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I'm a Computer Science student in Bangalore, India, doing a part time MTech at an autonomous university.

My classmates were avoiding working with me, and formed their own groups. I tried approaching one group but they were not willing to reveal their topic idea. So I spoke with students of three different branches: Electronics, Civil and Automotive, to see if I could work with them. While they were initially okay with it, they later backed out citing lack of time from company work.

A Civil dept teacher said I could do the project alone, so I told my department head that I would be doing the project alone. He mentioned by email that university norms require 4 people working on a group project and the Academic Registrar's permission would be required to do it alone. I replied (CC'ing my mentor) asking if I would have to meet the registrar. I received no reply. Subsequently I created my pre-project presentation and initial demo and showed it to my mentor and the department head. I got an okay for the project topic. Yesterday I presented the completed project. My mentor and two other faculty members loved it. My mentor asked if I got the Registrar's permission. I said I thought department head sir was going to handle that. I asked if it would be a problem and she said it might not be a problem.

Today my department head emails this:

I recall that your topic was okayed but not that you alone would work on the group project as it was mentioned that university has its norms. So if your project is not accepted by university for the reasons that you are not in a group, your project may not be considered. Please be aware that this may happen. This was also about working in a group.

How do I reply to this? During the entire two months my mentor, the department head and even classmates were aware that I was doing the project alone. Is this a way of setting a precedent for other students? Can the university reject the project? I'm a working professional. Working in groups is an everyday job. Even companies have realized that certain people perform better when not in a group and are hired as "individual contributors". What is a university's purpose in forcing people to work together.

I'm scared now. What would be the right way to respond to him without sounding defensive? (I have cordial relations with all my teachers and department head. They know me as a good student)

Update 29th May: acknowledging my error was crucial. I did that and the HoD, my mentor and the registrar gave a retrospective approval, knowing that my not obtaining permission was not due to disobedience and that I had genuinely tried hard to find and convince project partners. Big relief. Thank you all for your help. And y'all were right. There was a good chance the university could have rejected the project.

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    You don't say anything about why your classmates avoided working with you. If those reasons were somehow improper (say, caste based) then you might have some reason that an exception would be appropriate. – Buffy May 18 at 11:59
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    What's a "HoD"? – Wolfgang Bangerth May 18 at 15:47
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    @WolfgangBangerth I'm fairly certain it is "head of department" – anjama May 18 at 17:09
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    Note that companies may hire employees as "individual contributors," but that simply means they are not managing a team. They may well (and usually are) expected to work in groups and cooperate with other employees, because very few things in companies are done by one person working entirely alone. The term "individual contributor" does not mean that someone isn't expected to work with their colleagues. – Zach Lipton May 18 at 22:23
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    One thing that somewhat surprises me with this is that the department appears to leave it up to the students to form groups. I would normally expect students to be put in groups and told to work together. – tom May 19 at 17:26
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It seems like this will come down to your university's rules and the personalities involved. Still, let's consider:

He mentioned by email that university norms require 4 people working on a group project and the Academic Registrar's permission would be required to do it alone.

So you were very specifically told, in writing, that you would need to get approval from the registrar.

I replied (cc'ing my mentor) asking if I would have to meet the registrar. I received no reply.

And you didn't get approval from the registrar. As a "working professional", you should know that you can't just send one e-mail and then drop the matter -- it's your responsibility to run this to ground.

My mentor asked if I got the Registrar's permission.

Well that was predictable

During the entire two months my mentor, the HoD and even classmates were aware that I was doing the project alone.

They probably assumed that you had gotten approval from the registrar as they had told you to. It would have been nice if they had followed up on this, but this is not their responsibility.

I'm a working professional. Working in groups is an everyday job. Even companies have realized that certain people perform better when not in a group and are hired as "individual contributors". What is a university's purpose in forcing people to work together.

This is very much not the point. The program can impose whatever (reasonable) requirements it wants. Learning to work in groups is a reasonable goal, regardless of whether you personally already have background working in groups.

What would be the right way to respond to him without sounding defensive?

This is the part that comes down to your university's rules and the personalities involved. It may be that this is a strict rule and there is nothing that anyone can do. Or, it may be that there is a process for an appeal or exception. I would start by recognizing that you are in the wrong.

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    Covers almost all bases. The OP should try to find out why they had trouble joining a group. It may be something arbitrary and beyond their control, which might be part of their case for being allowed to work alone. On the other hand, if they have had problems working in groups before, that needs work. – Patricia Shanahan May 18 at 7:09
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    There was a problem with working with certain CS classmates, because they were bullying me and I had formally reported that to the HoD. Instances of someone deleting my lab files too. Other department students just didn't have time to be able to accommodate my contribution. So in a way the situation was out of my control. But isn't it the responsibility of the HoD and mentor to not approve starting with the project if university guidelines prohibit doing the project alone? – Nav May 18 at 7:29
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    @Nav The HoD and mentor may not have realized you didn't follow through on getting the Registrar's permission to work alone. You would have had a stronger case if you had sought permission at the start of the project. – Patricia Shanahan May 18 at 7:58
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    @SolarMike The better the explanation for not joining a group, the better the small chance of getting the individual project retroactively approved. Also, looking ahead, there may be some fixable problem with the the OP's group interactions, and fixing it would help with future jobs. – Patricia Shanahan May 18 at 12:25
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    Wait what? The problem here isn't that he is working alone. The problem here is he was unable to join a group due to the choices of the other students. The university must approve working alone at this point. – Joshua May 19 at 21:41
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What is a university's purpose in forcing people to work together.

The main objective of a group project is to learn how to work as a group. The technical content is less important.

We only have one side of the story (yours) about why you didn't join a group, but the bottom line is that by doing an individual project you have not taken part in the main objective.

To be honest, I think the University is quite right to reject your individual project, however technically excellent it might be, simply because it was not done as a group project.

Even companies have realized that certain people perform better when not in a group and are hired as "individual contributors".

That is true, but irrelevant. An "individual contributor" who can only work by doing everything on his/her own won't achieve much. Most real world "projects" are too big for one person to do in a reasonable time, and too important to come to a complete stop if that one person becomes ill, etc. And even if someone is working "alone," they need to convince other people in the company that what they are doing is useful, otherwise it has no value to the company.

  • You should reconsider your word choices. Your answer implies he would be better off dragging along three freeloaders. I don't think you actually mean that. – Joshua May 19 at 21:43
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    @Joshua How does it imply that? – user253751 May 20 at 5:05

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