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Here is the scenario: in a collaborative effort, our group was to work with another group/professor to write a paper on some work we had previously done. I, a grad student, am to be the main author/architect of the paper. But, and this was said explicitly by him and my own professor, I was to write it with lots of help from the collaborating professor, and under his guidance and direction.

In other words, I would talk to him, get direction like "you should focus on this topic for the paper" or "don't pursue this, it won't be interesting to reviewers", and I would do the actual work/research/writing.

However, since making this agreement, months ago, he has gone basically incommunicado. I'll send him an email and not get a reply for literally a month. I've asked to set up a short (<1hr) meeting, at basically any time of his choosing, and just no response. Several times, too.

Let me be clear about this too: I'm not really that upset about the lack of communication itself (though, I'll say this single thing about that: when he is actually in person with me, he is constantly checking/answering his email on his phone, so I know he does do it, just apparently not with me). I'm not dying to write the paper, it's not a cutting edge thing that will get scooped, and I have several other projects. It's a little annoying in general that he has been flaky, but I'm plenty busy with other stuff, so again that's not too bad.

Here's what my question is about. I both suspect, and from my short interactions with him I've had in the past few months, that he is going to ask to see what work I've done on it since he became uncommunicative, to which the answer is "minimal". The reason is that I am busy with other projects, and because he wasn't doing his part of this, I didn't know which direction to take. I could certainly speculate and choose one, but that is very risky (timewise) for me: if I spend several weeks pursuing something and it turns out he doesn't think it's a good fit for the paper, welp, I just wasted several weeks. And that has happened to some extent.

Because it seems like I wasn't clear about this initially, I'll say it explicitly here: my goal is not to attack him, or bring this up. If he seems fine with the (lack of) progress made, then I'm very happy to leave it be and just continue on. But I strongly suspect (and he seemed to say) that he expects me to have done more. For this question, assume that the professor will ask why more hasn't been done on the paper, so the subject will come up.

So, how do you say this tactfully? You can't really respond with "because you were uncommunicative, I didn't get very much done, because it very possibly could have been for naught", because that's pretty accusatory and will ultimately not help solve the problem.

Is there a good way to say this?

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    Sometimes "flakiness" like this results from some sort of personal emergency, so tread carefully here. If you say or write something that assumes he's voluntarily neglecting the project, and it turns out he's been in the hospital for a month, or attending a dying relative, or something, you're going to feel awful. – Nate Eldredge Apr 14 '15 at 16:44
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    From what you say, you used his lack of communication as an excuse not to do your part in the project. This is not OK and it will probably backfire to you (he is a professor and you are a PHD student). So, finish your part at least to the degree possible without his help and then think about how to tactfully say it. – Alexandros Apr 14 '15 at 16:51
  • @NateEldredge, yeah, I'm not really blaming him. He's a young professor and has several young kids. I'm definitely not trying to demonize him; my attitude in all this is kind of "I'm not blaming you for not doing your part, but please don't blame me because I couldn't do my part as a result of that". That's what I need to tactfully say. – YungHummmma Apr 14 '15 at 17:16
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    @Alexandros, It's not an excuse, it's a reason. To respond to your suggestion, I essentially have done everything I can, within reason. I've selected and done background on directions for the paper. But it is not within reason to spend a lot of time writing a paper that may be thrown out on a whim. To reiterate, I'm not trying to go after him here and give him trouble. I'm not trying to avoid work; rather, I'm trying to move it forward so I can do meaningful work. – YungHummmma Apr 14 '15 at 17:24
  • There are profs who get hundreds of emails per day. One professor in our group is very explicit she wants us to communicate abruptly, to the point. No politeness formulas as these "waste her time" when processing our info. She takes up to a year to get back to you on papers but always do so within minutes when it comes to research funding / undergrad students' problems. She needs us to be autonomous even on stuff where she is better than us because her time is so valuable. So just write the paper, stop waiting for the professor to step in. – Steve Dodier-Lazaro Aug 25 '16 at 12:38
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What is a diplomatic way to tell a professor that progress hasn't been made because of their lack of communication?

You don't.

That is, I don't think that would be very productive, diplomatic or not. I wouldn't focus on their lack of communication in the next meeting you have with them at all; I would instead focus on using that next meeting you have with the professor to come to some resolution on the things that are delaying progress on the paper/project.

As you mentioned in the comments:

I essentially have done everything I can, within reason. I've selected and done background on directions for the paper.

So, this is what you have, and this is what you show them. Additionally, any questions about the scope/direction of the paper, etc. should also be brought up during the face-to-face meeting.

To address additional information posted by OP:

But I strongly suspect (and he seemed to say) that he expects me to have done more. For this question, assume that the professor will ask why more hasn't been done on the paper, so the subject will come up.

We all have limitations. You were in charge of certain aspects of the paper/project, but you were not able to achieve a certain level of progress that was set. Just be upfront about that. Specifically, tell the professor what it is you are stuck on and ask them during your face-to-face meeting if they have any feedback to offer.

  • Thanks for the response. It seems like my question didn't convey a key point, which is that I'm not looking to start trouble or highlight his lack of communication. For the question, assume that the professor will ask why more hasn't been done on the paper, so the subject will come up. – YungHummmma Apr 14 '15 at 18:47
  • @YungHummmma Thanks for the clarification; I have edited my answer. – Mad Jack Apr 14 '15 at 19:58
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I will repeat something that one of my committee members told me about working with my chair -- "The answer you are going to get will inevitably depend on the question you ask."

So I am going to suggest trying to ask different questions, because it sounds like A) This isn't important to the professor and B) He isn't going to make time to think deeply about it.

You are going to be the one to think deeply about this paper, and, best case scenario, he is going to react.

Instead of asking "When can we meet?" to get a meeting, ask "Can you meet on September 1st sometime between 1 and 5 PM?" (And then, to be polite and deferential, say you are certainly flexible if he/she would prefer a different date.

Instead of asking "What direction should I take?" ask, "I am thinking about taking this direction. Does that work?" Or, if you think there are multiple valid ways, say, "Which of these two specific approaches would you like me to take?"

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It seems like this project has become a confrontational affair for you? Honestly is there a diplomatic way of communicating with anyone, even family? Collaboration is not direction.

if the work had been documented prior to this exercise I'm guessing the point of the task was to provoke engagement in a collaboration, which is always going to initially be confronting to one degree or another.

We collaborate as equals, we put ourselves in each other's shoes. You can always start by asking him if he is ok to brainstorm some frameworks together or with the group?

Now is a good time if you have time? An appointment would soon be made if he was not available immediately.

A month is a fair amount of time to follow up an email. A verbal follow up would be appropriate after a few days.
Of course he's going to want to see the work.

What was the nature of the project? Was the content less important than the collaborative component?

Communication can be difficult.

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    If you need to clarify some details, use comments to the question. Answers are to provide answers, not to generate more questions. – Dmitry Savostyanov Dec 31 '16 at 17:42

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