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Advisor Forgetting Appointments - A Bad Sign?


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Hi all,

Looking for some input, as I'm unsure as to whether this is worth agonizing over. I'll be starting my PhD in September, and the few times thus far that I have set up phone appointments with my advisor he isn't around to take the call. This happened once when I was an applicant, and twice within the past week. In each case, I call and leave a message at the appointed time, call back in ten-fifteen minutes (in case he got stuck in another meeting) without leaving a message, and then follow up a few hours later with an email to ask about rescheduling. I haven't yet heard back from him in the latest instance (we were supposed to speak almost an hour ago), but he has previously told me he forgot to put the appointment on his calendar (twice now) and it slipped his mind. I'm not really in a position to travel to campus on a whim, as I work full-time and it would be an all-day thing to travel to and from the university.

I feel it's a bit soon to approach my him about this issue, but I am concerned his flaking on appointments will become a pattern and I really don't appreciate it. I make an effort to be well-prepared for these meetings, to be on time, and to be understanding and flexible when he doesn't "show up" and I hear from him many hours later. My one in-person meeting with him was great, and I'm really looking forward to working with him, but as a Type A personality this is driving me crazy. I have been in the working world for some time, where this would not be acceptable, and this feels disrespectful. It also means I can't do the things I need to do (like enroll) while I try to chase him down. Yet, I'm also trying to keep in mind that academia is different, and perhaps I am expecting too much.

Thoughts anyone? Thanks in advance!

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I have someone like this at the undergraduate level and I've had to re-consider the longevity of the relationship. I have an official mentor who I think spoiled my expectations for how faculty ought to be (punctual, thoughtful, constructive) and coming across this other person (who I still need certain things from) has been similarly disconcerting. Considering the power differential between faculty and students, I am especially hard-minded on issues like this: fostering student independence does not, for me, include missing appointments/calls/check-ins. I don't think you're being unreasonable at all and I don't think you're expecting too much. I do think that it means considering what you want your relationship with this person to look like, considering all this. 

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I'd talk to other students of this prof before reaching any drastic conclusions. If this is a habit, other students will have plenty of stories to share. People have varying reactions to this sort of behavior; I personally really dislike it when anyone is late or misses an appointment without notice -- I value my time and so should they. I take it as a sign of basic respect and proper behavior in the workplace. Others aren't as moved. It's a matter of personal taste. These things may have a tendency to correlate with other behaviors along similar lines that may be upsetting to you, like not replying to email in a timely manner, forgetting to read a manuscript or give comments before a deadline, etc. If it's an isolated incident, I wouldn't worry too much*. You never know what's going on in a person's life that might temporarily distract them. If it's part of a general pattern, maybe this isn't someone who's a good personality fit for you. It happens, and it's good to know early on, so you can find another advisor whose behavior doesn't drive you crazy. That said, I would still suggest maintaining a positive and friendly working relationship with this person; even if they won't be your main advisor, you might want them to be on your committee or be there for random meetings and advice on and off. There's a power differential so be aware if/when you complain to them.  

* Note: People are much less available in the summer. Especially at institutions that don't pay professors over the summer, there are those who (rightly, I think) take this as their time to concentrate on their own research and not read student work, reply to emails, do committee work, attend defenses, etc. I would still argue that if you scheduled a meeting, you show up. But I'm flagging this as a general rule, that people are less accessible over the summer and may be fully justified in that.

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1 hour ago, fuzzylogician said:

I personally really dislike it when anyone is late or misses an appointment without notice -- I value my time and so should they. I take it as a sign of basic respect and proper behavior in the workplace. Others aren't as moved. It's a matter of personal taste.

I disagree. This is not a matter of personal taste. You are right; others are wrong. Timeliness and remembering to be at the meetings you agreed to is part of being a professional. 

To the original post - yes, this would be a very worrying red flag.

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2 hours ago, telkanuru said:

I disagree. This is not a matter of personal taste. You are right; others are wrong. Timeliness and remembering to be at the meetings you agreed to is part of being a professional. 

I know people who live their lives like that and get along great with other people who have a flexible definition of "10am" (or whatever). I have students who consistently show up for meetings a half hour late, even though I schedule both the beginning and end time of a meeting so if they're 30 minutes late, they'll only get 30 minutes of my time and tough luck if they had more stuff than that to discuss. I don't understand it, but they seem happy as they are. (I just can't be their co-author, and if I'm their advisor there need to be very clear ground rules about what's acceptable and what's not, as I've learned the hard way.)

