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I am a Phd student who has recently tried to initiate a collaboration on a paper with a professor to a university unrelated to mine.

I have already collaborated successfully with this professor a few years before but the collaboration was textual via email. The professor now wants to see me via a video call saying that video collaborations are far more time efficient than textual ones which is probably true. I wish to avoid meeting him via a video call because I am depressed and I fear that he may decide to not collaborate with me which will hit me much harder emotionally than not wanting to collaborate because I reject his video meeting invitations.

The consequences to our relationship after he sees me may also be more permanent than those of not seeing me at all.

Some of the commenters seem to be assuming that my fears are irrational but this isn't likely the case. Face and facial expressions during communication convey a plethora of clues about the mental state and character of someone and these don't necessarily contribute positively to the perception of the person. Without these clues people's perception of someone can differ significantly.

What can I do?

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  • Would you also decline an in-person meeting?
    – Trang Oul
    Dec 6, 2023 at 9:50
  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion or containing answers may be removed.
    – cag51
    Dec 9, 2023 at 3:34

8 Answers 8

52

Yes, you can decline the request. However, just like you can decide to only work with people who are willing to communicate solely through text, the professor can decide that they prefer video and are only interested in working with other people through video.

The professor has more experience with you in academic collaboration, and they if they feel video conversations are more productive you're unlikely to convince them otherwise (and, it seems you do not really disagree). It's quite a big request to ask someone to proceed in a less efficient manner because of your personal preferences: you're asking them to spend some of their time solely for your benefit. In some cases this may be a reasonable accommodation for some disability that cannot be overcome by other means, but my outside impression is that this is not the case in your situation (or, at least, it does not seem to me that you've tried other strategies yet).

I think refusing to converse over video is far more likely to harm your relationship and prevent the collaboration than your appearance during the video call. People draw closer personal connections to people they interact with most closely: in-person > video > phone/voice > text. This is broadly appreciated in fields as diverse as sales, education, management, and medicine.

Ultimately, though, all I can provide is this advice, I can't guarantee anything about your interaction with this one person. However, I think it's very important to consider that this is not a one-off situation: it's not like this is going to be the one and only situation where someone is wanting to work with you face-to-face in a collaboration. If you're uncomfortable having contact with others over video or in person, it's going to cost you a lot of other opportunities across your career, too, so I think it will be extremely valuable to you to find ways to cope and thrive in these situations beyond your current comfort level.

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---tl;dr---

Simply answer you are available for a phonecall, without video. There are thousands of good reasons for that and you do not need to explicitly mention any. If the professor is a decent person, they will understand. If not ... your call if you want to work with them.

---longer convoluted answer involving potential unethical behavior (your mileage may vary) ---

I will not address the deep reason behind your request, but the term "video call" is nowadays simply a replacement of the "phone call" term.

Additionally, a video call usually allow you to share screen, which is the most useful feature of calls through computers/smartphones.

In short: you can agree to have a video-call in first place, if you feel like a collaboration can be a good thing for you (for the professor it is, since they invited you to have a video call). Then, on the day of the video call, if you feel ok about having a videocall, then you are fine. If, on the other hand, on that day you do not feel like to show your face, your webcam does not work, or you have low bandwidth, how unlucky you have to turn off the video to go forward with the call.

If I were the professor, I honestly would not care if, on the planned day and hour of the videocall, your video system does not work: sh*t happens, the point of a video call as a first contact with an unknown person is "just to be sure that the person is real, and let's have an idea about how they are", but not having the video is still helpful and I would not care, even if it was the original format I proposed.

Having said that, a lie is a lie, but I think that a lie is good if it is to preserve your mental equilibrium for the timespan of a call to start a potential collaboration.

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  • 2
    If, on the other hand, on that day you do not feel like to show your face, your webcam does not work, or you have low bandwidth, how unlucky you have to turn off the video to go forward with the call. - I can't parse this sentence but it sounds like you are encouraging the OP to lie.
    – Kimball
    Dec 5, 2023 at 13:58
  • @Kimball Yes, I am encouraging OP to lie, if they cannot afford to have a non-video call. Feel free to throw any number of stones at the guilty old liar you just caught (he is a man, and even white!)
    – EarlGrey
    Dec 5, 2023 at 17:35
  • Considering OP is afraid that their "face and facial expressions during communication convey a plethora of clues about their mental state and character [and that] these don't […] contribute positively to the perception of" their interlocutor, it does not appear as obvious that lying would be the wisest suggestion ever… Dec 7, 2023 at 11:44
  • @SkippyleGrandGourou The lie is to avoid face and facial expressions. I do not judge the validity of this assumption (see for example the Wiseman experiment described here sarahlockett.co.uk/better-to-lie-on-radio-or-tv ). OP is asking not to have a video call, if OP cannot change that but hsa to have the videocall with the professor, where OP wants to discuss the topic and not being distracted by visual clues. It is the professor unreasonably rigid in a request for a videocall, I fully and wholeheartedly support lying as a way out from the excessive rigidity of the professor request.
    – EarlGrey
    Dec 7, 2023 at 12:27
  • Thanks for providing support (through the Wiseman experiment) to my implicit claim that lying on phone is not the best idea if OP wants to make a good impression. Dec 7, 2023 at 13:04
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Try to put yourself into the Professor's (let's call them X) position:

X makes a completely valid request that indicates that X is interested in working with you. You deny this request and force on X the choice to either abandon working with you or working in a much less efficient manner. X is very likely to conclude that either you are not that interested in working with X or that you have serious difficulties with being on-video. To counter that you would have to include some explanation why video is not good for you in your denial. If you tell the truth, i.e. what you told us, then X might deduce that you are going through psychological challenging times and would be best advised to not work with you, as you are not at your best and because working with people facing psychological challenges for people untrained and not paid for their effort is difficult, less rewarding, and even dangerous. If you do not tell the truth, you endanger your collaboration because unless you are a sociopath, people are not good at lying and professors get lied to a lot, implying that they have experience with being lied to. So, I do not think that denying the video calls is going to work out for you. In this scenario, the best white lie would be citing technical difficulties such as low internet connectivity or a broken camera.

