#870: “I was ghosted by my faculty advisor. How should we interact now?”

Hi Captain!

Okay, here’s the tale: I’m two years out of undergrad and was applying to grad schools this past winter, so emailed my senior thesis adviser to ask for a letter of recommendation (he’d already written me one for a fellowship a year ago). He never responded–after a month I checked that he wasn’t on sabbatical, sent another email, and then called his office and left a phone message, and finally figured that his lack of response was, in itself, a response. Fair enough, no one’s obligated to recommend me, but I was a little confused by why he didn’t simply reply and let me know that, which would have given me more time to find a back-up recommendation. But I got into my first choice program, and I really don’t bear any kind of hard feelings.

Here comes the question: he was the faculty sponsor of a club I was very heavily involved with as an undergrad and am still pretty connected to now, and since I’m planning on visiting friends on campus still in said club in the next few years, it seems not unlikely that we’ll bump into each other–if it hadn’t been for this, I would probably have deliberately stopped by his office to say hi. It was a pretty small department, and while I was working on my senior thesis we met once a week and talked about developments in the field, etc., as well as my actual paper.

As a college professor yourself, do you have any insight on how I should handle this? Should I go say hi anyway and just not bring it up? Assume that this means he doesn’t particularly want me to come say hi? Scripts for bumping into him? I get that a student-teacher relationship probably isn’t going to be a friendship of equals, but I would have liked to be friendly, since he’s a fun person and a great teacher, and I would have enjoyed getting to hear his thoughts about my continuing academic work.

Many thanks!
-Unrecommended (she/her pronouns)

Dear Unrecommended,

Next time you visit campus, pop in and say a quick hello to the guy. You’ll probably never get an answer as to why no recommendation and since the need has passed and you met your goal it’s hardly worth pursuing one at this point. There is a greater likelihood that your request fell through the cracks than that he hates your guts. You didn’t do anything wrong, and saying “hello” on your schedule and your terms will let you put this behind you and not spend your whole visit stewing about it or dreading when you run into him. You learned a lot from this person, you’re carrying on in the field, and I think all is (or will soon be) well. You got this!

For students requesting recommendations after some time has passed:

  • It’s not a strange request, it’s part of the job. Though if the professor is an adjunct, know that they are writing this for you in on unpaid time and that they might be harder to get a hold of.
  • If they say “no,” it’s not necessarily personal: I will say “no” rather than write a lukewarm or negative letter (who has time for that?), I will also say “no” to writing too many letters for the same opportunity.
  • In your initial request, say immediately that you are asking for a recommendation and for what (don’t make us guess at what you want). Briefly remind the professor who you are, what class you took with them and when, a little about the work you did then. Give them the “elevator speech” about what you are applying for and why you want to do it. It’s not personal if they don’t remember every little thing about you and your work.
  • Be ready to collaborate a little bit. I will sometimes ask students to send me a few bullet-points that they’d like me to include in the letter, or if there’s anything they’d like me to play up or mention specifically. I’ve had profs ask me to write the whole letter and then give it to them to beef up & sign. Writing part of your own letter is awkward (and a tad unethical?) but it’s not uncommon. Bottom line: Help the person help you.
  • Send the person all the info for formally addressing the letter – “Please address the letter to Graduate Selection Committee, Department X, University Y, Complete Mailing Address.” And work out all the logistics about confidentiality & submission ahead of time – sometimes it needs to be in a sealed envelope on letter head with a signature over the flap that you collect and mail in with your application, sometimes there’s an online submission process. You need to be knowledgable about how to submit this thing and not make the professor Google it the night before the deadline.
  • Give the person lots of lead time and have a backup plan. Also, I would advise telling them you need it about 3 weeks-1 month before you actually need it, so you have a cushion to find a backup plan.
  • Send a thank you email and let them know the outcome of your application. (We like to brag on you.)
  • If you weren’t the greatest student, own it, but don’t shame-spiral about it. I know that my students are dealing with adjusting to college, big important life stuff, mental health stuff, money stuff, etc. and that how they do in one class is not the whole story of who they are and how they are going to do. Someone who comes back a few years later to say “I was having a really hard time personally when I took your class, and I know I wasn’t always the best student, but here’s what I learned from you and how I applied it. I really turned things around, and now my work now is about x, y, and z,” is telling their teacher a GREAT story. We deal in growth and change, after all. ❤

What am I missing, Awkward-demics?


61 thoughts on “#870: “I was ghosted by my faculty advisor. How should we interact now?”

  1. That elevator speech is key! It definitely helps to include where the particular opportunity falls in your grand plan. It’s a great tidbit for them to include, but it’s also a great way for them to know what your deep ambitions are– I’ve had professors mention other opportunities down the line because they remembered what my big picture was! They’re not obligated to do so, of course, but it was flattering that they remembered.

