. It's not a research area I'm particularly interested in pursuing further but still a great experience and important part of my background and application, since universities love any prior research experience/presentation of research.

After the first quarter (3 months), he personally asked me to come back for another. But the next quarter, he didn't. He said his grad students said I missed 3 weeks which was not acceptable. I replied with the reasons why I missed those weeks (bad flu, interviews, and end of quarter group projects and finals; every absence I had informed the grad students ahead of time with my apologies and offering to reschedule, however they weren't great at getting back to me. I forwarded him the e-mails with my response.) He never responded to that e-mail. I also asked him if we could meet to talk about grad school and if he could recommend anywhere/anyone to look into but he never really made himself available.

I asked him if he could provide a (strong) letter of recommendation several months later and he agreed to write a letter. I'm really worried, however, that he's not very happy with me. The absence thing certainly wasn't a great thing (was a very bad quarter for me, but the missed time is not defining of my work ethic). Or maybe he sensed that I wasn't absolutely crazy about the research area. He's a sort of guy of very few words so it's hard to read him.

I've had offers of LOR from a couple of other people which could replace his, but both of them are further from my intended research area than the prof in question. Personally, I think this prof is a great candidate based on most of my prior experience with him but I'm still worried. I've considered e-mailing him again, saying something like if you feel any less than comfortable in writing a strong and accurate letter you are free to pass on this task; you've already provided a lot of help for me...

What do you think?

Edited by nechalo
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  • 2 weeks later...

I have to say I was in a pretty similar situation...as one of my recommenders said he would comment only on my intellectual ability, but not on the interpersonal aspect....The problem is I can't easily replace him with another because of some history...

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From your account, it seems to me that he sensed that you weren't that into the research area and that your view of what constitutes a strong work ethic differs from his. (On the latter, I think you would benefit from some soul searching. You put your own interests ahead of your team.)

MOO, you have three courses of action. Go to the professor, take ownership of your conduct, and withdraw your request for a LoR; go to the professor, close the door, clear the air, and then make a decision if you still want him to write you a LoR; or just renew the request for the LoR without additional comment. (Notice, that the three options have in common a face-to-face meeting with the professor.)

Before you select one of these three courses of action or go with another option, I strongly urge you to have a conversation with yourself about those three weeks that you missed. Bluntly, unless someone was pointing a gun at your head while someone else was beating you with a two by four, you made a choice to not go to the lab, to not develop viable options to make up the work that you missed, and to not communicate clearly with your team mates. (It wasn't on them to get back to you, but on you to figure out an option acceptable to them.)

When you have your conversation with yourself, do not flay yourself with a cat of nine tails--when you get to graduate school, professors will do that on a regular basis. Just take ownership of the fact that you made some mistakes and think of ways you can avoid similar errors in the future. Then pick yourself up, dust yourself off, treat yourself to a nice mocha, and set up an appointment with the professor. (Again, a face-to-face meeting.)

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  • 3 weeks later...

Thanks for the reply. I didn't see your post until just now, sorry.

I sent him an e-mail a few days after I posted this (face-to-face would've been better in retrospect, I need to get better at just asking for that even with as convenient as text/e-mail is). I said that I understood it being justifiable and I wish I could have helped make it up in any way. Also, that I take responsibility personally and try to make the best of a bad situation but try harder to learn from mistakes... I thanked him for the experience in his lab and how that's plenty for me, and then offered to withdraw the LOR request. he replied: "I have no problem writing a strong letter for you nechalo"

I guess I'll just hope he had in mind a good definition of strong. His terseness can be scary but he's always like that through e-mail. Should've done face-to-face for sure.

When it comes down to the soul searching and conversation with myself part... I don't know what else to say. I didn't realize at the time the situation was bad. I suppose I can start by working on that piece of social awkwardness...

I love research, and had a great time with it and then again when I wrote a term paper on the results of the research in a later statistics class. But there was no time limit on this research, nor was there much pushing from the grad students (was exclusively an undergrad project). The three weeks to me didn't seem so detrimental. They also weren't consistent weeks and I always communicated all of them and when I could be back. I had planned to make up for it the following quarter. What happened those three weeks: I had mono for one, and this was also around finals week with final projects (I remember spending an additional 20-30 hours one week in ChemE group meetings and in front of CHEMCAD trying to get it to converge and give reasonable numbers) and during a time where a lot of employers were around campus doing interviews. I do see how the last two can be seen as putting myself in front of the team...

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a related question: is it a bad sign if, when you ask for a recommendation letter, the person replies "I could write it but.." In this case, s/he said that s/he wasn't exactly an expert in my research area. I don't need an expert, but I'm wondering if that was an attempt to wriggle out of the job that I should have paid attention to.

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Not necessarily -- she could have been just trying to make sure you had the best combination of letters. Provided you DO have other writers you can address your research potential, it should be fine. Without bringing it up, however, this person had no way of knowing whether all your references were outside your area or not. Sometimes, it can actually be useful to have someone from outside your field write, and I discussed this with one of my LOR writers, as I wanted him to emphasize a different aspect of my application.

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