Some very limited disclosure about your feelings might work out, but ultimately, you need to face your anxieties in one way or the other. Avoiding face-to-face interactions while working in academia is just going to be too difficult. Just the fact that you are posing this question indicates a more than normal level of distress. You seem to be trying to manage an inevitable failure when in fact X is very open to work with you. You are smart and definitely capable of drawing the necessary conclusions.

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    "X is very likely to conclude that either you are not that interested in working with X or that you have serious difficulties with being on-video." - I think it's vastly more likely that the professor concludes that OP is not fully committed to working with them. Even if they explicitly say they have a problem with video specifically it may be taken as a veiled attempt to back out of the project gracefully.
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 4, 2023 at 15:36
  • 4
    In other words: Professor X can't read minds? Dec 4, 2023 at 22:10
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  1. Addressing your literal question: yes, of course you can decline. It's 100% your decision whether to have a video call with a professor (or anyone else), and any decision you make is 100% valid and would not be an appropriate reason for anyone to criticize you over or try to make you feel bad about.

  2. Addressing the cost/benefit analysis of declining the video call: I think if you go about this in a mature way (see below), it is unlikely to leave a negative impression on a reasonable person. If the professor is unreasonable, then sure, there is a chance he will form a negative opinion about you. Whether that chance is higher or lower than the chance that he will form a negative opinion of you if you do agree to the video call because he perceives that you are depressed seems impossible to say based on the information we have.

    That being said, even if he doesn't get a negative impression, it is still the case that without the possibility of video calls, collaboration becomes more difficult and perhaps even impractically so. The professor may reasonably decide the project is not worth the effort that an email-only collaboration requires.

  3. Addressing how to go about explaining your refusal to do a video call: I'd suggest something along the following lines:

    Dear Professor,

    Thanks for your kind offer to hold a video meeting to continue our discussions about the project. I am sorry but I will be unable to meet you over video due to a current health-related situation. Would it be okay to continue our collaboration over email for the time being? I will let you know if the situation changes in the future.

    Thanks,
    Stapton

    You can substitute "personal situation" for "health-related situation" if that feels more comfortable. Do not go into any details in any case - they are not relevant, and adding them would not make it more likely that the professor would react in the way you hope. Good luck!

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You can meet them halfway -- accept the video call and do not turn your own video on. If called on it, you can come up with a harmless lie, like "if I turn on my video the audio often gets staticky due to bandwidth or RAM issues."

In the long run, if you are working in a field where video communication is the norm, you will need to find a way to make yourself more tolerant of video calls, such as by playing upbeat music before and afterwards. You may also find that if you occasionally turn the video on, on days when you are feeling your best, that will be enough to make the person on the other side feel fully engaged.

(Source: had a manager who insisted on video for meetings. Among other things, my typical WFH attire was not presentable for such.)

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  • I actually independently made a comment on OP's post similar to this, but your answer (arp) was first. Dec 4, 2023 at 20:41
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If you are fine with the voice component, and video is the only concern, you can suggest that for security reasons you do not have a camera on your computer, or that you have it permanently disabled. Depending on your field, you may also suggest that a shared whiteboard would be more effective than a face-to-face communication anyway. Internet security is a perfectly good reason to not have a camera, and I have never had anyone argue with it.

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I agree with arp and Jeremy Dover - even in a video call, you are not obliged to be visible all the time. I have already attended lots of video calls where the participants did not switch on their cameras, or they were visible for about a minute and then switched it off. And I myself often work from a computer which has no camera at all, so it is impossible to see me. Nobody has ever complained about that.

If I were you, I would accept the video call and then attend without the camera on.

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You really need to assess if it's worth the effort on your part, because this will be extra work, but technically you could fake an average or even an upbeat attitude.

You just need to pretend for the introduction and outro. Being focused and serious through the main discussion, looking away etc is completely normal. And yes I mean coming up with questions in advance, practicing the posture and a smile. Tell them how "excited" you are to work together and any nervous movements will be seen in positive light. Maybe it would be easier if you don't see them, test if that helps.

It definitely can be done but you need to figure out if that is worth the effort for you because I know with depression getting out of bed is a feat and training this skill can be too much.

I'm honestly not familiar with SO's policy but if you want to try and don't know someone else who could help you train I can offer videochatting couple times a week to try out these tips and brainstorm a strategy. Obviously it's not the same as when talking to someone big in your field, but practice is practice. Let me know in the comments if that's the case and I can create a temporary email to share for further discussion.

Mind you - I'm not a professional, I do not expect anything in exchange and I definitely cannot promise any results, I just feel like with some practice the worries could subside.

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