29

TL;DR: I ghosted (i.e. suddenly ceased communication with no explanation) my previous supervisor for 2 weeks when I had to do some minor final job regarding to my already finished thesis work due to my stress level. He now probably thinks I am unreliable and ghosted him forever. I actually want to finish the work and fulfil my promises, but have no access to the computer I worked on anymore. How could I improve my situation and reply to my professor to save what remains of the seemingly burning bridge?


I did my Master's thesis as an Erasmus student, started during my exchange term, and finished it the next term when I was at home. My fields is physics, and the thesis work involved the development of a complex experiment setup automation software in LabView. During the second term I was developing this remotely over Team Viewer. Most of the work was done during my exchange and the work later only involved smaller bug fixes/improvements.

My supervisor was happy with my work. In fact, he offered me a PhD position, which I was considering until a better opportunity, shared work and fast-track PhD in a science facility, came along.

Due to the COVID events in the 2nd term (first half of 2020), and because my new full-time work already started in the middle of May, I had some serious deadline problems with my Erasmus paperwork and the thesis itself. I have to admit that these were on my responsibility, due to bad time management and mental health. This ended up by submitting my thesis with a few modifications left to do (only improvements, not changes of result). We made a discussion with this professor that I would still make these changes, and also do a last bunch of small modifications (doable in 1-2h) on the program to make it a final version. He was positive, and he actually still offered me a possible collaboration including experimental work at that university, should my current boss/supervisor (he is both) also approve. (My ex-supervisor and current supervisor work on the same field, and they know each other personally.)

The problem is a serious mistake on my part. Just after this discussion and the successful defense of my thesis, I had to start working in office instead of home office as before. This greatly increased my workload and - as a first-time worker - stress. I had my personal issues also, but at the end, I just made a serious mistake.

I effectively ghosted my previous supervisor for the past 15 days.

We communicated over Skype, and he asked me about a week ago if I finished the modifications. The first time I read it I actually got myself to it and finished 80% of them, but there is still one left (doable in 20 min), and I also didn't make the changes on my thesis work. I ended up with the stupid decision of not answering. Then about 3 days later a follow up message came, asking the same thing. I didn't reply.

I have no good reasons, even for myself, why I did so. Basically I believe I was in almost constant fight-or-flight mode during the past two weeks due to my stress levels, and I have a very bad and hard to fight psychological trait of completely hiding (ignoring, denying it's existence) from problems causing high stress. (I know this is horrible, and I do work on it, but that doesn't matter regarding the result.) The point is, I messed up and would like to save my relationship as much as possible.

This weekend I finally got my butt together and made me face the problem. I wanted to fix the remaining problem and my thesis work, so I can write a positive, albeit very apologetic answer.

Only to find out I can't access to the computer via TeamViewer anymore. We discussed in the past that when I finish, TV will be removed to reduce risk factors, but I was not notified of this. My guess is my professor (rightfully) thought I ghosted him forever and will not fulfill my promises, I would guess from the circumstances and the lack of notification that he is not the happiest with it. I would like to address this and save my relationship with him as much as possible, but I'm not sure how to proceed. I have to face that I did make serious mistakes and came down as lazy and unreliable, even though I had my reasons/problems. And I'm at a loss on what to do as the next step.

How could I respond to the professor to achieve the best possible outcome, and save my situation as much as possible?

  • 14
    Have you sent this profesdor any communication? If not, then the first step is to do so, apologising and outlining your progress. – Solar Mike Jul 6 at 6:08
  • 7
    What do you mean by "ghosted"? To me, it means you were doing a person's job for them and letting them take the credit, e.g. "ghost writer", which doesn't seem to fit the post at all. – jamesqf Jul 6 at 15:18
  • 29
    @jamesqf "ghosting" is slang for disappearing on someone with no explanation. It's mostly used when you're communicating with someone for romantic reasons and then one person decides not to respond anymore because they're not interested instead of stating as much, but it can be used in other situations like this as well. – Kat Jul 6 at 15:32
  • 7
    @Shalop it's a specific kind of ignoring, but yeah, you can replace "ghosted" with "suddenly went from communicating to completely ignoring without explanation". – Kat Jul 6 at 17:37
  • 7
    Do you have a lot of experiences like this? I sure have, and it's anxiety related. If this has disrupted your work or life in the past, or it continues in the future, you should definitely speak with a doctor about anxiety. It was something that disrupted my life for years without me realizing I needed help, don't let it do the same. – Issel Jul 6 at 20:10
122

