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Years ago, a professor agreed to write me a recommendation letter. So I applied to many grad schools indicating him as one of my referees. However, I didn't find out until later that he didn't write the letter. Thus, none of my applications were completed, and there were also substantial financial losses due to application fees. I was poor, so it was a big loss for me.

What can I do in this case? Could I find any justice anywhere? I just felt hopeless when a tenured professor does something unethical (not criminal conduct); there is nothing a student can do.

[added the following on June 24, 2014]

He recently became a faculty at the university where I am a student (He was at a different university before). I want to forget about what happened, but the damage was too much for me to ignore. And I feel anger whenever I think about what happened.

One remedy would be he takes me on as a PhD student, or provides funding so another professor can supervise me. However, my application was rejected.

I raised my concerns with the dean of faculty of graduate studies, and will meet one of the assistant deans soon. How should I approach this with him/her?

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    Sorry to hear about your situation. I'm not sure that anything can be done, other than possibly following up with this professor and asking them what happened, which may not offer much in the way of real relief. Think about it another way: suppose he had written the letter but it was written very poorly or it cast your skills/potential in a negative light. Could anything be "done" in this case? I would think not. – Mad Jack May 21 '14 at 22:46
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    I had a boss who was a chronic procrastinator on anything that didn't contribute directly to getting his research done. As sorry as I am to hear your story, you have to keep on these people. Tell them. Remind them. Re-remind them. Check up that they have done it. Re-check again and again until it is done. (I recognize that this is not the only possible cause, but it is one that you can/could have done something about.) – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten May 22 '14 at 0:28
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    "Years ago, a professor agreed to write me a recommendation letter. So I applied to many grad schools indicating him as one of my referee." Just to clarify one point: are you sure that his opinion of you today is still as high as it was "years ago" when he agreed? – fedja May 22 '14 at 4:04
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    The fault actually lies with the institution that didn't inform you of the missing recommendation letter. The fact that they didn't could also mean that they wouldn't have accepted your application anyway. – Sverre Jun 24 '14 at 18:18
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    Wait! You "...applied to many grad schools indicating him as one of my referees." Did you tell him to which schools you had applied? Did you furnish him with the referee forms? With the addresses? "Many years ago" this would likely have been all on paper. The student has work to do other than just listing a professor as a referee. – Bob Brown Dec 15 '14 at 0:40
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That sounds like a frustrating and discouraging situation. Whether you have any recourse may depend on the system. For U.S. universities, there's not much you can do, since applicants are generally considered responsible for monitoring whether their applications are complete and reminding letter writers. However, these cultural issues might vary internationally.

One puzzling aspect of your question is that you describe the professor as deceiving you and acting unethically. Without some specific evidence, I'd assume it was forgetfulness rather than deliberate sabotage. Forgetting to submit letters is still irresponsible, but not as bad as intentionally not submitting them.

If you have compelling evidence of sabotage, it would be worth bringing to the attention of the university administration. However, it's not clear to me what sort of evidence you might plausibly have.

If it's a matter of forgetfulness, things are murkier. If there's a pattern of irresponsibility, then the department head might want to know. On the other hand, a single incident would probably be ignored.

What makes this tricky is that professors get asked for recommendations in all sorts of suboptimal ways, such as a brief hallway conversation while both people are rushing to get to class. It's easy to forget under these circumstances. That doesn't make it right, and responsible letter writers will try hard not to overlook requests. However, some circumstances make it more understandable than others. If you do file a complaint with the administration, you should make the circumstances clear. (But without evidence of dramatic or recurring irresponsibility, I'm not sure it would be worth the effort.)

Have you tried asking the professor about it? It's too late to fix your applications, but you deserve an apology. Furthermore, he may have forgotten about it so completely that he doesn't even realize this happened, in which case you'd be giving him a valuable warning that he needs to be more careful (and you might save future students from this problem).