  2. Ooh ooh ooh – if there’s an electronic submission system for the recommendation letter, get your head around it fully and then explain it to the person you’re asking clearly in the request email 🙂

  3. It’s entirely possible, especially since this professor was supportive before, that he had an issue or emergency that kept him from responding to your request. Death in the family, surgery, illness, academic overload–a dozen possibilities spring to mind. I know I find it nearly impossible to respond to people when I’m feeling overwhelmed, even if it appears I have time to do so. So…feel free to go say hi. Let him know you got into a fabulous program and thank him for his previous guidance & support.

    1. This. Also, if the letter fell through the cracks (as opposed to being truly ghosted), the prof might not know how to respond back, feel awful about the situation, etc. That is, he might be feeling like crap about how it was handled and not know what the LW’s reaction would be.

    2. on top of teaching duties – which includes massive, massive amounts of emails from students attempting to negotiate grades, solicit extra help, etc., at the very same time of the year that former students solicit rec letters — there are departmental administrative duties (including reading, reading, and reading massive amounts of work from potential job hires), grant-funding application requirements (they are soliciting their own rec letters all the time!), peer-review journal reviews to write, and never mind PUBLISH OR PERISH their own work. And this even in the cush-cush TT job. So yeah…. it’s NOT personal if they let the email slip through the cracks.

      1. Hi Letter Writer, are you *this* letter writer? Might want to edit the old WP username if not.

  4. Like the Captain pointed out, it’s different for adjuncts, but I really want to stress that for tenure track and tenured professors, WRITING LETTERS IS PART OF THEIR JOB. As a student, I often stressed out soooo much about asking professors for letters. I felt like I was asking this huge favor, and if I didn’t ask in the exact perfect way, then they would be offended and hate me forever. Panicking over the wording of an email often resulted in procrastinating and not quite giving my recommenders enough time before the deadline. As a grad student, I now see how silly this was. DON’T BE LIKE ME. You are making a normal request, it’s not a big deal, ask early and calmly and remember it’s not the end of the world if the professor is too busy.

    Also, if you’re applying to something that’s like, minimum 3 letters but we will read a 4th, it’s a good idea to solicit 4 people to start in case one can’t do it.

  5. I teach a 1-credit course and get these requests pretty frequently. I generally feel honored to be asked, and try to get the rec done as quickly as possible, having been on the other side of this (stuck anxiously waiting for the referee to submit the document). I would highlight the Captain’s suggestion of sending a thank you email after the application is complete. Of course I’d love to know the outcome of the application, but that is often months away. I am always flummoxed when I put effort into writing a thoughtful recommendation and the student never acknowledges the work that goes into it. Even if it is part of my job, and even if they don’t get to read what I’m submitting, I’m still helping them in a major way. I’ve had several students who never thanked me at all, and it still rankles years later. If they asked for another rec I would have to really think about it.

  6. One more thing that can be helpful — include a copy of your transcript, and highlight any course(s) you took with them. Particularly if some time has passed, or if it was a larger class, this will remind them what grade they gave you, as well as give them a sense of your overall academic achievements. Many reference forms have categories like “capacity for independent intellectual thought” and suchlike, so providing your transcript can give them something extra to work with.

    1. Oh, and also if you’re applying to a grad program which includes a statement of intent or suchlike, that can also be useful information (and a way to give the faculty member something to play up, as the Captain suggests).

      1. Yes to all of this, though, keep the initial request short and don’t inundate them with material until they’ve said “Yes.” Then it’s time for “Here’s my transcript & statement of intent – can I supply anything else that will help you?”

        1. Oh, absolutely, sorry, should have been clear that this would be part of the package after someone has said yes.

          And add me as another person who will choke up with happiness when a student comes back who’s struggled but made it through. (I’m an administrator more than an academic but either way I write plenty of letters.)

        2. I have had professors and other teachers who explicitly said they wanted students to submit (unofficial) transcripts and other materials in their initial request for a letter (presumably to jog their memory / help them decide whether they could write a strong letter), so apparently mileage varies on this.

    2. You might also offer to provide details on the larger project(s) you did in their class(es), so that they can remember and speak to your individual ideas directly, if/when they say yes.

