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mnemosune
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So I just found out that two of my profs are mad at me because I unintentionally misled one of them into thinking they were acting as a secondary supervisor for my MA thesis. My supervisor is also the graduate chair so she was really busy this year and wasn't able to give me very much time so I started having another prof who specialized in my time period work with me on my paper. So because I "got too much help" by getting feedback from both of them I have been told that my adviser is really mad and probably won't write me an LOR at all (she hasn't told me any of this, I have only gotten this secondhand) and the other professor said that she will write me an LOR but "will have to include this incident". When I met with her and she let me know of this matter (I had been blissfully unaware that there were any problems at all until yesterday) she was very grave about my grad school chances at this point.

So my question is, should I have her write the letter even though she will include details about how I "got too much help" or should I get another professor to write one? There is a prof whose course I took who seemed to like me enough but then I won't have any LORs from anyone who worked with me on my MA thesis and I am worried that this will look really bad. Is it better to have a LOR with lots of specifics but one bad item or a more general LOR that has nothing bad?

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Hi, mnemosune (mnemosyne?). I'm finding your story kind of strange. Maybe some clarification would help?

So I just found out that two of my profs are mad at me because I unintentionally misled one of them into thinking they were acting as a secondary supervisor for my MA thesis. My supervisor is also the graduate chair so she was really busy this year and wasn't able to give me very much time so I started having another prof who specialized in my time period work with me on my paper.

Ok, you clearly made an error by not keeping your supervisor up to date on who you were getting thesis help from. Even if she was away, that sounds like something you would have to clear with her. At your school, do you usually have first and second readers, or is that unusual? If it's normal, I don't see why people would be upset, and if it's abnormal, I don't see why the second professor would wwork with you without getting clearance. Maybe if you explained what exactly you mean by 'work with'. What did the two of you do together?

So because I "got too much help" by getting feedback from both of them I have been told that my adviser is really mad and probably won't write me an LOR at all

This also seems strange to me. Who said that you "got too much help"? What are the standards at your school for this kind of thing?

(she hasn't told me any of this, I have only gotten this secondhand)

Big red flag! This is your academic future you're talking about! Don't rely on gossip! Not playing things absolutely straight and clear with your supervisor is what got you into this mess. Start being direct with her, and do it now. Schedule an appointment, explain your version of events, be polite, be apologetic, and ask if she can still write you a strong letter of recommendation. Don't mention the gossip. It will seem unprofessional.

and the other professor said that she will write me an LOR but "will have to include this incident". When I met with her and she let me know of this matter (I had been blissfully unaware that there were any problems at all until yesterday) she was very grave about my grad school chances at this point.

Was she grave about your grad school chances only because of the incident with the supervisory mix-up, or is there more to that story? If she mentioned other reasons why she didn't like your odds, you should give them serious consideration.

So my question is, should I have her write the letter even though she will include details about how I "got too much help" or should I get another professor to write one? There is a prof whose course I took who seemed to like me enough but then I won't have any LORs from anyone who worked with me on my MA thesis and I am worried that this will look really bad. Is it better to have a LOR with lots of specifics but one bad item or a more general LOR that has nothing bad?

It will look really bad if you don't have a letter from your MA supervisor. Don't even start thinking about contingency plans yet. Get an appointment, talk it through with her, and try your very best to salvage that relationship. Remember that academia is a small world. If you're applying to do your PhD in the same sub-field as your MA, professors at your new schools may well know (or know of) your supervisor, and call her up to ask what the deal is. If she's really so upset that she won't write you a letter, I don't think you can gloss over it by finding another LOR.

If this was your undergrad advisor, it wouldn't be a big deal. But burning such an important bridge at the graduate level could be a real stumbling block. I don't mean to be harsh, just honest.

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Thanks for your response Jasper. I'll try to give some more details.

At my school you only have one supervisor for the MA thesis as far as I know. This is why I never brought it up with the second prof. I always framed my interactions with her as getting extra feedback because she specialized in my time period and my supervisor specialized in the subject matter. And the fact that my supervisor was less available then I would have wanted because of her administrative duties. My supervisor was definitely aware that I was getting help from the other professor as I often mentioned it in my meetings with her and also repeatedly sent drafts to both of them. The second professor's help mainly consisted of reading and commenting on my drafts and helping me to flesh out some of my ideas.

When I sent my final draft to both professors for a final read-through before officially handing it in my supervisor wrote back that "I'm happy to look at this and give you quick feedback. Prof. X has been very kind to give you advice on this all term, but since I am supervising the MA paper I think we should let her off the hook at this point. I don't want to impose too much. Usually, students have only one professor read the MA paper." At this point I didn't seek any more help from the other professor. This was the only time that my supervisor ever directly mentioned anything about this matter.

I would say that the main things that I did wrong in this situation was not be clear with the second professor about her role. She apparently thought that she was acting as a secondary supervisor but as I didn't even know that such a thing was an option I never thought that it was necessary to clarify that it wasn't the case. I think that the second professor went to talk to my supervisor about jointly grading my paper and that is where the trouble started. My supervisor was offended that I was getting so much assistance from another professor and the second professor was offended that she had given me so much of her time without being an official part of my paper.

The second professor has been a huge help to me in preparing PhD applications. She has always been supportive of my chances though she doesn't sugar coat how difficult it will be. Only with this new development has she started to be very negative about my chances. So I think that if I can smooth things over regarding this then things will still be ok but as of right now that isn't looking particularly likely. I sent a letter to my supervisor asking to meet with her but she is one of the most infuriatingly indirect people I have even met so I don't know how it will go. I am going to try to be concillatory but I have a feeling I am just going to get the whole "You're a grad student now you should have known" spiel.

Thanks for your help. It helps just to talk about this with other grad students.

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Ah! That makes much more sense to me. Sorry if I sounded harsh in my first response. It seems like you're caught in a pretty crazy political quagmire, not that you've done anything really egregious. Do you think it would do any good to write a very carefully worded e-mail clarifying the situation and apologizing for your role in the misunderstanding (even though it sounds like you've been very straightforward with at least your supervisor) and then sending it to BOTH professors? I think transparency and directness will be your best strategies at this point. Again, don't worry about replacing your supervisor's letter until you know that you have to. That one definitely sounds salvageable.

You may also want to give things some time to cool down a bit. You won't need letters for a while, and it sounds like emotions are running high. Can I ask--is the professor who gave you the extra help tenured? If not, she may have been intending to use her supervision of your MA thesis as part of her tenure portfolio. That might explain why she's taking this so hard... if she's anxious about tenure (and who wouldn't be?) she might see this as a waste of her energies or damage to her chances of success. If she remains upset, I'd say your best LOR combo is probably your supervisor and the less well known prof.

Hopefully you can get this sorted! You have lots of time, and it sounds do-able. Good luck!

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Maybe "due to her important contributions" you could get the second prof officially added in the secondary supervisor role? It sounds like she was willing to be doing that anyways and hopefully your supervisor wouldn't object to sharing the supervision duties?

I wouldn't frame this as something you're trying to do to get her to continue supervising your work so much as something you'd like to do to recognize the contributions the second professor has already made.

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