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    +1 for the forgetfulness angle. @monika, what you describe is very common. Typically, the onus is on the graduate student to ensure the professor submits the letters. After all, it is in your best interest that he does so; he has no incentive to do so, other than because it's the right thing to do. – eykanal May 21 '14 at 23:14
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    I'd suggest telling someone in authority about the situation, even if you think your case is an isolated incident. For all you know, there could have been other instances, where the "victims" also assumed it was an isolated incident. If everybody makes that assumption and therefore doesn't bother to report it, a serious problem can go undetected. (P.S. When I was a grad student, applying for my first job, one of my letter-writers apologized to me for not yet having written his letter; this was after I had been offered the job at Michigan (where I still am today).) – Andreas Blass May 22 '14 at 14:14
  • "without evidence of dramatic or recurring irresponsibility, I'm not sure it would be worth the effort" - not specific to academia, but if the university receives a series of complaints from people whose applications have been undermined by this person, then they can worry about evidence of recurrence, not each individual who complains. I suppose the problem is that only a small proportion of people whose applications are rejected will learn that this missing reference was the problem, if the institutions they're applying to refuse to tell them what was missing. – Steve Jessop Aug 21 '14 at 8:32
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I'd like to pick up something that eykanal has mentioned in a comment, because I think it's crucial.

Brace yourself, you're not going to like this. But it's better you know the truth.

When you ask someone for a letter of reference, and they agree, it's up to you to do what you can to ensure that they write it and submit it.

Sorry, that's not what you wanted to hear, is it? But it's what you needed to hear.

So, what can you do if you didn't succeed in ensuring it got written and submitted?

There's exactly one thing you can do: learn from the experience. Now you know, that if you don't put the effort in to ensuring the recommendation letter gets written and sent, that may not happen.

If you want to take it further, here's what you need to do.

You need to broaden the lesson to be taken from this unhappy experience. The broader lessons are (and these apply both within and beyond academia): you often need to manage your manager; and if you need something doing, and you delegate it, you're still responsible for ensuring it gets done.

2

Professors are busy people. This person's failure to make good on the promise of a letter could be due to a variety of reasons, being a "jerk" being only one of several possibilities. It could be just forgetfulness, or perhaps they wrote the letters but didn't include the correct postage, or the mail got stolen from the mailbox where they dropped off the letters. Things happen, and sometimes we are too quick to find fault. Being absent-minded is not an excuse, but lack of malicious intent definitely impacts the validity of accusations.

Therefore, I would tread lightly and first ascertain the reason. If you really need closure on this, the best way is to NOT talk to the associate dean, but to discuss this with the professor privately, and very VERY politely. Do your absolute best NOT to come across as being accusatory, pursue not the person but the objective facts -- as a student in this department, you are in a much more vulnerable position than tenured faculty, and should account for this in your decisions and actions.

Drop by during this professor's office hours, sit down calmly, and in a polite, humble tone simply explain what has happened years ago.

Do not say "but you never mailed those letters". This immediately puts the person on the defensive and the conversation will quickly devolve from constructive feedback to denial and conflict. This will have zero benefit for you, but can have negative consequences down the road in ways that are difficult to anticipate right now.

Instead, one approach is to say: "It appears that the letters from one of my references were not received by the institutions to which I applied, and I am trying to figure out if this was through a fault of mine, perhaps lack of clear communication on my part about what I was requesting. I feel uncomfortable talking about this, but I just wanted to see if you had any recollection of that situation and whether you recall any challenges with providing those letters. This will be very helpful to me in understanding how to improve the way I solicit recommendation letters for future fellowship or employment applications."

This interaction presents a great opportunity to learn whether you did, in fact, do something that may have contributed to the unfortunate outcome of receiving no letters from this person. Was it a miscommunication about the application timeline, addresses where to mail the letter, or something else? Chances are you will have to solicit letters again in the future, and knowing what caused the malfunction in the process back then can help you prevent the same issue from happening in the future. What a great opportunity to learn from the past and improve future results.