  7. A little extra advice,
    I recently had a very candid conversation with my live-in faculty member and she had some great advice. She said she always asked her students who wanted a letter to put together a folder for her. This should include: a copy of their transcript, their resume, and a copy of all the essays written for her class. When I ask for letters, I also like to add an extra page. For law school, I explained why I wanted to go to law school, why this made sense for me at this time, and what my larger career goals are. I also included some comments on what I would like the letter to address – nothing specific, but, for example, since I want to go to law school straight from undergrad, I thought having recommenders comment on my maturity level was important. This allowed me to identify a potential weakness and hopefully help assuage the admissions committee’s doubts by having someone else discuss that it was a non-issue, which is more credible than me saying it. Adding in a page on what you would like your recommender to emphasize makes their job easier, and increases the likelihood that their letter will fit in with your application. I would also make sure to tell the recommender that you would appreciate it if they could include some anecdotes about you to support their claims. This gives the reader a better sense of your personality than a string of adjectives ever will.**
    Also, if you don’t want to ask a recommender to send a letter multiple times, you can subscribe to interfolio and have them send it there. That way they only have to submit it to one place and you can send the letter wherever is appropriate (without looking at it). It does cost about $10 I believe, but I thought it was worth it.
    **For what it’s worth, a lot of this advice is fleshed out in Anna Ivey’s book on law school admissions. She has a great chapter on letters of rec with some AMAZING samples. I showed one to one of my recommenders to make sure we were on the same page. It also has a great questionnaire to prompt personal statement ideas, which are really hard to come up with. It was extremely useful for me, and might be available at your local library.

  8. I also teach college classes and get a dozen requests for recommendation letters every semester.

    As an instructor, you get a bazillion emails that are all pretty needy (as in, needing something of you, not whiny). I feel guilt in waves when one “falls through the cracks,” which, as CA said, is most likely what happened here. If you were my student whom I’d ignored due to other responsibilities and just anxious avoidance, I’d love you to say hello and tell me how awesomely you’re doing in the field (congrats!). That is, I’d prefer if we just forgot the whole unanswered-email-thing ever happened. I don’t know if that’s dysfunctional, but honestly I have 60-90+ students every semester, and I feel like I serve them well and give them my all. So I’d feel appreciative if you’d let it go, particularly because you’re prospering. (yikes the inauthentic nature of this just struck me…)

  9. I work as a university administrator, and a huge part of my job is nagging professors to do boring paperwork, because they pretty much all hate doing it. Some of them are great at staying on top of everything, but many of them are spectacularly awful at it, even as they’re brilliant at teaching and research. Many of them are run ragged with their responsibilities already and have such a low boredom threshold that form-filling isn’t happening this side of the End Times. Many of them have enormous desks that have papers piled high and stuff always falling down the back. Writing references is part of their job and they should do it, just as they should do all the reports that I have to ask them for, and the feedback to committees, and all the boring stuff that they regard as an annoying time-hog. But… when they’re short of time, these things get pushed behind the interesting, career-enhancing stuff, or the stuff with big scary deadlines, and it’s only when someone like me finally gets so annoying that it’s easier to Do The Things in order to shut us up that they happen.

    I don’t know about your actual professor. But on balance I’d say it’s about a thousand times more likely that your reference ended up falling off the end of the to do list than that there was a conscious decision that you didn’t deserve to have one.

    For anyone else in LW’s situation, I’d recommend getting the name of the departmental secretary, or some other on-the-ball administrator, and CCing them in on all correspondence. Get them on the phone if you can and explain that you’ve not heard anything back. We don’t mind being dragged into this stuff – it’s part of our jobs too. The professor is much more likely to Do The Thing if they get nagged by someone they can’t escape from.

    1. I work as an admin in a law firm and, attorneys being not that different in some respects from professors, heartily second all the “cc their assistant” recommendations. My boss likewise would do nothing but direct client work and hates doing the tedious boring stuff…which is why I’ve told people that being a good admin is all about the Art of Gentle Harassment! 🙂

      1. “good admin is all about the Art of Gentle Harassment”

        That is an excellent way to put it! In my experience, the bulk of an admin job is gentle harassment, strategic eavesdropping, and proofreading. 🙂

      2. Yes, this!! I work as an admin at an engineering firm and it is much the same. If I don’t know about it, it’s unlikely to get done unless it’s directly related to a specific job/proposal.

  10. If it was me, the reason it didn’t happen was because I saw the email once when I was busy, then by the next day it had slipped to page 2 of my email, and by that point it was entirely forgotten forever. No excuses for the non-replies later, but could be negligence rather than dislike.

    That said, yes to everything, especially the elevator pitch. I would go a step before that (not for you, but for other writers out there) – make sure the person you’re asking is someone you had an actual connection with in the first place. If you were quiet and sat in the back of the room and never spoke to the professor ever, that’s not the person you want writing your letter. Try to pick someone you are confident will be able to write like they know you.

