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Yesterday I applied to a bunch of internships and sent my professor a request for a recommendation letter. He denied me the request, and sent my request email, along with his reply, to everyone in the lab. He wrote that he didn't understand why I would apply for a research internship in (our research area) when I am already a research intern at his lab, and that he assumes that I was only here for a reference letter and I have no intention of contributing to the lab.

This was shocking to me for several reasons. He had previously wrote, 2 months ago, that he was happy to write me a recommendation letter. In addition, I had already applied to a research internship in (our research area) at a national lab and he provided me a recommendation for that. On top of this, I have been working with a grad student with in-person lab work 4 days a week. I always show up on time to the group meetings but I usually don't have much to share since the grad student I work with share our results.

I also thought that it was obvious I would apply to research internships in our research area, and that it was common for undergrads to work on summer research elsewhere. I don't understand why I would apply to internships in other research areas that are not related to our lab. On top of all this, these REUs are funded and I applied because I can get paid over the summer. My position at the lab is a volunteer position.

Was this an offensive request? I'm not sure why he felt so strongly about this since he has always been very nice.

Edit: Thank you for all your suggestions. I emailed him explaining my decision and he sent the group an email saying that he values my contribution and supports my application.

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    Did you commit to work for him during the summer? Feb 24 at 15:09
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    Either this was a misunderstanding or something is awkward between the two. It's very common for people to apply to summer REU's at other universities and by extension, get the recommendations from professors at their current institution to do so.
    – Daveguy
    Feb 24 at 18:20
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    All being said, that prof is out of order to make his frustration known to the whole group. That is not mature behaviour, even if you had reneged on a promise; most certainly not in an ambiguous situation. Try to get a different group, that person has limited control over their own motives. Feb 24 at 18:28
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    + This is unrelated to the question, but I got the impression that you find it natural to work in the same area as your lab over the summer, and I thought I'll mention this: As an undergrad (or even sometimes as a grad student), it wouldn't hurt to diversify your experience (at least as long as that doesn't mean leaving things unfinished and fruitless; but even if it does, that might be ok if the anticipated fruit is not something you like or need). I should say though, I'm only a grad student, so it's best to run any advice/suggestion from me with someone more reliable (e.g. a professor).
    – nara
    Feb 24 at 20:30
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    Sharing the letter with your entire lab is bordering on a grey zone of illegality, depending on what country you're in and what your privacy laws are like. You are well within your rights to take offence to that action. What country is this?
    – J...
    Feb 25 at 11:37
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Tell him that you do intend to participate as previously agreed, but that funding for the summer was an important consideration. If he is at all reasonable, then that should be enough. If he is offended, then he isn't being reasonable.

If he offers you summer funding, then consider that, of course, but he should have little controlling say over a volunteer.

Perhaps he values your work so much that he thinks losing you for the summer would be a blow. Alternatively, he is just a jerk. If he hasn't got a reasonable response, you should find a way to be done with him. What he did is unprofessional, probably unethical.

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    Not probably. Definitely unethical.
    – user76284
    Feb 25 at 7:05
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    Definitely unethical, borderline illegal, and certainly grounds for filing a serious complaint against the professor with the University - possibly even something they could be dismissed for.
    – J...
    Feb 25 at 15:14
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    The legal stuff is a red-herring. Forwarding "I would like a reference letter for X" to a lab group fails all four of the tests in @J...'s link: a) the email wasn't shown to the public at large, b) the facts are presumably not that private (e.g., medical records) c) revealing that someone's looking for a job isn't offensive and d) the prof's policy, however repugnant it may be, is of concern to the lab. It's still mind-bendingly rude, but legal blustering isn't going to help.
    – Matt
    Feb 26 at 16:48
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    @J... IANAL however I was a professional manager for over 30 years (now retired) and AFAIK this does not border on illegality because legal/illegal in such cases has to do with 1) the content of the information revealed and 2) the audience. The information revealed was short-term professional plans and the audience was the OPs professional work-group, practically speaking that cannot be an illegal category. What was unethical here (and extreme mismanagement IMHO) was the context and usage: public-shaming and reference-denial for perceived disloyalty in personal career planning Feb 26 at 16:55
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    My contention is that a) forwarding an email to the group is not the actual problem, legally or ethically and b) making a legal argument is likely to be counterproductive. Suppose the prof's email had said "I'm writing CC a reference letter for <fancy thing>. If you worked together on the XYZ or ABC projects, please send me a few of CC's specific accomplishments so I can ensure it's a strong one." No problem whatsoever. Contrariwise, "I will no longer be writing references; you stay in this group until you graduate, quit, or die." Same big program, even without the forwarded email.
    – Matt
    Feb 26 at 17:53
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From the information you provide, your request looks reasonable. This is probably just a misunderstanding, and definitely a terrible (over)reaction from the prof: sending your private email to other lab members is not done.

Talk to your prof. (as soon as possible) to find out what happened.

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    Thank you. Is it normal for undergrads to do summer research elsewhere, and then continue working at the lab during the schoolyear? Feb 24 at 15:34
  • In America I suppose? I don't know - maybe someone else can answer that.
    – Louic
    Feb 24 at 15:44
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    @commandercorn I say that's pretty reasonable. Most undergrads probably live with their parents during the summer and go home when the semester ends. Even if you live where you go to school, perhaps you want to explore another city.
    – Dave
    Feb 24 at 17:52
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    @commandercorn In the lab I was in as an undergrad and a few of others I know, that's definitely common. In fact, undergrads (and in some cases grad students) are often encouraged to go elsewhere, to diversify their experience and expand their networks, and also connect with more (hopefully strong) recommenders.
    – nara
    Feb 24 at 20:19
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It's at least a little rude to send a request for a recommendation letter without mentioning your plans. Of course, forwarding your email to the whole group is orders of magnitude ruder.

