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It is very common to see statements like "it is your responsibility to make sure [someone with higher rank, like your advisor/supervisor/mentor] to submit/upload [something like a letter/approval] by deadline XXX" in many application systems/websites.

It is reasonable to say that it is your responsibility to upload your CV, fill out the form and pay the fee. But why is it considered your responsibility to make sure another person does something, as if you were "law enforcement"? In practice, such wording only adds unnecessary anxiety to junior people in academia.

My understanding is that, once you send the request for a letter from Professor A through their system, a large part of responsibility is passed to that professor. They should either submit the letter by the required deadline or decline it ASAP. Students are not supposed to take the blame that the professors they asked neither decline it nor submit the letter by deadline.

Although there might be a culture difference, this is based on the understanding that students are in no position to push their advisor to upload their letter and it is also unwise for them to do so since if you say anything that sounds aggressive or compelling to your recommender, there is a risk of getting a perfunctory/lower quality letter or at least students might worry so.

What also confuses me is that people who write "it is your responsibility" were also students themselves before and they should feel sympathetic or at least be aware of the subtle situation from student's perspective.

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    I think the issue comes down to as far as the application process is concerned, the student is the person in charge and the person who (by a long shot) has the most stake in the outcome. This seems to me the same as paying your electricity bill -- if it gets "lost in the mail" (paying by postal mail) or an internet issue prevents it from getting through (paying online), it's still my responsibility for it being paid, thus (if I was sufficiently concerned, which I'm not, but I would be for a job application), I would follow-up to make sure the bill arrived and my account was credited. Apr 5 at 13:59
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    @DaveLRenfro If a check lost in postal mail, you could resend it and hopefully probability theory will fix this problem. If there is an internet issue at your home, then you can go to Starbuck or a library to use their WIFI to get your work done. BUT if a particular professor doesn't upload a letter for you, what can you do?
    – No One
    Apr 5 at 14:03
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    @NoOne But if there is a late fee associated with a missed payment, your next mail has to include that late fee, or else you'll likely continue to accumulate fees. It won't be the postal service paying the late fee. Why? Because you're considered responsible, that's the point of Dave's analogy.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 5 at 14:05
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    I don't see a single person in that thread saying that it's your fault if a professor neglects to send a LoR that they promised you. I think you may be confusing explanations why the professor might have neglected to do this, or advice for how to avoid this, with excuses. Apr 5 at 15:24
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    I think the meaning is that although it is the professor's responsibility, it's you that get harm if he doesn't do his responsibility. Because of this, people try to avoid any problem made by the professors' fault. This may caused some professors interpret it as everybody agree that it is not the professor's responsibility!
    – m123
    Apr 5 at 16:29

9 Answers 9

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You have a situation involving an interaction between three parties. Ignoring the details and thinking a bit more generally, let's call them Alice, Bob and Chris.

Alice is asking for something from Bob, but needs a document from Chris to get Bob to consider her request. So she goes to Chris and asks for the document, and Chris says he will provide it.

Bob says to Alice: "It is your responsibility to make sure that Chris sends me the document."

What does Bob mean? He means that as far as he is concerned, Alice is the only person with whom Bob is entering a transaction of mutual commitment. It is a kind of implicit contract. He is saying: I, Bob, promise that if you, Alice, do X, I will do Y. Any part of "X" that requires assistance from other people is not my responsibility.

This means that if Chris doesn't do his part, Alice cannot complain to Bob that he (Bob) did not fulfill his commitment to her, or ask Bob to chase after Chris to do his part.

What about Chris's responsibility? Doesn't he have any? Of course he does. After telling Alice that he will help her, he has responsibility to Alice to fulfill his commitment to her, and if he does not fulfill it, Alice can rightly feel betrayed and complain to Chris. But this is irrelevant from Bob's point of view. When Bob is telling Alice "it's your responsibility to get all the documents sent", he means that he considers Chris's involvement a private matter between Alice and Chris, and not his concern.

