Thing is, dude was happy with my work in a research course with him over the summer. I had a small portion left to complete the project which I offered to volunteer to do. He immediately ordered the supplies I needed to conduct this last portion of research, and that was 2 months ago :(. I sort of never considered until now that I should have finished it in 1.5 months maximum regardless of the fact that I was volunteering on my own time. In my defence he's been on pat leave (although he attended informal weekly departmental meetings on campus).

How do I explain this to him in a way that shows I acknowledge my mistake and that I am still interested? Do I stand a chance of mending the relationship? I intend to finish the work over the next 2 weeks.

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    No matter how stupid you feel, I would not recommend saying that you are stupid. The closest thing to "I am stupid" that you should consider saying is "I stupidly did X." (I have done lots of stupid things in my career, but I don't infer from those actions that I am stupid.) – Andreas Blass Dec 10 '18 at 6:20
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    Questions about how / whether to apologize for something may have a significant cultural component. Phrases like "I am stupid" wouldn't be appropriate in my culture, but you haven't said what culture you are in. – Nate Eldredge Dec 10 '18 at 7:24
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    It's never appropriate to call yourself stupid, nor anyone else. – henning Dec 10 '18 at 8:29
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    Let me say that the question seems stupid. :) – Alchimista Dec 10 '18 at 10:54
  • The joking answer to this is that you shouldn't tell someone you're stupid because it takes away all the fun they'll have of finding it out for themselves. The non-joking answer is that you shouldn't tell someone you're stupid, period. – iayork Dec 10 '18 at 13:41

No, you aren't stupid. Decisions and actions can be stupid, but not people.

But you don't say why you didn't complete on time. If you were working on the project and it just didn't get done, then it is just the fact that such things are hard to estimate up front as you don't know what you will encounter along the way. However, if you just didn't do anything, then it isn't the same at all. But even in such a case there may be reasons that delayed you. Even just needing a break can be a valid reason for not making progress. Many people experience such periods.

There are many other valid reasons for not making progress. I don't know your situation, of course, but if you worked at it and got nowhere at all, that doesn't make you stupid. It makes you inexperienced, nothing more. You may have needed more direction than you were able to get. That is a shared defect in the system, not your fault. Lots of things can intervene in our good intentions.

Perhaps you have disappointed your professor, but on the other hand, you were volunteering your own time and effort in the first place. It isn't that you got something for which you didn't return value. Had you not volunteered in the first place everyone would be objectively in the same situation now. The work wasn't done and needs to be done by someone.

You can apologize, if you like, for not meeting your own goals, but just an explanation is the most that would be needed. But just "I wasn't able to spend the time and effort that I thought I would" is enough. But also expressing your desire to continue working with the prof would be a good thing to do. If he is disappointed then that is for him to deal with.

But this is also the sort of situation that is best resolved in person, rather than in email.


I would pose two questions:

  1. Is the professor unhappy with you?
  2. Did you really do anything wrong?

If the professor has not said they are unhappy with you, then I see no reason to give an explanation; keep it up-beat.

Dear Professor, Just a status update on the X project. I've finished X, has taken a little longer than I anticipated, but I think I'll have it wrapped up in the next two weeks. Looking forward to it!

If the professor is unhappy, then the question becomes whether you did anything wrong. If there was no deadline and you're not getting paid, then it's a bit rich of the professor to be angry. You can push back as much as you're comfortable with; here's a reasonably polite version:

Dear Professor, Sorry for the slow progress on the X project. Given that we had never discussed a deadline (and that I am not getting paid), I hadn't realize you had expected this to be finished by now. Still, I do want to finish the project, and will pick up the pace. I think I can be finished in two weeks; would that be OK? I'll keep you informed on the progress. Thanks,

If the professor is unhappy and you did do something wrong, then a quick apology is in order.

Dear Professor, Please accept my apology about the slow progress on the X project. I am still interested and definitely want to finish it; I had just [stupidly] been doing the work pretty slowly and hadn't managed to keep the schedule we agreed upon. I think I can finish the project in the next two weeks; would that be OK? Happy to discuss in person if you like, just let me know.

As to whether to include the word "stupidly", I think it depends on your personality a bit -- as stated in the comments, you shouldn't seriously suggest that you are stupid, but I think it's fine as a way to be a bit self-effacing.

(Note, my answer is from a Western/US perspective)


Calling you stupid is of no benefit to anyone. Simply acknowledge your mistake, apologize, and tell how you will proceed.

It is not unusual for research projects to proceed slowly for whatever reasons, so unless you agreed on a specific deadline, all should be fine.

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