    Going another step further back, I have had a couple of very savvy students ask me to write them a letter right after the semester ended for the future. They said that they really enjoyed the class, learned a lot, got to know me etc., and asked if I would write a letter now while they’re fresh in my mind. They knew that they couldn’t ask for the letter itself (those are confidential), but wanted to ask me to commit to it and get it done so it was on file for when they might ask in the future. I found that quite impressive, and indeed it’s a lot easier to write the letter before you’ve forgotten about the student a few years later. You can’t (and shouldn’t) do that to every teacher you have, but if there’s one you really connect with who you are looking at as a future referee, that might be a good way to do it.

    1. I asked a handful of my grad school professors to connect on LinkedIn after I was done with their classes and grades were in, so that there wouldn’t be a conflict of interest. And from a few whose classes I’d particularly enjoyed I asked for a recommendation on LinkedIn, which looked good while I was applying for jobs in my new field (simultaneously working out of it and attending school) and also would serve as a memory-jogger if I’d needed a formal recommendation from any of them down the line.

      1. Emailed LinkedIn requests, in my experience, are possible malware attempts and the result of hacking into someone’s email contacts. I used to respond to the sender with “Sorry, I don’t do LinkedIn. Nice to hear from you. Hope all is well.” Most then told me they also weren’t in LinkedIn.

        So this would not be a good way for former students to try to contact me for references.

  11. Can I just say, as a professor, that if I got a letter request from a student in this form:

    “Someone who comes back a few years later to say “I was having a really hard time personally when I took your class, and I know I wasn’t always the best student, but here’s what I learned from you and how I applied it. I really turned things around, and now my work now is about x, y, and z,” is telling their teacher a GREAT story.”

    I would write them a letter that had a chorus of angels in the final line.

    Students who did well write me these requests, and they often tell me how they applied ideas and so on because they feel confident doing so. It’s nice, I like it. But a request like this would *slay* me. Please, do not be afraid to do this. This touches on one of the biggest professorial daydreams: the student who I didn’t seem to reach… but DID! Harness the power of your professors’ dreams! 🙂

    Captain as usual you are so wise.

    1. :hugs you: :cries a little:

      I KNOW, RIGHT?

      The parable of the Prodigal Student is real.

    2. I think this is why, when I was teaching, I was always fondest of my B/B- students — they were so often the ones who had the best “lightbulb” moments and the ones who came to me for help (even if it was because they were afraid of a C!). I always wished there were some way to communicate that, contrary to what students might think, I secretly preferred B to A students.

      (It took me a long time to realize that this was also a kindness to myself, since I had been a struggling B student as an undergrad).

      1. The student I remember from my brief TA stint is the one who turned up in my office with a truly dismal test grade and went over every question she missed with me and explained exactly why she got it wrong and what the right answer was. She had crippling test anxiety so she was stellar in class and in my office and then totally ate it on tests. This is not an experience I have had so all I could do was tell her that she was a fantastic student and had an excellent grasp of the material so she had no need to worry on that score, and that I suspected the counseling center would have a lot of good test anxiety resources, and she could come see me any time.

        She bombed one more test and then I never saw her again. I was heartbroken.

        …I remember her, and also the guy who used to follow me from class to my next engagement to argue with me about how he should have gotten 100% instead of 98% on the assignment.

    3. OMG, I love this fantasy letter! I hope someone will report a real-life sighting!

  12. Adding to the chorus of “Oh my goodness, I forgot that this request was in my huge que of emails, all needing something from me!” I’m sorry that happened to you, and I am SO sorry when I (occasionally) have done that to students, but it isn’t personal, it’s just getting overwhelmed by email and all the other aspects of the job.

  13. If no one has brought it up – if you want a physical letter sent through the physical mail, ask if a stamp is necessary. Especially during summer, when I am not in the office much, I can’t get the university to pay for the stamp. And those stamps add up! I am also adjunct and we do not get paid that much during summer.

  14. I actually have a Google form that I send students who want a recommendation. It helps me write them a good one, and takes a lot of the guesswork out for me.

    1. Just piping in to say that you rule for being (a) organized and (b) conscientious. Now that I am teaching and get approached about recommendations occasionally, I have realized that I was embarrassingly clueless about asking my profs to write letters when I was an undergrad. It would have been better for all of us if someone had sent me a Google form.

  15. If the prof agreed to write it, don’t be afraid to follow up if it’s getting tight for your timeline, these letters are often on the bottom of the to do pile!

    It doesn’t hurt to write a thank you note or send a thank you email after your prof writes the letter and sends in a timely manner.

  16. Give the person lots of lead time and have a backup plan. Also, I would advise telling them you need it about 3 weeks-1 month before you actually need it, so you have a cushion to find a backup plan.