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1 hour ago, fuzzylogician said:

(I just can't be their co-author, and if I'm their advisor there need to be very clear ground rules about what's acceptable and what's not, as I've learned the hard way.)

That's... kind of the key isn't it? 

It's great (maybe?) that you're so accommodating, but it wouldn't be wrong if you weren't.

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20 minutes ago, telkanuru said:

It's great (maybe?) that you're so accommodating, but it wouldn't be wrong if you weren't.

Serious question: what would not accommodating look like (for a junior faculty member who can't exactly afford to turn students away)? 

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12 hours ago, telkanuru said:

I disagree. This is not a matter of personal taste. You are right; others are wrong. Timeliness and remembering to be at the meetings you agreed to is part of being a professional. 

I tend to agree with this, but much like @fuzzylogician I'm not sure what options I have for dealing with this when I'm in a position of little to no power. With students, I like fuzzy's firm-yet-accommodating approach, but I've been at a loss as to how to deal with this from faculty in the past. I absolutely think they're wrong/disrespectful/unprofessional to blow off meetings or consistently arrive late, but I never feel like I can say that to them. 

 

@MaytheSchwartzBeWithYou, one of my favorite professors during my MA was like this. She was amazing to talk with about lit and theory, and I learned so much when was a TA for her. However, she rarely responded to emails at all, let alone in a timely manner. We did an independent study together, and she often rescheduled our weekly meetings because she had forgotten to do the reading. Sometimes when I really needed her, I could count on her. She met with me multiple times to workshop my Writing Sample. She was a great second reader for my thesis. Other times, she really dropped the ball. She turned in nearly all of my LORs past the deadlines, and I can't help but wonder if that hurt my chances of admission at some PhD programs. Based on my experience, I would say that you should be wary of working with an 'unreliable' professor (if you discover that this is in fact his style and not a summer thing or a fluke) on major, time-sensitive projects, but that he may be someone wonderful to learn from and build a more informal relationship with.

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2 minutes ago, anxiousgrad said:

I tend to agree with this, but much like @fuzzylogician I'm not sure what options I have for dealing with this when I'm in a position of little to no power. With students, I like fuzzy's firm-yet-accommodating approach, but I've been at a loss as to how to deal with this from faculty in the past. I absolutely think they're wrong/disrespectful/unprofessional to blow off meetings or consistently arrive late, but I never feel like I can say that to them. 

There are ways of gently letting them know you didn't appreciate them missing a meeting. BUT, if this was an oversight or one-time thing (which can happen to anyone!), they would already be apologetic and probably don't need you to explain to them why it wasn't okay. If it's their modus operandi, it's unclear how much there is to gain from complaining to them. This is one of those situations where you have to realize that they have more power in the relationship and adjust accordingly, regardless of what's right.

Some tricks that sometimes help manage the problem, though don't solve it -- don't be the first meeting after an absence from the office (in the morning, after teaching, etc). If they're already in their office for another meeting, you're likelier to find them there when you show up. If they postpone your meeting or make you wait a long time because the previous meeting ran long or whatever, find some other thing that needs to happen after your meeting (e.g. have another meeting!) so they can't assume anymore that you have free time or you're flexible and can wait (though this can backfire, so be careful. They may just cut your meeting time and not make it up!). If/when appropriate, have joint meetings with a third party that has some power in the relationship and is punctual or simply a superior. A flaky person can magically become un-flaky if they think they are being evaluated and there might be negative consequences. Sometimes just ccing someone else or making them aware of a commitment someone made to you is enough to get them to do what they said they would. 

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I don't personally take a very absolutist approach to this- everyone gets busy and is late or misses things. I do, however, get frustrated rapidly with people who are hypocritical about it. If your PI is someone that forgets things frequently but expects you to never forget things, that's bad. If they're forgetful and assume everyone else is, I think that's just part of personality fit. 

That said, as @fuzzylogician mentions, there are strategies to minimize this. When I was in grad school, my PI was known for missing things regularly- including meetings with collaborators that I'd then have to run. 

