Next week I'm scheduled to graduate from a major university. One of the required courses that I've taken over the past semester is an independent research study with a single professor.

Throughout this process I've mostly worked on my own, however, with the semester nearing its conclusion, I now need to present my research and receive a grade on my efforts.

Well, over the past five to six days, my professor hasn't been on campus and is for all intents and purposes unreachable. Of the few emails I've sent him he's only responded to one, saying that he's had a death in the family and that he'll get in touch with me the next day (which is now today but he's still yet to do so and it's currently 8pm). The death in the family happened at least last weekend, since when I tried visiting his office on Tuesday another professor told me he was out of the office due to said occurrence.

I consulted my advisor and he recommended that I send a follow up email [tonight] mentioning my concern, and that if he doesn't respond within a few hours to send another follow up email but this time with the chair of the department cc'ed.

My question is, is there anything else I can do to push this professor to respond to me and to set up a time to conclude my research project? What happens if he doesn't issue me a grade? I absolutely have to graduate this semester for a number of reasons that I won't go into; but, it would absolutely be devastating to my current plans in life, finances, etc.

I've been told that it's not within the powers of the chair to actually do something about this, just nudge the professor in the right direction, but, does the dean of the college have some kind of influence in my graduating?

My mentor for this project does instruct other courses, so, I'm kind of guessing he'll be back on campus next week to proctor his final(s)... but, I could also very well see another professor filling in for him.

Does anyone have experience with / knowledge about this? I'm kind of starting to freak out and so I thought I'd consult the masses.

Thanks in advance and sorry if any of this was ranty.


UPDATE: This afternoon I met with the chair of that department, and, about five minutes into the meeting my professor showed up in the door of the room! He was there to drop off a folder of papers for other students from his other courses to pick up, and to tell the chair that he was back on campus.

At that same time, my professor told me that he would just grade me on the results of the project that I had previously submitted to him, along with the presentation I made.

It truly was complete luck [on my part] that my professor showed up at the same time that I was there. And, the conversation between me and the chair didn't get far enough for him to tell me what my options would be; so, I can't update you all regarding what my university's policy / way of handling this would be.

Thanks again for all the comments/advice.

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    I think maybe you should elaborate on the exact sense in which you "have to graduate this semester". Even if your degree is not conferred this semester, it is not as though you would have to re-enroll the next semester, pay tuition, etc. You'll just get your degree awarded when everything is eventually sorted out, maybe even retroactively. And I would expect that most employers, if informed of the situation, would allow you to start work and move on with your life just as though you had your degree. Is there a specific reason why you think there will be an impact? – Nate Eldredge Dec 7 at 1:29
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    @NateEldredge From where I'm a double major with a minor, I've attempted more than 150% of credit hours than what my first degree requires. Because of this, I had to petition for a financial aide override under the conditions that I graduate this semester. If I don't then I owe the university that money before I can enroll in the following semester. Additionally, I have plans to leave the country for the next 8 months starting next February. Because of that, I've also already given a notice for my apartment, have put things in storage, etc. There are a few other details like this too. – Charles Dec 7 at 1:33
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    @Charles - generally, in exceptional circumstances such as these, it is possible for you to be retroactively judged to have graduated this semester some time in the future. So, sometime in January (or, in some other more extreme different case (e.g. if a professor has a major health concern themselves that puts them completely out), June) you might present to the professor over Skype, and the professor submits a backdated grade, and the university issues you a backdated diploma and updated transcript. You don't have to be enrolled for this to happen. – Alexander Woo Dec 7 at 2:06
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    It would probably be more useful to ask your advisor how your school will handle this, especially since (s)he's already familiar with the situation. Like folks are saying, I'd expect them to make some exceptions since it's not your fault, but all we can do is speculate. Your advisor (or the chair/dean who the advisor has suggested looping in) at least knows how things work at your particular institution. – A C Dec 7 at 4:18
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    Talk to your department chair ASAP!! – JeffE Dec 7 at 19:47
up vote 162 down vote accepted

My question is, is there anything else I can do to push this professor to respond to me and to set up a time to conclude my research project?

I recommend that you don't send your professor any more communications than you already have, and in this case, it is completely inappropriate to "push" him to do anything. The death of a loved one in one's family is a major traumatic event, and a large degree of sympathy and forbearance is appropriate. With respect, it is a much bigger deal than what are relatively minor concerns over graduation.