    I’m repeating this for emphasis. I process admissions for a university department, and we have dozens of students every year risk not having their applications considered becasue their recommender(s) flaked and they didn’t have time before the actual application deadline to find backups. Making sure the recommender knows all necessary information for both writing the letter and submission is also important; we get some letters (though not as many as missed letters) every year that, for example, only note the student’s given name (not the full name, not even the degree program to which they are applying), and while we’re often able to match less common names to applicants (and we try to contact the author for clarification when we can’t, which is extra work for us), sometimes we can’t determine which of the six Allisons is described in the letter, and we might not be able to get in touch with the recommender before the application needs to be reviewed if it’s submitted really close to the deadline (this gets back to the first point I wanted to emphasize).

  17. If they want physical letters, also give them pre-addressed and stamped envelopes. I put all the paperwork in the appropriate envelope as well, because with five schools all wanting their own special forms things got confusing fast.

  18. I would add: if you’re still in school and around, I prefer that you ask to set up a time to come meet with me instead of just cold emailing me. It helps me write a better letter if we have even ten minutes to talk about your plans. Also, if you’re still around school and you see your professors frequently in person, or they have office hours, I’d suggest that you make your request for a letter face-to-face. This is so especially if you’ve got more potential recommenders than you need letters: asking in person may help you gauge someone’s enthusiasm/willingness to write. What you want, in a perfect world, is someone who doesn’t hesitate before saying yes but immediately agrees. A little bit of umming or pausing may indicate someone who doesn’t think that much of your work or who doesn’t really have time and is reluctant but feels obligated.

    Also, a phrasing I’ve sometimes suggested that students use in making the request: “Do you feel you know me well enough to write me a strong letter?” This gives faculty a gracious out, and honestly, it’s generally in your interest to give faculty an out: you don’t want lukewarm letters. If you ask this way, you give your professor a chance to mention any hesitations they might have or to say a gracious “no.”

    If you’re not in class with the professor in question any more and are off campus, I agree that it’s totally fine to ask by email, or even by phone.

    If your performance was a little checkered, then I agree with everyone else here that it can be very useful to fill your professor in on your more recent successes, because in those cases, you want your recommenders to help you build your progress narrative. Ideally all the parts of your application will work together to communicate that progress narrative.

    Agreeing with everybody who suggests that, after someone agrees to write, it’s great to give them all the documentation they ask for, and to offer them as much of it as you can. I usually but not always have electronic records of my past comments on student papers and projects, but if I don’t, it’s great if you can provide it to me so I can quote or paraphrase my own immediate reactions to your work. So paper comments can be a helpful thing to pass on, too. Also: copies of your application essays, if you have them and the recommender wants them.

    But really the single most useful thing to me, personally, is a 5-10 minute conversation about your plans. This is so especially if you’re applying for a field other than mine. If you’re going into, say, information sciences, it’s useful for me to hear from you personally how and why this field might be a fit for you, what you hope to get out of it, and which of your strengths are most relevant to your future program of study/career, so I know what to highlight in my letter.

    1. Yes, totally this. Even if you’ve told me about stuff you do before – I have a lot of students and a terrible memory! 10 minutes where we sit down and run through some stuff and I can note it down in my ‘references’ folder works wonders!

  19. Chiming in to say that all of this also applies to high school students asking for letters of rec for college! Ask early, give us as much information as possible (once we’ve said yes), and THANK US AFTERWARDS. We’re not expecting a bouquet of flowers, but damn, would it be nice to get even an email saying, “hey, thanks for the letter, I got in at [x] and [y] and will be attending [x].”

    (Not that I am at ALL bitter about this, no, definitely not.)

    1. I was a total overdo-er of it and gave each of my recommenders a thank you card and an itty bitty box of chocolates. I’d actually been feeling awkward about that but now I feel a little better.

  20. I forgot something in my post above. If you are asking me to write a letter in a ridiculously short time frame, like in a day or two, don’t omit the approaching deadline in your initial request for a letter because you’re embarrassed about it. Just grab the bull by the horns, acknowledge your timeframe, and apologize: “Dear Prof. So-and-so, I recently learned about a scholarship that seems like an excellent fit for my work/my future plans/etc. I am hoping to submit an application for this scholarship, but unfortunately they are due this Friday, and it requires me to include three letters of reference. I apologize for the extremely last minute nature of the request/for the imposition/etc., but I am contacting you to ask if you might have time…” And then give them an out. Personally I’ll write letters whenever I’ve got time, even if they’re due in a matter of hours, but it’s annoying when a) I have to send a follow-up email asking about the deadline and b) I then learn that the student was so embarrassed that they didn’t bother to apologize–a kind of paradoxical student attitude, but not that uncommon, especially with strong students.

