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A couple of months ago, I defended my Master's thesis and got graduated. One of the referees, a professor of mine with a history of verbal contentions between us, did me an overt injustice and despite all my efforts, attacked me with her unfair judgement. I got angry and sent her an e-mail the other day, one could say explicitly offensive and disrespectful, implying her lack of knowledge and her biased criticisms. I also commented on her wasting too much time in social networks, rather than doing academic research.

I may have gone too far obviously for I heard she burst into tears after reading the e-mail, and has notified almost all other professors about it. As a professor, do you still believe I have a chance to apologize the lady and ask for her forgiveness? If in her shoes, would you expect an apology e-mail or you'd prefer no more words from the arrogant student? If yes, what would you prefer to hear in the regret letter? And do you evaluate my reaction as provocative?

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    do you evaluate my reaction as provocative -- hard to say no, given that everything we know about it is your description which says implying her lack of knowledge and her biased criticisms. I also commented on her wasting too much time in social networks, rather than doing academic research. – Federico Poloni Jun 16 '18 at 14:02
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    Strongly related question: How should I phrase an important question that I need to ask a professor? – scaaahu Jun 16 '18 at 14:47
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    I am not a full professor yet. But I have met many. In my opinion the best you can do is to leave this matter alone. This person mistreated you and got a normal response. The fact that she is spreading it around means she is now keen at killing your career in retaliation, which is also the typical professoral response. This person now wants you to pay. Apologising will communicate you are desperate which will further stimulate her actions. If your objective is to make it stop, don't make it like it can really affect you. Soon the professor will realise self-inflicted damage of spreading this. – Scientist Jun 16 '18 at 16:32
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    Yes, it is truly awful that that professor is seeking moral support from her colleagues (and probable friends) after someone sent her an email so offensive and degrading that it made her cry. Do you think before you write, @Scientist? The "normal response" to being mistreated is not to attack back. Two wrongs have never made a right. – user9646 Jun 16 '18 at 19:10
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    @Scientist Professors are human, too. They do have emotions. While a well-experienced professor is probably used to a lot, especially young/inexperienced professors can be emotionally vulnerable to attacks. Frankly, a student that accuses a professor of not knowing their stuff better be brilliant. And really, commenting on other people's social media usage is never appropriate unless one is their parent or spouse, direct tutor or really good friend. That being said, a sincere and unconditional apology can work wonders (no "if it had been offensive"-apology!). – Captain Emacs Jun 17 '18 at 4:55
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one could say... implying... I also commented on... I may have gone too far... do you evaluate my reaction as provocative?...

Perhaps you're being a bit lenient on yourself?

I think the only right thing to do is to apologize, in person, and own your awful (truly awful!) behavior. You didn't perhaps offend and disrespect her, you absolutely offended and disrespected her. In my opinion, you were completely out of line (and unprofessional to boot.) Regardless of the opinion of others (including my own), I think you need to deal head on with this problem you have of lashing out at others for (real or perceived) slights. Part of dealing with a problem behavior is dealing with the consequences.

People are more likely to forgive an offense if the offender has actually apologized and asked for forgiveness. Though she may continue to harbor some residual ill-will towards you (and deservedly so), it will show the community to whom she belongs that you at least tried to do the civilized thing after exhibiting such poor judgement. Also, it will likely stop her from continuing to bad-mouth you if you have apologized appropriately. It doesn't sound good to the listener if she complains bitterly about you, then ends with, "...and then he apologized appropriately."

Don't send a letter or an email. Have the courage to do it in person, and to allow her the opportunity to tell you what you probably need to hear. It might also help you to read about real apologies lest you continue in the vein which started this.

However, if you want her continued ill-will and bad-mouthing to follow you around the start of your career (it may or may not hurt you, you never know), do nothing, or better yet, continue to ignore the better angels of your nature, and tell people she had it coming to her.

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  • I guess that's the only right thing to do. Thanks for letting me know how terribly I've misbehaved. – ye9ane Jun 17 '18 at 4:30
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    Hey, guess what? She responded and her kind words just made me blush to the roots of my hair. I had no idea she was such a nice and reasonable person. I might have misjudged her way out of proportion and am not sure if I can ever find the courage to confront her and look into her eyes again. Boy I'm a terrible judge! – ye9ane Jun 17 '18 at 13:40
  • @ye9ane Good to hear! Did she finally apologize for attacking you before? (I understand it happened several times.) – Scientist Jun 17 '18 at 17:52
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    I had made a big deal out of it tbh. I thought the lady was intended to degrade my research efforts and bring me into disrepute in front of everyone. But I was simply being paranoid and delusional. I didn't deserve an apology of course, but to my surprise she didn't hold the slightest grudge against my words, and even asked me to begin a mutual collaboration with her. She's a kind lady really. It was all my fault. – ye9ane Jun 17 '18 at 19:43
  • @ye9ane - Wow! "...but to my surprise she didn't hold the slightest grudge against my words... kind lady..." That's wonderful to hear! So happy for you that it worked out well. – anongoodnurse Jun 17 '18 at 22:54
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OK, let's take this apart:

  • "One of the referees, a professor of mine with a history of verbal contentions between us, did me an overt injustice and despite all my efforts, attacked me with her unfair judgement." You may be short in your description, but she's a professor and so presumably knows her field. Have you had a moment of introspection in which you have considered that, just possibly, she may have been right? I mean, it's an exam and it's her job to find out how much you know. I have been to my fair share of exams in which the student simply did not know very much. On the face of it, the questions the students then tend to get from professors may sound harsh and are occasionally blunt ("I would have really liked it if you had known the answer to this -- it's second year undergraduate material"), but they're not factually wrong and certainly not "overt injustice" or "unfair judgment".

  • "I got angry and sent her an e-mail the other day, one could say explicitly offensive and disrespectful, implying her lack of knowledge and her biased criticisms." So you're saying that she's a professor but does not know very much, and on top of that is biased. Any reasonable outside observer would certainly say that (i) you're out of line here, (ii) that you're offensive, (iii) that you're almost certainly wrong.

  • "I also commented on her wasting too much time in social networks, rather than doing academic research." So you're saying here that she's not only unqualified (see above) but also not doing her job. If she's a professor, you're probably wrong on this -- first, how would you even evaluate how much she is or should be working; second, she may spend the occasional minute on social media (heck, I'm doing that too right now!), but she may be making up for it by working late at night or on weekends (of look, I'm doing that too!); and third, this is most definitely not your business.

  • "I heard she burst into tears after reading the e-mail, and has notified almost all other professors about it." So someone was completely and unnecessarily awful to her and she went to her peers and friends to talk about this.

  • "A couple of months ago, I defended my Master's thesis [...] I got angry and sent her an e-mail the other day." So you've been harboring a grudge for several weeks and finally lost your temper?

As others have pointed out in comments, this question may as well have been asked in the Interpersonal Skills forum, but since you're already here: Can you see how completely inappropriate your original email was? If you can't, then you definitely have a blind spot in your interactions with other people that you need to work on.

Now, about what to do: I suspect that there is really not all that much you can do, and there is really nobody other than yourself you can blame for this. But if you want to try: Be an upright person, take responsibility for having made a mistake, and go apologize in person and with sincere contriteness and regret. The last half-sentence is important.

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    I've not been holding a grudge against her for several weeks, actually the opposite, I was filled with a constant feeling of guilt, for I sent her the e-mail right after the defense day. But I thought it's OK to blame the teacher on her poor judgment, or otherwise they'll never doubt the rightfulness of their decisions, which is by the way, full of flaws. I still believe she did me injustice, on purpose, to dispraise my efforts and discourage me. But I sent her an apology e-mail anyways, letting her think that I take all the blame. – ye9ane Jun 17 '18 at 4:56
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    @ye9ane - I sincerely wish you could read your own words with clear eyes. There is so much blame of others (was her judgement truly poor? Have others on the committee/your advisor acknowledged that you were wronged by this person?), and so little acknowledgement of your own flaws, though your question obviously contains some awareness of your behavior however reserved it may be. Read the above answer again. It's helpful and kinder than mine was. Congrats on getting your masters. Now go be a mencsh! You'll be happier for it. – anongoodnurse Jun 17 '18 at 6:27
  • @ye9ane For the record here, I do not support your attitude of being openly rude to others, be it over email or what. As you have seen, you've given a weapon to an abuser of which this person made immediate use. The guilt from reacting against open abuse is another tool which is typically exploited by the abuser. "I still believe she did me injustice, on purpose, to dispraise my efforts and discourage me." -- And I believe she will do it again. As I believe your apologies email will not circulate around, to which a sweet reply may have been written in sarcasm. Let us hope we're both wrong... – Scientist Jun 17 '18 at 18:06
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    @Scientist - "...you've given a weapon to an abuser..." Is planting seeds of (your) suspicion/doubt/paranoia something you think will help the OP professionally? Assuming that people are in general a decent lot is often the right course. – anongoodnurse Jun 17 '18 at 22:58
  • @anongoodnurse Recognising moral harassment can be useful to anyone. – Scientist Jun 18 '18 at 14:33

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