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.
-Unrecommended (she/her pronouns)
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?