    Really I’d say you should apologize, at least in a de facto way, anytime you have to ask for a letter with a week or less of notice. People will generally understand and write you letters anyway if they can, but it’s a courtesy to acknowledge that you would ideally have given them a little more of a heads-up.

    1. I’m late but wanted to second this! Both being upfront about it and apologizing for the short notice are really important. If a student does both of those things, I’ll do my best to accommodate them and will feel bad if I have to say no. If they don’t explain the timeline or act like I’m obligated to write it for them on short-notice, I have no guilt about turning them down.

  21. One caveat to the Captain’s fine advice: if you were a SPECTACULARLY undistinguished student, or even worse, you distinguished yourself in a negative way, don’t count on time to dull those recollections. I had a friend (really — this is not me) who goofed off in a class all term, to the evident disdain of the prof, and then wrote WHAT A BITCH in large letters and distinctive handwriting on the course evals. Nonetheless, he got a good grade.

    Several years later, he took leave of his senses and asked her for a grad school reference. She wrote one and put it in a sealed envelope and — fortunately — sent it to my friend to put in his packet. Having realized the depth of his error in the interim, and having obtained more than enough letters from other sources, he opened and read it. Apparently, and appropriately, it was scathing, calling him immature, a very poor fit for any sort of graduate study, and not nearly as smart as his grades would indicate.

    So, y’know, don’t be totally cavalier in your requests. Maybe don’t call your prof a bitch on the course evals, either.

  22. I’d add make sure they actually send it! I didn’t get into the graduate school I wanted because one of my required recommendations wrote the letter then FORGOT TO MAIL IT. And never even apologized.

  23. I have (I’m embarrassed to say) not gotten back to people asking me for letters of reference out of sheer overwhelm, disorganization and intimidating email backlog. In almost every case it had nothing at all to do with how I felt about the qualifications, skills, or likeability of the person asking. I’m guessing, LW, that the “ghosting” had way more to do with what was going on for the professor than a reflection of his negative feelings about you or your abilities.

  24. I really like the Captain’s advice to pop in & say hi next time you’re on campus because it can help you recast the story of what happened. Instead of a narrative that co-stars Professor GhostedOnMe:

    “I asked him for a letter, he ghosted on me, that seems like it means something bad about me, wow awwwkward, how should I interact with him In Light of This New Knowledge” <– which is in fact merely inference, not actual knowledge

    you get to tell a different story, starring You as the Successful Alumna:

    "I like this prof & he's the faculty advisor of a group I'm going to stay connected with. I asked him for a letter once & didn't get a reply but whatevs, I got into my program. Moving On. Of course I popped in to say hi when I was on campus, why wouldn't I? And it was great to hang with my old group, too!"

    Good luck, LW! Face down the awkward with the confidence that You are the protagonist of your story, and it will eventually wither up and blow away from lack of attention. 🙂

  25. To add to the Captain’s advice: if your professor asks you to write your own letter and you are the kind of person who HAAAAAAATES bragging about herself (or himself, but more often her) you can ask/bribe/pay someone else to help you out with a draft, with factual input from you about what the program is looking for and what you have done. I could never wrap my psyche around writing “I am a brilliant, curious student” or anything similar, but having someone else do it creates some reassuring distance and takes a huge amount of pressure off.

    1. Seconding this. I used to work for a company that helped people apply for overseas study programmes. Often it was a weight off everyone involved if someone good at English wrote the recommendation letter with input from the relevant people.

  26. Key points for letters of recommendation:
    1. In the initial email remind prof of class you took and year, and what especially interested you from that class (don’t lie but a little buttering up never hurts ie “I especially enjoyed your lecture on X and will explore it more in grad school”).
    2. Give basic info of the new opportunity (MA in X at Y school, due on Z date).
    3. Remind them of the grades you received in the course (I have so many students do not remember most grades offhand). If a D student from 5 years ago asks me I would rather say no immediately before looking at their materials (without an explanation as suggested above).
    4. Offer package to determine what the professor needs. ie I would be happy to provide my CV/Resume, Transcript, Essays/Exams for your course. Some professors don’t need all of it but it shows how much work you are willing to do to make our lives easier.

  27. From the flip side: if you’re asked for a letter of recommendation, and the best you can do is acid backhanded comments that undermine the person who’s asked you for a recommendation, for the love of Pete just say no. This goes whether you’re a professor, a mentor, a trusted freind or associate, or the head of a volunteer organization.

    You never know: when the person you undermined is rejected, the program just might send the application materials back. Including your letter. Which might be read by the applicant. Who will thereby find out that a respected and trusted person stabbed the applicant in the back.