I started doing tiered reminders- set up an appointment, remind the day before, text about half an hour before the appointment and remind. You can do this in a way that's not accusatory and doesn't come across as "parental". Just email the day before with a quick question about the meeting, and the morning of with a "Hey, just making sure we're still on for meeting at 10:30". 

I used to make a lot more assumptions about professors not making appointments being flaky, but as I've transitioned, the sheer number of appointments I have most days makes it really easy to forget one here or there, no matter how organized I try to be. And my schedule is nowhere as busy as some of my senior colleagues, who have nonstop meetings and classes 8-6 most days of the week. In short, I try to not view people missing or forgetting things as an absolute character flaw, and try to give them the slack I would hope other people would give me. I also think it's a lot harder to go through life viewing things like punctuality for appointments as a direct sign of respect, and rather make it about how the person reacts or interacts when they've forgotten something. 

That said, this type of difference, especially one you feel so strongly about, this early on? Probably means they're not a good fit for an advisor. If it bothers you now, it's going to drive you crazy after 5-7 years of managing it. 

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I pretty much agree with @Eigen and @fuzzylogician. Like Eigen, I have way too many meetings sometimes. It's easy for me to remember the ones that occur every week or every other week but much harder to remember when I schedule a meeting with a student outside of my office hours. As a result, I'm frequently late to those (even though I have a reminder set up on my phone for every single freaking meeting), which often results in me sending an apology email to let the student know I'm on my way. I'll be honest and say that I wish this weren't the case but, it is. If the reminder goes off when I'm in the middle of writing a paragraph or coding data, I'm going to finish that before heading to the meeting. Does this annoy students? Probably. But that's part of the price they pay when we can't do something during my regularly scheduled office hours. 

It's definitely worth asking other grad students if this is a pattern or not. It could be that the professor has other things going on (it's summer; family issues; health issues; etc.) that are affecting their ability to show up for meetings or even to remember them. While one should never force a professor to disclose issues of a personal nature (I have a story I can tell about students doing that to me which just goes to show why you shouldn't), it's worth being accommodating at least initially because you really don't know what's going on in the other person's life. 

If other students say it's a pattern, then you'll have to decide whether the benefits of working with the person outweigh attributes that annoy you. That's something none of us can tell you. My PhD advisor could be a bit of a flake but, when needed, they were absolutely there for me, backing up my research, reading drafts, etc. I was willing to put up with some of the flakiness and forgetfulness because ultimately it was worth it to me to work with that particular person (in terms of long-term career outcomes). YMMV obviously.

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10 hours ago, fuzzylogician said:

Serious question: what would not accommodating look like (for a junior faculty member who can't exactly afford to turn students away)? 

It depends, of course! But the idea that you're a doormat because you're jr faculty is false. For the student you mentioned, who's frequently 30m late to a 1h appointment - I would begin to schedule them for 30m appointments, and make sure I had something else to do at the end of their appointments. I would also have a conversation with them about timeliness, as you're doing them no favors by normalizing behavior that will get them fired once they leave school.

Everyone's late every now and again. That doesn't make habitual lateness any more professional.

Edited by telkanuru
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Thank you all for your responses! (My apologies, I've been off the site for a bit). 

On 6/26/2017 at 4:32 PM, fuzzylogician said:

I personally really dislike it when anyone is late or misses an appointment without notice -- I value my time and so should they. I take it as a sign of basic respect and proper behavior in the workplace. Others aren't as moved. It's a matter of personal taste. These things may have a tendency to correlate with other behaviors along similar lines that may be upsetting to you, like not replying to email in a timely manner, forgetting to read a manuscript or give comments before a deadline, etc. If it's an isolated incident, I wouldn't worry too much*. You never know what's going on in a person's life that might temporarily distract them. If it's part of a general pattern, maybe this isn't someone who's a good personality fit for you. 

* Note: People are much less available in the summer. Especially at institutions that don't pay professors over the summer, there are those who (rightly, I think) take this as their time to concentrate on their own research and not read student work, reply to emails, do committee work, attend defenses, etc. I would still argue that if you scheduled a meeting, you show up. But I'm flagging this as a general rule, that people are less accessible over the summer and may be fully justified in that.