If I'm understanding correctly, I think the situation is not as bad as you say:

  • Your supervisor last reached out to you about 4 days ago
  • You have significant progress to report
  • You have no "real" obligation to do this work (i.e., he's not paying you or otherwise in a position to demand daily updates)

So, I would just send a brief message, perhaps even over Skype:

Sorry for lack of communication, I've had a few things come up here. RE the remaining changes: I completed about 80% of them. I just need to do the remaining 20% and then update the text of my thesis. I plan to do this within the next [week], will let you know when it's done.

| improve this answer | |
  • 16
    Agree! It might also be worth mentioning that the OP needs TV access reinstating if they are to complete that section of the work. – eff Jul 6 at 12:13
  • 11
    Yes, OP should tailor the message as appropriate, while keeping it concise. For example, substituting technical details about the completed work rather than just saying "80% done." – cag51 Jul 6 at 15:08
  • 4
    In my experience, TeamViewer will randomly, erroneously fail to authenticate if left alone for a while, requiring physical access to fix. So, it may be that the TV access wasn't even revoked intentionally. – imallett Jul 6 at 21:53
  • 1
    Or possibly it was deliberate, but happened because someone (the supervisor or someone else) mistakenly assumed that if there's no communication that means the last 20 minutes of work had been done, or else didn't need to be done, so the thing is finished. The trouble with not communicating is, the range of possible stuff that could be going on that you don't know about rapidly increases! – Steve Jessop Jul 7 at 2:08
  • @imalett That happened to me a few times too, but now the PC (which is critical for the laser system to work) was listed as offline, which is either because TeamViewer does not run on it, or the laboratory is exploded/burned/demolished/occupied by aliens. – Neinstein Jul 7 at 11:14
43

This is no big deal at all.

Most academics are used to having way more things going on at the same time than they can handle. If there is nothing time-critical going on, then a pause in communications for two weeks isn't particularly unusual.

As you are currently not employed/supervisor by your former supervisor, they don't have a particular right on your time. You are engaging in voluntary collaboration to bring the project further, and "I'll get it done once I can find some time" is a perfectly acceptable schedule there. You do not mention any nearby deadlines for work outputs, so you aren't really causing harm.

A simple Dear Prof X, for the last weeks work was rather hectic, but I've finally found the time to do most of the things we talked about. I noticed that my TeamViewer access was disabled - if I could get a back for a while longer, I could complete Y. should suffice.

| improve this answer | |
  • 5
    One of the supervisors of my MSc thesis would cease communication with me for many weeks at a time due to being busy with other things, I wish she had communicated with me every two weeks to be honest. – Tom Jul 6 at 19:42
  • 3
    It may not be a big deal, but I wouldn't say it's something OP should make a habit of. Responding to professional communications in a timely manner is generally expected. Ignoring communication, and subsequent follow ups, makes for a very poor image. OP can certainly salvage this situation, but they need to also learn from this mistake and to not repeat it. – J... Jul 7 at 16:11
15
  • Ask someone who can do it to reinstate your access.
  • Tell your professor that you didn't communicate because you were experiencing extreme stress. This should not be a big deal as many people are having similar experiences right now.
  • Make those modifications the professor requested.
  • Get advice from a mental health professional (not someone on the internet) about appropriate ways to deal with stress in the future.
| improve this answer | |
  • 7
    I doubt that you need to give a personal reason/excuse. "Sorry that this is late. Things have been hectic. I have something new to report." – Buffy Jul 6 at 14:14
  • @Buffy "Things have been hectic" is a personal excuse. I do agree that going into detail is unneeded, and perhaps inappropriate. – jpaugh Jul 6 at 19:48
3

From absorbing the length and intensity of your post, I sincerely feel like you have rather been obsessing over a situation, or, a part of your brain or emotions has been giving you just that.