At this point you have already sent multiple emails, and it is clear that the professor is not able to perform his work duties right now. Rather than contacting him again, contact the Head of Department, describe your case, and request a plan to have your assessment pushed forward in the absence of your professor (e.g., with another supervisor allocated). Make sure you write your request in a way that is sympathetic and kind to your professor, but which acknowledges the reality that he is not presently in a position to assist you. If you have been advised that there is nothing they can do, then you have been advised wrong, because that is clearly bullshit - a Department Head has the power and responsibility to replace incapacitated staff with other staff members who can do their teaching/supervision work.

If the Department is unable to assess you prior to your expected graduation time, this might end up being a case where your graduation is delayed. Accept that and put it in perspective. No-one you love has died, and the worst possible outcome for you here is that your assessment gets delayed, and you end up graduating one session later than you otherwise would have. If this occurs, and you are worried that it will hamper your ability to apply for later positions (e.g., jobs, post-graduate degree, etc.), ask your Head of Department to write a "to whom it may concern" letter that you can give to potential employers, explaining that you are due to graduate at the next conferral and that your graduation was delayed due to a staffing issue through no fault of your own.

One last thing: remember to buy your professor a nice card or some flowers consoling him for his bereavement.

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    Thanks for the advice. I think I'll follow your words and just contact the department head directly tomorrow. I had already reached out to his office earlier in the week to set up an appointment but then cancelled when I got the "I'll contact you tomorrow" email from my professor. I suppose I'll just see if he can find someone else for me to present to and assess my efforts. Thanks again! – Charles Dec 7 at 1:45
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    More likely they would just defer the result for that course and then hold the final assessment when they are able to do so. This is what happens in other cases where final assessment in a course is held up (e.g., due to illness). – Ben Dec 7 at 4:07
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    Describing the asker's concerns as "relatively petty" sounds dismissive, so I edited to "relatively minor". – David Richerby Dec 7 at 14:50
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    +1 Agree with this 100%, and it's exactly the advice the adviser should have given. – Wipqozn Dec 7 at 15:15
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    Honestly an extra semester of tuition / room&board / etc. is far from a small thing. But the advice is spot on -- the dean can absolutely handle this situation and should not have difficulty doing so. – Richard Rast Dec 7 at 17:33

To answer a specific question:

What happens if he doesn't issue me a grade?

In a US-like university system (which based on your terminology I'm assuming), what would normally happen is that you'd be temporarily assigned a placeholder grade, possibly I (for Incomplete) or possibly something else that indicates some sort of administrative delay. Your degree wouldn't be officially conferred, but in all likelihood you'd still be allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony. When the professor eventually returns to duty, you can complete your presentation (remotely if necessary), and he can assign you a grade. That grade then replaces the I, and from then on it's as if you had that grade all along. Assuming it's a passing grade, you will then be awarded a degree, possibly backdated to the end of this semester.

This is a similar process to what would happen if you became ill or incapacitated and were unable to take your last exams on time.

In particular, this sort of situation does not result in you having to retake the course. I would not worry about the possibility of having to attend the university next semester.

If the professor is out for a really long time, or permanently, (which I wouldn't expect in this case), the department can typically have some other professor review your work and assign their best estimate of a grade.

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    As a note, placeholder grades that are due to the instructor are something like NR-No Report, GNR-Grade Not Reported, *, ##, etc. It's not supposed to be Incomplete because that implies the student didn't finish the work. – user71659 Dec 7 at 23:20
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    @user71659: Well, in this case the student actually didn't finish the work (the presentation), and the reason it couldn't be finished was due to something outside the student's control (the instructor wasn't present). I guess it might be up to university policy what the placeholder looks like in such a case. – Nate Eldredge Dec 7 at 23:32
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    In my experience, "incomplete" is used for student-related "no grade" issues, such as missing half the classes due to medical issues. A different placeholder is used for professor-related or paperwork-related missing grades (eg. my Chemistry 1 grade was a "##" until they got confirmation that yes, my AP Chemistry score was high enough for both placement and credit). – Mark Dec 7 at 23:32
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    I was in the past given a just enough good grade to pass the subject and the grade was readjusted later on.... – Rui F Ribeiro Dec 8 at 1:07

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