Yes, thank you, Fuzzy. I feel the same about my time, and I'm sure that's part of why I'm a little stuck on it. Your point about it being summer is a good one - my only note there is that graduate enrollment starts in summer, and my advisor and I had not had any meetings about how to proceed with course selection, curriculum, etc. The forums here recommend not contacting your new program during the Spring semester after you have been accepted, as (understandably) they are still trying to wrap up the current year, so I waited until closer to registration. I thought it was odd that I was told by the Grad. Director we'd be covering curriculum, etc. in the orientation meeting in the Fall, presumably AFTER we had enrolled on courses. 

@Eigen, I like your suggestions about setting up tiered reminders, as long as it doesn't come across as "managing." 

I did actually hear from him shortly after posting this, and he was apologetic, so I'm hoping we can establish a routine early on. I'm used to working independently (my MA advisors were often overworked and difficult to get feedback from), so I think I can handle a degree of forgetfulness, as long as I can still get what I need to move forward in the program. 

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23 minutes ago, MaytheSchwartzBeWithYou said:

my only note there is that graduate enrollment starts in summer, and my advisor and I had not had any meetings about how to proceed with course selection, curriculum, etc. The forums here recommend not contacting your new program during the Spring semester after you have been accepted, as (understandably) they are still trying to wrap up the current year, so I waited until closer to registration. I thought it was odd that I was told by the Grad. Director we'd be covering curriculum, etc. in the orientation meeting in the Fall, presumably AFTER we had enrolled on courses. 

As a general note of caution, advisors aren't always the best people to ask for advice for official program-related requirements. Some of them keep on top of changing curriculum requirements, but some don't. So as a first step, you should read up on requirements in the student handbook or online or wherever your program spells out timelines and requirements and familiarize yourself with them. As a second step, look up next year's schedule, there's a good chance it's already online and you can see who is teaching what when. It's pretty much guaranteed that that was already decided some time in the spring (fwiw I've already had my teaching for next spring decided! fall teaching and schedules were determined a couple of months ago). Then, while this may be something to discuss with your advisor, you may also get good results if you consult with the DGS.

More generally, now may be the time to learn that your program doesn't get all that bent out of shape about coursework; they seem to think it's fine to figure that out in early fall, and that's actually not all that unusual. To the extent that you can choose what to take (in some programs the first year doesn't actually afford you that much freedom, if any), you just need to have some idea of what you want, and it'll all get sorted out on registration day, right before the semester starts. This is how things happened in my program and it was all perfectly fine. 

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Seconding what @fuzzylogician is saying, it's generally not your advisor who will be talking to you about course selection, curriculum, etc. They're there for research, and are often only tangentially aware of the other things. 

In my experience, for the first year, enrolling in courses is something you do after orientation. It's not something you do over the summer before you start grad school. Unlike undergrad where courses can fill up, grad school usually just puts you in the courses you need to take, and makes room for it. It's very likely that you will discuss curriculum at orientation, and then register the first week of classes/just before the first day of class. 

Honestly, one semester I forgot course registration was a thing. Halfway through the semester, I had to go back and retroactively add the courses I was already taking.

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@Eigen and @fuzzylogician, I get what you're saying, but I'm surprised there was NO direction whatsoever (even from the Grad. Director). To be fair, I spent hours researching and mapping out my program requirements and the courses I might take to fulfill them, so it's not like I was going in blindly and expecting him to answer all of my questions - especially since the program's materials state certain courses are chosen with your advisor. It's not the end of the world, it's just a clarification issue - if they'd rather students wait until after orientation to choose classes, they should say so.

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Yeah, this is not uncommon at all. I don't think I had any contact with my program until about a week or so before the start of my first year. It was indeed anxiety inducing for someone like me (and, I would assume, you), who likes to plan ahead and know everything... but it's how they operate. I promise you, it'll all work out fine. 

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25 minutes ago, fuzzylogician said:

Yeah, this is not uncommon at all. I don't think I had any contact with my program until about a week or so before the start of my first year. It was indeed anxiety inducing for someone like me (and, I would assume, you), who likes to plan ahead and know everything... but it's how they operate. I promise you, it'll all work out fine. 

Same. I heard nothing from when I said I'd be going until orientation.  No mailed packet, no emails. Just show up and it all would work out. 

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7 minutes ago, MaytheSchwartzBeWithYou said:

LOL, I suppose I just have to get used to academia being really different in some ways from the public sector. :-)

Yeah. Honestly, my job was the same way. Sign things in the Spring, then don't hear back until I'm on campus in August. 

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