Fully agreeing with what has already been, I think, very aptly said, I can't see any burned (or even in the least bit troubled) bridges here. Being asked about your progress after a short communication gap of one week, and then again three days later (and that's a mere four days ago), by a person you are on good terms with, does not seem to make for a burned bridge at all, not even for a trace of a deterioration of contact or interest. You may want to reevaluate that part of your view of the situation.

To me, the facts you have mentioned suggests simply carrying on with what you have begun, much more so as you only have to put in a very small effort to complete and return the next part of your progress. It seems to me a rather comfortable situation unless you are utterly kept from reasonably doing it for some more time, which would give you the right (and could be expected for you) to just say so.

About what led to your being, slightly, behind what you obviously expected from yourself - everyone in their right mind would know and consider (and expect), even without knowing what's really going on, that where there is change in a person's situation, things may go chaotic for a short while and there's no problem in that. Much more so during these times of Covid and not-yet-post Covid, where it is hard to take even anything going perfectly normally for granted. But even in the most boring of normal times and situations, if I don't hear for a week or two from someone who is not right now in charge of very urgently saving my own world, I just assume they are being kept busy by things they have to see about and they are just reasonably handling whatever priorities the situation suggests. And even taking a break in between, and that not just to maintain their own ability to keep up a reasonable pace but also for their own enjoyment. And that would be perfectly ok with me (and so it should) - specifically when it doesn't positively break things, as in inducing missed other person's deadlines or something becoming unsalvageable, it sure doesn't break or even slightly chill a relationship.

It could be that you are oversensitive about what will, or might, chill a relationship. This is generally not at all what will do so.

You may want to casually let your old supervisor know about the changes in the way your daily work is organized right now - but very plainly just like you told us in your post (had to change into working at the office, things got set on a demanding schedule). That would be so you know they know what things are like right now - and assume rightly they will understand. I'd like to emphasize here that I can't see any need in the least to be apologetic about this. Rather to the contrary - I feel that being apologetic here would more likely be putting on your supervisor a (smallish) burden of wondering why you are being apologetic at all, as small delays (if this is to be considered a delay) just happen in the course of events.

What you describe is nothing out of the ordinary, it is a perfectly acceptable way things go and are reasonably handled (by you, in this case). Your work circumstances changed, in part unexpectedly, you adapted to that and it took a mere days for you to go with it (I'll say 14 days still counts as days here unless someone were doing it all the time out of sloppiness for no reason, which is obviously not what you are doing). There's nothing incommensurate in that, save that it would seem slightly (I do say I mean just slightly) off for you not to be seeing that (but even this can happen).

tldr: Relax, give a short casual information about your current overall situation and a reasonably brief (or reasonably comprehensive, no fretting) statement on the state of where you are in your work with your supervisor, and ask about the Teamviewer facility that may need fixing (it could have failed for a number of meaningless reasons, connection temporarily down, aux admin moved machine, etc.). And do allow yourself a day or so to relax once a week, I guess you should consider that a thing you would rather not afford not to do.