Summary. Responsibility is a concept that exists between one person (or group of people) and another person or group of people. In this situation, Alice has certain responsibilities to Bob; Bob has certain responsibilities to Alice; and Chris has certain responsibilities to Alice. But Bob and Chris have not made any promises to each other, and do not have any specific responsibilities towards each other.

Coming back to the academia context, it is of course unfortunate that professors who violate their responsibilities to students can cause so much harm and anxiety. I don't know what can be done about it. But graduate programs require letters of recommendations, and it's completely reasonable of them to not accept any responsibility for those letters getting sent. Nominally, they are interacting with the applicant and not anyone else, and from their point of view it is therefore the applicant's responsibility that those letters are submitted.

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    Well written. Still, this gets to be an unfortunate situation. Apr 5 at 16:39
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    In short the main message being conveyed is that it is not the responsibility of the graduate program (or of whoever else is saying this) to ensure that the letters get sent.
    – TimRias
    Apr 5 at 16:52
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    @DaveLRenfro thanks. When I publish my manifesto I’ll take greater care to disguise my background. (Or perhaps I already have…)
    – Dan Romik
    Apr 6 at 0:27
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    +1 for "Responsibility is a concept that exists between [two parties]." The OP's thinking appears to be based on a simplified view of the world where "responsibility" for something is seen as absolute, as if determined by some single superior authority. This simple view is enough for children, who only need to know what is their responsibility vs. their parents' or teachers' responsibility. But in the wider adult world, responsibility is something one person has to another. Person A can be responsible to you for doing X, while you are responsible to person B for seeing that X gets done. Apr 6 at 18:36
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    OP needs to see this answer :) Getting used to the phrase "it is your responsibility" is part of adulting 😀
    – justhalf
    Apr 7 at 9:58
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I think you're missing the meaning of this. In the case of a supervisor submitting a recommendation letter, it's not that the supervisor doesn't have any responsibility, it's that the committee or person evaluating applications has to evaluate what they're given, and that ultimately is coming from the student applicant. If that package doesn't include letters of recommendation, then the applicant doesn't have letters of recommendation to support them which puts them behind other applicants.

It isn't an admissions committee's job to investigate whether it was a professor's fault or whether the student didn't give them sufficient notice or instruction.

Students are not supposed to take the blame that their professors they asked neither decline it nor submit the letter by deadline.

But...they will. At least to some extent. For, say, admissions, I think a lot of administrators and committees will be sympathetic to letters that arrive late because they've all interacted with the professor that can't follow through on these things. In other cases, there may be more rigid policies or even legal requirements that, say, grant application materials arriving after a deadline cannot be considered.

"It is your responsibility to make sure someone to does something" is advice to the student to make efforts that will best set them up for success and warning them that they will be the ones to suffer consequences if it doesn't happen. It is not absolving anyone else of responsibility.

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    If I were the one who write such statements I would probably say: "please remind you recommenders to upload the letters by deadline XXX, so that your application can receive full consideration". In this way, students would know how serious the matter is while not getting hurt by the unsympathetic words: "it is your responsibility"
    – No One
    Apr 5 at 14:08
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    @NoOne You're free to use whatever language you want, but don't assume the language of others is unsympathetic.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 5 at 14:10
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    @NoOne No, it's warning them that they'll be held responsible. Not issuing this warning is naïve. Your phrasing is very indirect as far as the consequences even though it's direct in the instruction: full consideration will only be received if the letter is uploaded, not merely if the student reminds someone else to submit it. Anyways, we may not come to agreement on this. Your question asked "why", I answered "why" from my perspective. If you actually meant to post "I'd like to argue with the people who explain why and call them unsympathetic" then I think you came to the wrong place.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 5 at 14:19
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    People are responsible for things they can't fully control all of the time. It's part of being an adult.
    – JonathanZ
    Apr 6 at 19:30
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    @linkhyrule5 Huh? What does ChatGPT have to do with this? ChatGPT definitely doesn't have any sense of what's "sympathetic" or not, it strings together statistically likely phrases. And what is objective about sympathy? I think this phrase accurately describes the state of the world: applicants will be held responsible for the state of their application package. That is objectively true, and it would actively harm a student to tell them otherwise and have them face the consequences unaware.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 7 at 0:49
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It's a warning!