He had previously wrote, 2 months ago, that he was happy to write me a recommendation letter.

For any summer internships, or did he maybe think you were asking about grad school?

I also thought that it was obvious I would apply to research internships in our research area, and that it was common for undergrads to work on summer research elsewhere.

I don't know about common (maybe it's different in your field), because summer internships are short, and it's difficult to do anything productive. So I can see why he would be confused as to why you are trying to leave the lab just for a summer. He may have seen the national lab as an outstanding opportunity, but questions a lateral move (perhaps not knowing these opportunities are funded).

This isn't to excuse his behavior - he behaved atrociously, but you should really give your letter-writers a heads-up. If you had emailed saying "Hi, I think I'm going to apply to these internships, would you write me a letter?" then he could ask why, and you could explain it's because they're funded.

Like Buffy said, if he was still rude after explaining you'd like to work for money, that would be a red flag. That said, he shouldn't be accepting volunteer labor in his lab anyway, but that's another conversation.

I would probably try and find a way to exit this group immediately over the way he treated you - perhaps your grad student supervisor can write you a letter and explain why the PI did not.

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    It is not only rude, it is a flagrant breach of confidence to publish someone's private correspondence without permission. Nevertheless, he may have reacted impulsively (we're all human) and could be regretting his actions. It's best to try to make peace. If he continues to make trouble based on this then you need to find a way out. Feb 25 at 0:43
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Speaking as a postdoc: as others have suggested, there are some very good reasons to diversify your network - and you have run into one of them. Explain yourself, and give the prof a chance to explain and apologize. Try not to burn any bridges with him, but start looking elsewhere immediately. That he forwarded your email to everyone in the lab group suggests that he is using you as an example of how he treats those who make "lateral moves."

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To add onto other answers, especially @Buffy, I will share my recent experience as a graduate student in a similar situation. I will highlight where the conflict arose, and how you might proceed.

The Situation

It was about February when I started preparing an application for a well-known, although by no means 'prestigious' summer research internship/opportunity. The opportunity was directly relevant to my research area, and would undoubtedly help develop my applied scientific skills. I reached out to mentors in the opportunity, gained their support of my application, and submitted my application. Crucially, I informed my PhD supervisor too late (I had already submitted the application).

Supervisor's reaction and reasoning

The supervisor was initially very confused - why would I be seeking opportunities elsewhere when I am already in a PhD program? I believe this is a relatively common reaction among professors and supervisors - there is some expectation that the current employment is 'enough', and in many situations, it is! However, there are numerous reasons as to why a student might seek additional opportunities, such as expanding one's skillset, securing additional money for personal financial security, or not having departmental funding in the summer.

Actions I took

Gauging that my supervisor was displeased, I immediately scheduled a meeting with them to explain my actions and, holding my ground, why the internship would ultimately improve my research in the long-run. I explained that this internship is temporary and would ultimately increase my success at my PhD institution. I was very direct and honest - I let the professor know how I felt about the situation, using phrases like, 'When you say X this way it makes me feel Y', such as, 'When you say, 'Why would you be seeking external opportunities, usually that is the role of the supervisor?' this way it makes me feel like I did something wrong by securing a well-known internship that would advance my career and success in the PhD program'.

Once I secured the internship, I kept my supervisor in the loop of my progress, explained what I was doing, and ultimately they felt that they were semi-participating. I also was honest and kept my word - I did not abandon the PhD program and it legitimately helped my success in my PhD research.

Your situation (as it is a bit different)

I would recommend you try the following things:

  1. Before proceeding, ask yourself a few questions. What is your goal moving forward - to move on from this event as quickly as possible? Confront your supervisor? Secure the internship? Understanding this will help guide your actions, emotions, and self-presentation.

  2. Immediately schedule a virtual meeting for as soon as possible with your supervisor. Make the intention of the meeting explicit over email, such as 'Request for meeting to discuss internship X'.

  3. Before the meeting, read the many answers to SE question carefully. Many people have provided excellent insight. First and foremost, your professor has crossed a definite line by effectively publicly shaming you, and, as an adult, you should communicate how this made you feel or how it was perceived among lab mates. For example, 'When you sent an email saying X to the lab, it made me feel as though I was being publicly shamed.'

  4. If your professor is unwilling to apologize/doubles down in the meeting, you may want to do some personal calculus about the situation. If you'd like to keep your supervisor, I would drop the issue. If you'd like to do the internship, explicitly ask your supervisor, "I am intent on doing the internship but I realize that this is causing some conflict. What is the best way we can both move forward from this situation?" Make them engage in the process. Engage them in the process.

Hope that helps, happy to expand any of my points if unclear.

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I'd try to find another professor

Whether or not you were rude, your professor acted in a way that is totally unacceptable. He betrayed your trust by sharing your private correspondence publicly, and he publicly shamed you in a very passive aggressive way. If it were me, I'd find another professor as soon as possible. He sounds like a sociopath. If you can't leave now, I'd at least try to limit the amount of leverage your professor has over you. Don't ask for more letters of recommendation from him, don't commit to additional internship terms under him or to papers you're not already committed to write. Basically be professional and cordial while limiting your professional relationship with him to what you've already committed to if you can't get out. And always be on your guard around him. He clearly isn't looking out for your best interest.

Anyway it's up to you, as you're the best judge of your situation, but I can't imagine continuing to work for someone who did that.

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When it is clear as is the case here that the professor is more interested in their success than your success, it time to look for another mentor.

It is perfectly legitimate for undergrads to look around to broaden their research horizons. Indeed, if a professor is sufficiently secure to believe their work is very interesting, she or he will not fear students going elsewhere to realize on their own that her or his lab is better.

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