Edited to add: The most likely explanation for anything in daily life is usually the most mundane and boring one, and surely not the most dramatic or one that calls for dramatic action or worry. (The events -or non-events- you describe have been happening in what you do, which perfectly makes them daily life.) This goes from both ends, for most people, and I have found that it is usually very safe to assume (until proven wrong, which is rather rare) that a person I am in contact with will be one of most people in that quarter. All the more so if I know them to be reasonable. Corollary: Anything mildly inconvenient, such as having to wait for an answer for a number of days or having to have broken access to a system fixed, is usually not a symptom of anything untoward beyond the most unexciting explanation (and not a loss or breach of trust or anything). (This last point already made above.)

| improve this answer | |
  • @Mari-LouA I haven't handled a suggested edit on this site ever before so this is first of all to say thanks for your edit and also for catching the typo (do feel free to catch more of these if you're so inclined, I won't ever take offense at that :-)) I did mean to say "intenseness", whether strictly grammatical or not, as in a person "being very intense" (got that one from a teacher and native speaker of English assessing a student so I guessed it couldn't be utterly wrong) but if it is better worded this way, I'll go with it. – somebody_other Jul 7 at 23:40
  • The most likely explanation for anything in daily life is usually the most mundane and boring one This is a pragmatic yet beautiful take on Occam's razor! – joH1 Jul 8 at 9:21
2

The other answers are great, but I want to add one thing.

You're not the only person the supervisor communicates with. Especially professors are dealing each day with a lot of people and it is more common that your professor does not answer you than the other way.

Of course the professor is in another position, but your advantage in your position is, that the professor may not have noticed it or weighted it important yet, but just had more time for his other tasks (and students).

Maybe he notices when you communicate again, but probably he will not make a big deal out of it and assume personal reasons or other reasons that are none of his business.

| improve this answer | |
1

My guess is my professor (rightfully) thought I ghosted him forever and will not fulfill my promises, I would guess from the circumstances and the lack of notification that he is not the happiest with it.

Assuming that they are not a fresh Professor, they have seen students coping with various levels of stress. Two weeks are (under normal circumstances) not a time which I would consider very critical in most academic contexts (and yes, in 5 years in university I have seen 3 students in the chair where I worked vanishing for a longer period of time). Obviously if an official deadline (application at the students office for exam etc.) was missed, they may not be able to help you, but I have often seen a relaxed attitude of the faculty responsible or deans in allowing exceptions.

| improve this answer | |
-10

Treat this like a job, if you did such a horrible thing.

Know that if you exceeded expected limits, you could get fired. What the acceptable limits are will depend on the employer. In the case of a school, the equivalent might be considered getting kicked out of the school, or flunking the class.

Admit to any wrongdoing that is clear. Do not elaborate if not asked for. To do so can be to needlessly prolong a conversation that is about a negative topic, with no benefit. Apologize as appropriate, and then determine how soon it makes sense to just leave the situation as is, without further explanation (unless asked for).

Then do your best from that point on, knowing that any infraction which is not forgotten may actively harm you in the relevant people's eyes, or might not (if they are more forgiving) but be more likely to harm you if there is any recurrence.

If the organization decides to keep you, be grateful.

In basic summary, you can't change the past, so simply focus on building the most positive present and future possible. That's really all you can do.

Do feel guilty, committed to work extra hard to make up, etc., to the extent that it is helpful, such as helping you to learn a lesson. Do expect to work extra hard until some sign of forgiveness, or at least "let's move on and interact nicely" is shown by your superior. And then, move on, focus on the positive.

| improve this answer | |
  • 7
    This is a completely inappropriate attitude. – Arno Jul 6 at 14:31
  • 15
    this is some next level anarcho-capitalist ideology: treat everything like a job, and be ashamed when you don't meet your employer's expectations – Kai Jul 6 at 14:49
  • 3
    This is probably in the top 10 worst answers on this site. Is it a joke? – user111388 Jul 6 at 15:04
  • 6
    This is not how supervisor-student relationships in Academia work. And it's not how employment relationships in the private sector work either. – henning -- reinstate Monica Jul 6 at 15:15
  • 2
    @henning: I guess if you don't read the question it sort of makes sense ;-) If I disappeared for 15 days from my full-time job with no notice and no explanation, I'd have some questions to answer when I turned up again. In that sense this answer describes how a job might work. But this isn't a full-time job, it's a small amount of work to finally nail down a massive project (the thesis) which actually has already been submitted and successfully defended albeit in sub-optimal form. – Steve Jessop Jul 7 at 2:12

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.