Warnings need to be direct, not subtle. It's "BIOHAZARD, DO NOT ENTER!", not "If you think about entering this room, please consider the effects biohazardous materials can have on your health."

Why is it a warning? Because, if the letter doesn't arrive, the only one facing consequences is the student. Not the professor. Not anyone else.

Is that fair? Maybe not. But as long as this is reality, we do students a favor by warning them. As clearly as possible.

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    UV for concision. There's no room for misinterpreting these explicit rules of the game.
    – Fe2O3
    Apr 6 at 21:32
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What they mean with "it's your responsibility if the letter isn't uploaded" is "it's your problem if the letter isn't uploaded".

As with many things in life, it may not be your fault, but if you're the only person hurt by the problem, you better make sure yourself that the problem is solved/doesn't come up. Because no one else will.

That's all there is to it. Your problem, your responsibility.

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    Another 'translation' might be "We aren't taking responsibility for making sure this task is done."
    – avid
    Apr 6 at 10:30
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In this context, it means that the end recipient of the necessary documents will not contact the document provider to request them. They will not make an initial contact, they will not send reminders, they will not send repeated requests, etc.

The person who does that will be you.

The assumptions are:

  • Some or all document providers have a lot of other things to do, or are forgetful, and will not provide documents without repeated requests

  • The document recipients have a lot of other things to do, and even if they didn't, it is not feasible for them to be chasing 10, or 50, or 100 document providers.

  • The only feasible arrange is for each person caught in the middle (i.e., you) to bear the responsibility for each individual set of documents. Since you are presumably the person with a real stake in this document transfer, the incentives align nicely.

Also, this isn't just the case in academia. Many situations like this put the burden on the person in the middle, because it is the only feasible arrangement.

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One small but important detail that doesn't seem to come out clearly in existing answers: the instructions usually say something like

Applicants are responsible for ensuring that two references are submitted by the deadline.

rather than

Applicants are responsible for ensuring that Prof. Jones and Prof. Smith submit references by the deadline".

So, in principle, the applicant does have control over the situation. They get to choose who they nominate as a referee, and it's up to them to choose reliable people and/or have backup options in place. Of course, many candidates will not have much choice in practice - the pool of credible referees may be small. Still, that is a strategic choice on the candidate's part: nominate Prof. Smith and take the risk that he doesn't submit, or nominate Prof. Davies and accept that the application will be weaker.

This is really no different from an airline saying

"It's your responsibility to arrive at the airport in good time for your flight.

You get to choose when and how you travel to the airport, and it's up to you weigh up the relevant factors and decide what you're going to do. And if things don't play out as you expected - perhaps someone drives into the back of your vehicle on the highway - that's your problem, even if it's not your fault.

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    A slightly better airline analogy: Airlines routinely say: "Its your responsibility to ensure you have all the paperwork necessary for entry prepared for your flight". You get to chose where your going, what sort of purpose you are applying for, and how to present that to the nation you are traveling to. If you choose to try and travel to a nation that isn't interested in having you, or don't submit the correct paperwork, thats your problem, not the airlines. Apr 6 at 15:10
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    +1 for the airline comparison; I think that’s the clearest analogy in all these answers. Once you make an agreement with someone for transport, they may be undertaking some responsibility towards you (to variable extents, depending whether it’s a taxi, a bus, or a ride from a friend) — but as far as the airline is concerned, it’s all your responsibility, regardless of who else you’re getting assistance from.
    – PLL
    Apr 7 at 18:43
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The responsibility is similar to the project manager's responsibility in an industry project.

