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The title has my primary question. My research professor whom I have known since the beginning of the calendar year has quite consistently canceled on meetings last minute, most often due to personal reasons or last-minute department meetings. Despite the difficulties this causes with my own and my research peers' schedules, it's somewhat understandable. But there's rarely any follow-up for makeup meetings; if there is, it never moves past us giving our research professor our alternative meeting availabilities.

As an undergraduate, I wonder if this is simply to be expected at some level when doing research with a senior professor- is it? I enjoy the subject matter of the research quite a bit so I do not prefer to leave the team. Any advice is welcome on how to navigate this situation, if it is to be navigated at all, or instead accepted as is.

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    To be clear, is the professor actually consistently canceling last-minute? Or forgetting about it, or canceling more than a couple minutes after the meeting should've started? – Mehrdad Oct 4 at 6:49
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    If the department is frequently scheduling meetings last-minute, then they share some of the blame. – Acccumulation Oct 4 at 19:07
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    More likely theory: Very few people in academia know how to manage time. – darij grinberg Oct 4 at 22:27
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    What is your location? This might be heavily culture dependant. – Mast Oct 5 at 6:57
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    I am not familiar with undergraduate research - I am not sure what discipline would have such. But I am familiar with postgraduate research and these disruptions can be incredibly common depending on the supervisor – Stumbler Oct 5 at 9:16
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Some level of disruption is normal. The more intense the environment, the more disruption is likely to occur. As you note, much of this is unavoidable. Things happen in our personal lives that must be attended to (illness of a child, for example) and last minute meetings are outside the advisor's control.

But, you don't need to just go idle when there is disruption. If you have a good working plan with team members then you can probably carry on when a meeting with the advisor gets cancelled at the last minute. Have a five minute "conference" on how you can make immediate progress. The do that. Or... Make a list of questions that need to be answered before you can continue. Things like that.

When you do get to talk to them, ask for advice they might have on how to continue effectively when meetings get cancelled.

You ask if this is normal. Some of it yes. Some of it is also exacerbated by the fact that it is a senior professor who has lots of time consuming and constraining demands. I hope you aren't their lowest priority, of course. But learning can occur in any case if you just figure out how to keep the team moving forward.

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    I dispute that "last minute meetings are outside the advisor's control". Yes, important stuff can come up at the last minute. But the question sounds as if this was not a one-time occurrence, but a regular pattern. If the professor regularly has "last-minute" meetings come up that mean that scheduled meetings have to be canceled, then the professor is overextended. Basic courtesy demands the prof should scale back on her/his commitments. – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Oct 4 at 14:09
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    @StephanKolassa, "prof should scale back on her/his commitments". Ah, if that were only possible. In reality we make do. But I hope, as I said, that this student group isn't the lowest priority. – Buffy Oct 4 at 14:13
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    @Buffy That's just an excuse for bad planning and having to fear no consequences for badly treating others. Yes there can always be emergencies and professors are busy people, but so are many other professionals who somehow still manage to be on time for most of their meetings - so do most professors I've ever known. – Voo Oct 4 at 22:43
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No, it's not normal. You deserve respect like everyone else. Canceling on you repeatedly at the last minute is disrespectful. "Personal reasons" can happen once in a while, sure. (Although at some point you have to wonder what's real and what's an excuse.) However, department meetings are never planned at the last minute. We are all extremely busy, and if you plan something last minute, the answer you will get from 50%+ of potential participants is "I can't, I teach/have another meeting planned/am not even in the country that day". Me and most of my colleagues try to adhere very strictly to already-planned meetings, and those who don't acquire very quickly a reputation of being unreliable. If a professor has scheduled a meeting with you and decides to go to a department meeting instead at the last minute, it's insulting.

There are at least two possible reasons for the professor's behavior.

  1. The first is that he has abysmal organizational skills. This can happen. Talking about it can sometimes help, but you have to be careful about how you phrase this. It's possible that the professor does not even realize that canceling last minute is terrible for your own schedule; some people are just self-centered and have a lot of trouble putting themselves in another's shoes.

  2. The second is that you are so low on the professor's priorities, and the professor values you so little, that he doesn't care about inflicting this kind of behavior on you. This is not the kind of person you want to work with. Being busy and senior is not an excuse for being an asshole. But you are now reaching the point where you have to choose your battles. Do you want to complain to the professor and risk retaliation? Do you want to switch advisors and also possibly face retaliation or bad will, or work on something that is less interesting to you? Etc. There is a huge power imbalance between an undergrad student and a professor, so unfortunately I have to advise you to tread carefully.