    True story. Ironically, I ended up better off than if I had been accepted to the program; but the head of my volunteer group ended up without one of his hardest workers, who suddenly decided that some other group was going to get all my time, talents, and financial support after that incident.

  28. Oh god, as someone who looked at the two reference requests in their inbox today and decided they really had to hold off on filling those in order to do some other high priority stuff, LW, don’t feel like you can’t see this prof again. I always try to do student references swiftly, but I cannot be sure I haven’t ever overlooked one and would be sad if a former student started avoiding me because the neverending deluge of work overtook me on some particular occasion.

    Which leads to my general advice to students: totally do what this LW did (follow up on requests to be sure they made it through). If someone agrees to give you a reference, it’s fine to then follow up about a week after the reference request has gone to them (if you know that) and check it got there okay. Usually if I am giving a reference for a specific thing, I tell the student when I expect to have done it, and let them know that it’s fine to prod me (politely!). And if you have a blanket agreement from someone to give you a reference, try to contact them when you’re putting in a new round of applications so they know to expect them (and can tell you if they won’t be available).

    In other stuff for students to know – writing references actually takes quite a bit of time. A decent reference, that talks about you as a person, demands at least half an hour (which is a lot in the context of a totally overstuffed working week, especially in the peak application season when professors have a lot to do). So make sure to show your professors you appreciate them taking that time – it makes a big difference!

  29. I am not sure if I’ve ever done this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it has happened once or twice over 15+ years as a professor because I do “lose” a few emails every now and then.

    Some of the comments above I agree with:

    – No, definitely not personal. In academic triage mode, sometimes you don’t reply to every request that is not immediately urgent of your obligations.

    – When you do realize you never replied to something or owe someone, it does cause that anxious avoidance spiral. Please do say hi and act normal.

    – If you have any way to get my attention besides email, that would help. Stopping by in person is best. Then follow up on email after I’ve agreed and with the specific info of what you need and when.

    Other stuff I’d add:

    – I likely don’t remember your name that long after you leave my class without other things to prompt me (it’s not personal -there are a lot of you and many of you are named Matt and Mike and Meghan and Maria etc.). Even if you were awesome and I do know you and would want to recommend you! So please offer the info to give me the context so I can place your name to who you are.

    – Be mindful of how the timing works on our side of the academic calendar. Your grad school applications are due in mid-December? Your job applications are going out in April/May? Guess what – that’s when we have all our grading AND faculty committee/administrative stuff at full bore (in both senses of the word) in addition to “normal” teaching, publishing stuff, etc.

    – Get recommendations as early as possible from when you had the professor’s class (and generally know what they would be recommending you for). Even if you later need it tailored for a specific *other* opportunity, it is much easier to say “Prof X, I appreciate that you were willing to recommend me for Y in the future. If it’s not too much trouble, -could I use it for Z- could you tweak it for Z-…?” I can copy/paste and tweak things for someone I’ve already recommended a lot easier than a brand new recommendation takes.

  30. You can definitely still drop by at his office. I think it’s quite likely that, when he hears you got into grad school he’ll remember the recommendation request and apologize for not getting back to you. This would be ideal because the awkwardness would then be gone and you won’t have to worry about future interactions with him anymore. If he is distant or seems uninterested in your work when you drop by, then at least you have some more confirmation that there probably won’t be any collaboration in the future anymore.

  31. I used to do a lot of document editing for applications when I worked for a study abroad company. My general advice to people then was make it as easy as possible on whomever you are asking. Since a lot of the prospective students were asking non-native English speakers whose grasp was at best theoretical we’d often advise people to write it themselves/get someone else to write it then send it to their prof/boss to proofread, edit and sign. Even for native speakers, many people use an editing service or tap a friend who has the right connections/experience to make their references/personal statement etc. as good as possible.

    Also, if you’re in close contact, the carrot/stick method can work wonders. I spent a month gently prodding my then soon to be ex Boss for a reference but what finally motivated him into action was the promise of a box of chocolates for doing it.

    Finally, for attracting/keeping attention in a world full of ever refilling inboxes, the little ‘important’ flag thingy can work wonders.

  32. A very similar thing happened to me. (In fact, I very nearly wrote to the Captain about it, but managed to figure things out on my own first.) When I was a senior in college, my favorite professor took me on as a (volunteer) research assistant. He kept me on when I graduated because there was more work to be done and I very much wanted to do it. I got a job whose schedule would allow me to keep being a research assistant on the side. About a year and a half after I graduated, he stopped answering my emails. We scheduled each meeting via email (rather than having a standing date to meet), so this meant the end of our meetings.