As @EnergyNumbers noted, "When you ask someone for a letter of reference, and they agree, it's up to you to do what you can to ensure that they write it and submit it." I absolutely agree. You needed those letters, not the professors. Therefore, it was your responsibility to follow up and confirm whether they had mailed the letters you requested. That's just how this stuff works. For this reason, if anyone should be blamed for what happened, it's not the professor. For this reason, I would disagree with @Anonymous Mathematician's position that "It's too late to fix your applications, but you deserve an apology." I would agree that you might deserve (I would say, not deserve, but "benefit from") a brief explanation of what happened. But whether to apologize for this or not remains to be seen, and should be up to this professor to decide. It's their conscience, let them find the course of action that they find acceptable. If this is at odds with your notion of fairness and justice, well, the world does not have to operate in accordance with your notions. Everyone has different ideas of what they deserve, and sometimes letting go and adjusting one's expectations is a much wiser strategy than pushing to get what one believes is their fair share, or fishing for apologies. Letting go is not easy, and absolutely should not be the rule for all situations in life. But the ability to discern what situations warrant letting go are a sign of good discretion and wisdom.

One alternative: As @RoboKaren noted in a comment to OP, it is unclear that "One remedy would be he takes me on as a PhD student, or provides funding so another professor can supervise me" actually represents a remedy. For what? Financial compensation? If this incident occurred years ago, I would consider this, as economists might call it, "sunk cost." If the expense was not recouped in time, or arrangements made for future reimbursement, for all intents and purposes it is water under the bridge. I highly recommend to let the financial aspect go, especially since the amount is probably not nearly enough to justify all the problems such accusations could cause for you while you are trying to remain on good terms with the department's faculty, who hold the keys to your degree.

On the other hand, if the remedy is meant for your ego rather than wallet, then it seems counter-intuitive that much good would come from trying to renew a relationship characterized by financial dependence on someone who has already let you down once before. It is like stepping on a rake, then years later trying to step on the same rake on the off chance it would somehow make the old bruise hurt less. History tends to repeat itself, and you just might end up with another bruise. Why take a chance when you don't have to? I would suggest the exact opposite, i.e. to put a good amount of distance between you and this professors, so as to minimize the chances of making the same mistake (of relying on them and being burned) twice. Good luck!

1

Not writing a letter of recommendation when you've agreed to write one and you understand the impact it could potentially have on somebody's career is clearly not a great thing to have done - indeed, if you talk to the professor about it in a non-accusatory way (i.e. one that doesn't put him on the defensive), he'll probably feel bad about it.

However, as others have pointed out, the reality of the situation is that you asked somebody potentially busy and perhaps forgetful for a favour that was crucial to you, but probably not that crucial to him. Human nature being what it is, he probably meant to do it, but procrastinated and then forgot about it. It's much easier to forget about things that aren't crucial to you personally, and there's very rarely any malice in it.

What you ought to have done was ask him again politely before each application, making what he needed to do and the deadline extremely clear in each case, and then followed up with him at intervals before the deadline to make sure that he followed through on it. I've always used this method - it works.

Should he automatically have sent in the references without you having to chase him? Sure, maybe, but people are imperfect, and this was something that really mattered to you. Making a huge issue of it years after the fact rather than making sure it didn't happen in the first place is neither sensible nor a useful use of your time. You're much better off chalking it up to experience and doing things differently next time.

See also:

https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Hanlon%27s_razor

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If I am not mistaken it is part of a professors job to write letters such as the one you requested. It reflects poorly on the reputation of the school if the professors show little concern for their students future beyond the classroom. I can not imagine many High School students would choose a particular collage if they had information this college would fail them when it came time to securing a future. If someone feels they do not have time, or would write an unfovorable recommendation, professional ethics would dictate declining. It is reasonable to suggest you make the request in the Professors office as stated by others, providing them with all the information needed, including a date letters must be complete.

It is reasonable to say that it is your responsibility to follow up and make sure the letter was written and submitted. If the letter is not done in a timely manner, you should have a back up plan. Remember, this is your future and you must be proactive securing what you need to succeed.

Thirty-two years after graduating, I receive letters annually requesting donations to my alma-mater. Upon completion of your degree, you might consider declining donations citing this professors lack of concern for your future. No professor would accept excuses for failing to complete an assignment. No employer would accept excuses for failing to do part of their job. Yes, you should show gratitude for letters of recommendation, but letters from Professors are not mearly favors. Suggesting a letter may have been stolen from a mail box is not an excuse a professor would accept, neither should you.

  • The question is "What can I do?". You did not really answer it except "you might consider declining donations"? – scaaahu Dec 11 '17 at 10:03

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