You can adopt palliative tactics such as the ones described in Buffy's answer. But overall, no, it's not acceptable for someone to do this to you, and in an ideal world you would not put up with it. But we don't live in an ideal world. Academia has a bigwig personality complex, and many (not the majority fortunately) believe that they live on a superior plane of existence, wayyy above commoners, students, and underlings.

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    Please note that you assumed the professor is male despite no gender being given in the OP. This is a manifestation of our implicit gender biases, which we all have to work to overcome in order not to perpetuate discrimination against women. – Greg Martin Oct 3 at 23:22
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    @GregMartin From Wiki: "In such cases a gender-specific, usually masculine, pronoun is sometimes used with a purported gender-neutral meaning;[3] such use of he was common in formal English between the 1700s and the latter half of the 20th century" Please note that you assumed the answerer was assuming gender, when for many of us, the generic he was simply part of our grammar studies. – Mars Oct 4 at 1:10
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    @Mars The root of this English's language rule in itself is discrimination against women though. – IEatBagels Oct 4 at 12:30
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    Funny how the sexism of gender assumptions is only pointed out when asshole behavior is assumed to be a man's, but never the opposite – user104070 Oct 4 at 17:20
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    @GeorgeM That's ridiculous. There are no clues to user114701's gender, so this is a perfect example of sexism being pointed out when the asshole behavior is not assumed to come from any one gender. – Azor Ahai Oct 5 at 0:16
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No, it’s not normal, and your professor’s behavior is disrespectful and unprofessional. The fact that you are an undergraduate is not an excuse and does not justify treating you this way. I would suggest looking for a different research project to work on under another professor who treats you with the respect due to a junior colleague and a fellow human being.

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    It's pretty normal imo for professors to cancel meetings with undergraduates when more "pressing" departmental meetings are at hand. – Parever Oct 5 at 2:14
  • @Parever canceling meetings on rare occasions is one thing, but what OP is describing is a pattern of “consistent disregard for students’ time”. That is not normal in any academic environment I have experienced. – Dan Romik Oct 5 at 2:23
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You should address your concerns to the appropriate representative body and ask them to raise them with the faculty.

Important

You need to establish clearly if this pattern of behavior is typical or atypical for people with similar responsibilities in the institute. Ask other groups for their experience. If at all possible try to get some stats together to support your case.

If there is no (student ?) representation body that can deal with this then, as a group you need to formally contact the head of the department and assert the need for this issue to be addressed without delay.

It's for them to work out a strategy to do that.

The initial suggestion will (at a guess) be that you "talk to the professor". This of course is just a way to avoid responsibility. You have no authority to negotiate with this individual and they seem not to be able, for whatever reasons, to handle their workload. It's the department which needs to shoulder this responsibility.

If the department refuses to act then you may need (again ideally via a representation group) to address this matter to a higher authority within the institute.

No, it's not reasonable for this to consistently happen. The purpose of that institute is to teach and research. Mentoring is not an optional extra, it's a core function. The issues here are simple :

  • Meetings cancelled at last minute because other last minute things crop up

This (if true) is departmental chaos in operation and while you might expect the occasional meeting to be cancelled for these reasons, they're not running a crisis management center for the police, they're running (or not running well) an institution where student requirements ought to be an integral part of the working day. There should be time allotted to this and that allocation should be respected. Exceptions happen, consistent issues should not.

  • Meetings cancelled for personal reasons

Well this happens, but if it's happening a lot then, again, it's a departmental issue to properly cover the work. It's quite unfair to students (and others) to have someone whose personal life consistently interferes with core working responsibilities. Again it's a case of occasional being normal and a high frequency of these issues being a real problem that needs a real response from the department.

  • But there's rarely any follow-up for makeup meetings; if there is, it never moves past us giving our research professor our alternative meeting availabilities.

This is another sign of either departmental chaos or individual chaos. There's a clear issue here that needs to be addressed. When you were taken on it was to mentor your development. If this is consistently not being done properly then it's a departmental level failure (at least).

Very, very important.

Lastly in fairness to the individual you need to note that they may be severely overloaded by an institution that is happy to exploit them (and as a result, your group). Do not seek to assign blame in any contacts with the institute - this sets up a confrontational situation they will feel (right or wrong) they should defend to the hilt. This is why a representational body, which likely has people more experienced in resolving these issues, is so important.

You are not going to war, you are seeking a solution or solutions. That will almost certainly involve compromise.

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