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LOR from a Prof who is ... dying

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Skip to LOR 3 and bottom of post for quick version


Some Background
Let me first say I am applying next year, so LORs would not be due until December 2013. I hold an M.S. and am applying to competitive PhD programs in environmental science. I have been planning to apply for some time, researching programs, contact POIs, prepping to retake GRE since my scores have expired. All in all I feel fairly prepared. 



It's far too early for LORs, but here is who I have been targeting to ask. I'm looking for advice on #3 specifically (thread title) but welcome feedback elsewhere!


LOR 1 - Primary advisor of my MS degree, Dept Chair // continue to stay in touch since graduating in 2009 and exchange research ideas. He can speak to my research capability and general aptitude as a grad student. Confident in this LOR.


LOR 2 - on thesis committee and took several courses from this prof. Also studied abroad under her direction. Also did research with her (with LOR 1). Since LOR 1 is focused on research, I'd like for her to focus on my coursework and study abroad. Have kept in good touch with this prof. 


LOR 3 - Professor who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. This is an older prof, and his diagnosis has prompted him to retire, Fall 2012 his final semester. Unlike LOR1/2, I have not kept in much touch with this prof (which I regret for more than just LOR reasons) since graduating (2009), but had always targeted him for a LOR. Took some cornerstone classes from him and great relationship outside of class seeking career feedback, etc. All things aside, even though I haven't been in touch I feel he'd write a great recommendation with some reminders of what courses I took, interests, CV etc. Great writer, and I think he would bring a unique LOR relative to LORs1/2 (I really want each of the three to be diverse and strong).


He is an extremely kind man who has served the academic community (among others) greatly. His diagnosis has saddened many, and I feel horrible for even having LOR-related thoughts but I trust I'm not the first to come across this issue. Or course, his retirement and diagnosis brings up ethics, etc. I want to be respectful. However, I know he is the type of person who wouldn't want people to act differently just because of his diagnosis. He has moved away from the university (so have I) so contact would be email/phone. 


What do I do? 


Ask early (i.e. ASAP)? I'd want to first re-establish connection with him before actually asking. Not sure I'd want to bring up his diagnosis, but I'm sure he'd get the idea if I am asking early or to prepare one in advance. 


What is the protocol here? Both in asking, but also in terms of logistics should he pass away. Can writers write LOR in advance? Could one his colleagues (LOR1 or LOR2) coordinate? (I plan to ask for their advice as well) I feel horrible for even thinking about this!


By moving to a 4th or 5th option for this 3rd LOR, I feel I'd be losing a lot by not seeking a letter from this retired prof. I'd have to go to a professional reference or even a peer, and I feel they'd be a significant drop off from my LOR 1/2 that could hinder my application. 


I seek the gradcafe's wise wise council .. !


tl;dr: Prof who I was targeting to ask for LOR has just retired and has cancer. How do I approach asking him for an LOR early and can he write it early for next application season?



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Most schools, if not all, have online application systems which require you to notify your recommender by listing his email address. The system then emails your recommender and sends him a password. The recommender then has to log in to the system, type in the password, then upload his letter. Also, bear in mind that you can't even set up your online application until a couple of months before the application deadline.

What this means for you is;

Your prof may not be around to upload his letters and I don't think there is any way to start the application months in advance.

I would personally feel a little weird asking a dying man for a letter of recommendation. This doesn't mean you shouldn't. You obviously know the person and this may not be an issue for them. In any case you might want to talk to the programs you're interest in about this unique issue. They may let you mail in the letters of recommendation.

Best of luck.

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Interfolio to the rescue, I think. Interfolio allows you to archive an LOR and keep it around (I don't believe it's ever removed unless you remove it). So you may consider asking all your writers to simply upload to Interfolio.


When application time comes around, you can use a unique email link for each address that Interfolio generates, to populate the address fields in your online application systems. Read up about how Interfolio works and you'll understand. I would strongly recommend it. 

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I was in a similar position when my undergraduate research advisor, under whom I'd co-authored 3 papers, suddenly (and unexpectedly) passed away my junior year. I was fortunate enough that one of his colleagues, another professor I also knew, offered to write my letters for me, adapting and copiously quoting a letter my advisor had written for me that the university had on file (for an undergrad fellowship that required university sponsorship).


These situations are of course very individual, but I just wanted to say that it isn't unheard of for a professor to coordinate these sorts of things for a colleague. I would personally probably feel a bit weird asking a dying professor for a LOR, but you know much more about this particular situation.


Regarding Interfolio, I don't know very much about it, but one drawback is that I don't think it allows professors to customise the letters by school (not all professors do this, but some do). Also, I would also suggest that you ask the various programs you're applying to if they accept Interfolio letters. I've heard that some programs have custom prompts or checklists for the professor to fill out, and thus discourage using Interfolio. YMMV


Good luck!

Edited by quinquenion
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Hmm. This is a tough situation. I don't know anything about interfolio, but I do know that some university departments keep letters on file. Perhaps if you do end up asking for a letter you could arrange for that. Then when it comes time to submit you can always let your schools know why the letters haven't been personalized. I don't think logistics will be a problem.

The more difficult question is whether or not to ask, of course. There's no obvious answer, as others have noted. Is there possibly another prof you know in the department whom you might be able to ask about how receptive the sick prof might be, just to test the waters? Perhaps this is morbid, but I might also consider how far along he is in this illness. If he is actively dying, then I would feel very uncomfortable asking, and would probably discourage others from doing the same. But sometimes terminal illness means a number of decent years left, just that there's no cure. Sad either way.

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Great feedback all. Yes, I think I am going to test the waters by asking another prof in the department who would be more up to speed on the health details. He is not actively dying, just a diagnosis (albeit a serious one). I am certainly uncomfortable even asking. So yes, I think I am going to start there: ask other profs their advice and then go from there and worry about logistics later. I think it's the logistics that I was worrying about and how to get the letter in, should he pass. But I'll cross that bridge later. Some things are more important than LORs. I'd rather re-connect with the prof while I have the chance, for that fact alone .. regardless of a LOR. 


I may start another thread on the specifics of Interfolio. Going to do some research on it first .. but feedback from those who have used it would be great if they are reading this. 

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 I used Interfolio. It's great, but a few of my schools did not accept letters from Interfolio. However, I suspect that if your letter writer has passed, even these schools would probably make an exception for that one letter.


Is there anyone else you can ask? I think that you should absolutely speak with other faculty members who know him and his current health situation better before you go about asking him. Think of it this way: Do you really want to ask a person who has been given 3-6 months to live, or a person who may be undergoing chemo or other overwhelming medical treatments, to spend several hours writing a letter about a student they once had? Hopefully not, unless you know that person to take great joy in helping students succeed via letter writing. But you don't know if the situation is that dire, right? Find out without having to ask him. Find a way to find out, or, better yet, go with another letter writer if you have one.

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