    When he didn’t answer the first email, I thought nothing of it; it was not an unusual occurrence and I was accustomed to it. I tried again a couple months later, and again he didn’t answer, and I just told myself he was busy. Another couple months after that, I emailed him a third time, this time explicitly (but politely) asking if he wanted me to stop contacting him. Again, no answer. I googled “professor not answering my emails,” and the internet said, “Be patient, and don’t take it personally.” So for a while I kept telling myself that he was just busy. I clung to this explanation because I desperately wanted to believe it. But eventually I thought, “How much longer am I going to keep telling myself that?”

    I was honestly devastated. I thought he had disowned me (for lack of a better word) and never wanted to speak to me again. I wracked my brains trying to figure out what I had done to offend him. I had not applied to grad school, and I felt like this turn of events had more or less torpedoed any chance I had of ever going to grad school, since he was by far the professor who knew me best and would have been able to write by far the strongest letter of recommendation. More than that, I had very much looked up to him and trusted him and felt like we had a really good relationship. (For example, he’s still the only person with whom I have anything remotely resembling a professional relationship who I’ve come out to.) After I concluded that he never wanted to speak to me again, I spent the better part of a year deeply sad and bewildered and directionless (since the loss of our relationship also meant the loss of my access to the research that I basically considered my life’s work).

    Near the end of that year, a situation arose in which it was possible for me to drop by his office hours. I did so, and asked him if we might be able to resume our work together. His response? “I would love to do that. Let’s set up a regular weekly meeting.” And we did. And we have met regularly since then, and I am contributing to a book he’s writing, and I am so much happier now than last year, and I am grateful every single day that I can keep doing this work and that he is still a part of my life and that I took that opportunity six months ago to go to his office hours and ask. This time last year, I had very nearly given up all hope that I would ever get to do this again. All the evidence seemed to point in that direction. And yet this story has a happy ending. I bet yours will too.

  33. Stop in and say hello! Like everyone’s said, there are a lot of reasons your email could have fallen through the cracks.

    Not-so-funny story: My senior year of college I had plans to ask my faculty advisor for a letter of recommendation. Around the same time, I was looking to meet with her to discuss courses for my final semester. Emails were met with radio silence. I went to her office but no one was there and her name card was gone. In the end, I stopped by my department secretary’s office for an unrelated question. On my way out, I asked, “Has Ms. Advisor’s office been moved?” and she said, “You can say that.” My advisor had moved to the complete opposite side of the country. I ended up picking a new advisor and turned down the offer of her contact information. She was flaky in a lot of ways and I figured anyone who could up and leave without letting her students know wasn’t the kind of person I wanted recommending me to grad programs.

  34. I haven’t yet been asked to write a super formal letter (ie. for a graduate school application or suchlike), but what I find especially useful in these exchanges is reminders.

    As the former student, you can tell the faculty/instructor that you will send them a reminder a few days before the letter is due; as the instructor, I will inform the student that I will email them ASAP once I’ve sent the letter, and also ask them to send me a reminder. It’s super useful to set up the expectation of some back-and-forth exchange before the actual deadline, so you don’t have the panic of wondering if the person forgot/wondering if I forgot something!

    On ensuring the confidentiality of letters:
    This is a conversation unsuited to email, and I do try to inform my students of this before the end of a particular class. If the student is given the option to waive their right to see their recommenders’ letters by a particular institution/application system, they should be understand that while “waiving a right” seems like a bad thing b/c we tend to like having rights and stuff, WAIVING THE RIGHT actually INCREASES the credibility of the recommendation letter to choose to make the letters confidential.

    (I was informed early in my training that students often get confused by the verbiage of waiving rights and what exactly waiving or not waiving means.) Does anyone actually know if this distinction is actually common knowledge or (on the side of people reviewing applications) if it actually DOES increase a letter’s credibility?

  35. I asked for a letter of recommendation for seminary from the campus minister at my former college, several years after I graduated. He responded enthusiastically, but he had a month-long study abroad class to teach and the letter would have to wait until after that. After his return date, I emailed repeatedly, called him and left messages repeatedly, called the front desk to make sure he’d gotten back safely and wasn’t in the hospital or something. The front desk call was the only one that got answered. I did get into my program, after some stress and uncertainty, but I still don’t know why he didn’t get back to me. I would much rather have heard “I don’t think I’ll have time for that, but I wish you the best of luck” or even “I know I said I’d do this, but I just can’t fit it in.” Something other than silence and mystery.

    1. That stinks, and I’m sorry.

      I think the question for the Letter Writer (and for you, if you ran into this person again) is: What kind of relationship do you want to have going forward? Is an apology/explanation the important thing or is it more about reestablishing some kind of (loose, albeit) professional ties?

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