They may not be the line managers of the people whose project they manage, and thus may not have any immediate power of directives.

Despite that, it's the project manager's job to ensure that all pieces come together to achieve a successful outcome.

I suspect the stringency of the formulation ("it's your responsibility") is due to the fact that there is - unfortunately - an increasing number of students that think that if they trigger certain processes, these will "magically" just work out of the box, or they even forget to trigger the right processes at the right time and then they think they are entitled to to get special dispensation for their botched submission because of circumstances that, had they been mitigated with more due diligence, might not have arisen in the first place.

Personally, I think this formulation is more directed at this particular type of students rather than those who diligently set all things in motion well on time and due to unfortunate coincidences find themselves without a properly completed submission.

However, given the - from experience - substantially increasing number of students with a tone of entitlement, the default formulation chosen might have become harsher, to manage expectations and deter from complaints that arise through the students' mistakes.

Of course, I do not sit on the board that wrote this text, so all of this is just an educated guess.

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This statement is to try to clarify that the institution does not have a duty or is not to be held accountable for incomplete applications regardless of how an applicant may interpret the situation.

Students/applicants sometimes will blame others where it is not appropriate or enforceable. This statement is intended to make it clear that it is NOT the responsibility of the institution offering an application to ensure that incomplete applications are completed. That duty is with each applicant. Without this statement, it is possible an applicant could sue or otherwise think they can rightfully blame a third party for failure of duty in the process, especially if other statements or circumstances imply the institution or a third party is offering or has such duty.

For example, a student may assume that since their professor is an alumnus of an institution that they are applying to, that relationship as an alumnus creates a "duty" for the professor to provide a recommendation timely. Then if the professor fails to provide it, the student may try to place fault with the institution or professor because of this assumption, which may seem reasonable but it is not.

Another example is a system that sends a request for a recommendation directly to a professor based on an action by the student. A student may reasonably assume that once they have made the REQUEST for an item to complete an application, they have fulfilled their duty to complete that portion of the application. This also could seem reasonable but it is not.

Conversely, a request by a student to a professor to provide a letter should not be considered a contract based on the request, the application itself or a system that helps a professor submit such a letter. For example, a professor that is provided a login to complete a portion of an application on behalf of a student should not fear that a student could sue them for failing to provide the letter. A login or even receipt of that request might be seen by a student as a contract or other duty created by the system, and not one that exists solely based on their relationship with the professor.

In other words, "responsibility" in this context does not mean "control" but "duty" as in:

"it is your DUTY to make sure [someone with higher rank, like your advisor/supervisor/mentor] to submit/upload [something like a letter/approval] by deadline XXX" in order for your application to be considered complete.

It attempts to make clear that this duty does not lie elsewhere, as your question suggests. While you may believe such a request creates a duty, it only does so as a social agreement. An application, on the other hand, is usually a legal contract and as such there are obligationsand duties that are often legally binding and enforceable.

You may feel like "responsibility" means "control" but it means "to have a duty" or to be the party that is accountable. Most often, the only other party in an application is the institution. A person providing content/letters on behalf of a student for an application is almost certainly not a party to the application.

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Frequently we perceive we are being pushy, when we remind someone to do something. But usually, this is just in our heads because we are anxious. Do you have an example of someone who was punished for reminding your supervisor to do something too frequently?

In most cultures I am aware of, at least 2 reminders on top of the first ask would be expected. No one from Australia, USA, Japan or Europe (that I know of) would view 2-3 reminders as pushy, provided the student gave roughly 4-weeks notice for the letter.

If you want to err on the side of caution, you could ask the professor "How would you like to receive reminders and at what frequency?" This is very respectful and has the added benefit of relieving your anxiety around the uncertainty of how they will feel about being reminded.

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