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I’m a foreign student currently applying to extremely competitive doctoral programs in the US. Recently, one of the professors writing a letter of recommendation sexually assaulted me. I live in a country where things like this, when reported, are usually unpunished and even more difficult for the victim. I’m currently deciding what to do, all while trying to get my applications done and finishing up my last semester of my master's program. To put it bluntly, my life is currently hell.

Severe trauma and everything aside, I’m really trying not to let this derail my academic career. My question is, would it be possible for me to contact the universities that I’m applying to and ask them if I could submit just two instead of the required three letters of recommendation? With some deadlines less than a week away, I’m worried that this professor might write a bad LOR to try to keep me out of academia, or threaten me with it. Most importantly, it’s too late for me to find another professor to write my letter of recommendation at this point in time (unless I can explain the situation to them, but even then, that would be extremely difficult).

However, I’m also wary of spinning what might seem like a sob story to admissions committees, even though this is not my intention at all. I’m not sure how something like this would be viewed in the US. Please, I would appreciate any advice on this matter.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Dec 11 '16 at 5:58
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That's really awful, and I'm so sorry someone whose job it is to help you instead put you in this difficult position.

When you applied for your masters program did you have strong letters from professors at your undergraduate school? While all things being equal it is better to get letters from people who have interacted with you more recently, having one letter that's only a year or two old should be fine. Since those professors already wrote you a letter, there's a good chance that they'd be able to update it and resend it easily. This may be more practical than getting a totally new person on such short notice. It also seems clearly better than only having two letters.

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    Note that in many countries you don't need letters to apply to a Master's program. – Massimo Ortolano Dec 9 '16 at 18:18
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I'm very sorry about what you're going through. The key to the answer I'm about to offer to your question is the following general observation: the people in academia are not robots. Despite how it looks from the outside, all these rigid rules and deadlines that we have were made by humans and were designed to serve specific purposes. When we judge that the purposes are not served by these rules, it is often possible for us to ignore or bend them, within certain constraints of law and common sense.

With that said, here's a way I suggest to handle the situation that will leave you with a fighting chance of having your grad school applications be considered seriously in this application round. The most urgent thing you should do is write an email ASAP to the programs you are applying to, in which you explain that you were involved in a serious and irredeemable confrontation with one of the professors writing your LORs. You don't have to explain the precise nature of the confrontation (I don't have a strong feeling about whether it will be to your advantage to explain it, and there are obvious privacy and even legal issues that may make it problematic to share too many details), but either explain it, or if not, do your best to stress how severe the situation is and make it clear that you are a victim, not an instigator, of the conflict. I.e., find a way to make sure they understand that "something really bad happened, and it wasn't my fault" and sound sincere without providing details that are too sensitive for you to want to mention.

Then explain that as a result, your LOR from that person (assuming it is even sent) has become invalid, and say that you would like to make two unusual requests, which are, first, that they give you a deadline extension to allow you to obtain another reference, and second, that they discard any LOR that may be sent by the professor with whom you are in conflict without looking at it.

In the email, emphasize that you are only asking for an exception to the rules due to the extreme and unavoidable nature of the situation, and emphasize that you will still submit your application and all other materials on time by the original deadline, so that the amount of rule-bending you are asking for is as absolutely minimal as possible.

In parallel to sending the email, start looking for an alternative letter writer ASAP. Ideally it would be someone who you think would be sympathetic to your situation and whom you would feel comfortable confiding in (I imagine a female professor might be more likely to answer that description, for obvious reasons). It may be that you would find someone sufficiently understanding that they would be willing and able to write the letter on short notice, as others have suggested, which would allow you to even meet the original application deadline; I certainly can imagine myself helping you in precisely such a way in a situation like this.

Finally, in this answer I wrote to a somewhat analogous question I also suggested trying to find a local ally such as the department chair who could also contact the places you're applying to and advocate on your behalf, since you are making unusual requests which the places you are writing to may feel inclined to ignore. That situation involved something much less serious than a sexual assault, but the advice may still apply (though in your situation a tricky bit is the problem of how much information you're willing to share; if you do not want to talk about the sexual assault that makes things potentially more difficult).

Good luck! I can't be certain that what I'm suggesting will help, but I don't think you're asking for all that much given the circumstances, and think there's a reasonably good chance the people you write to will be accommodating to your requests. One last remark is that I don't think it makes sense to ask the departments to waive the requirement of three letters and ask if they would allow you to submit just two. The problem is that this would make it impossible to compare you with the other applicants on a level playing field, which would create an ethical and perhaps legal dilemma for the admissions committee, with the likely result that they would be forced to reject your application even if they may be sympathetic to your problem and wish to help. But I'm not completely sure about this point - if anyone else can offer more authoritative advice on this issue that says something else then I'm open to being convinced.

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    You want to send the email to the person in charge of graduate admissions at the school you're applying to. Hopefully the department lists this info clearly on the grad admissions webpage. For example, my department has a dedicated email address for inquiries from potnentil grad students. – Noah Snyder Dec 9 '16 at 17:13
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Faculty aren't robots but the application management systems we use are. Many systems won't show incomplete files by default, and manual intervention is needed.

Either get a short (or older) third letter from a previous faculty member, or contact the director of graduate studies or your presumed future advisor at the school you're applying to. You can ask to speak in the phone if that is less triggering than writing it out.

And, please think seriously about filing a sexual assault claim. In the notable cases that have come out of the Smithsonian or UC Berkeley, one brave woman making the initial claim resulted in many more women emboldened to also make claims against what turned out to be a serial perpetrator. Both cases resulted in the perp leaving academia. You can wait to do this until after you've gotten into your new school (within statute of limitations). Do this only if you feel safe and strong enough to do this, though.

Justice can be served.

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    I removed this entire comment thread, as it was entirely tangential to the answer itself. Please use upvotes and downvotes to indicate agreement, and take side discussion to Academia Chat. – eykanal Dec 11 '16 at 5:05
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    @eykanal: While lengthy discussions in comments are justifiably deleted, isn't it normally considered good practice on this site (or at least an often-uttered wish) that downvoters leave their reason for downvoting in a comment? (By the way, I fail to see how comments directly criticizing statements made in the answer can be "tangential to the answer".) – O. R. Mapper Dec 11 '16 at 21:17
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Would you feel safe and otherwise be able to defer to the next application period? If so, you could develop a diplomatic illness (a fake illness for purposes of saving face) that prevents going ahead this cycle. Next cycle, get a different reference. That would simplify your life a bit for the next few weeks - concentrate on finishing your current program and dealing with the trauma, and do the applications next year.

If you, understandably, really want to get the applications done this cycle, I suggest a two part strategy. Immediately look for a new reference, and ask for letters ASAP. For those applications that are due too soon for that, tell them something a bit less dramatic than the truth, but in the right direction: "I recently had a personal interaction with the professor who was going to be my third reference that makes me uncomfortable interacting with them. I will get a third LoR as soon as I can."

Since your application will presumably be weaker, and may be automatically rejected from some programs, without the letter from the offending professor, you may need to consider applying to one or more less competitive programs.

Obviously, if you do decide to report the assault you can be more direct, but your decision on that must take into account local conditions and attitudes.

  • In the context of looking for another reference, I agree with Noah Snyder's suggestion of going back to the references for the previous application. – Patricia Shanahan Dec 9 '16 at 15:08
  • Conversely, I agree that your second paragraph is a very good idea for any deadlines that are missed. – Noah Snyder Dec 9 '16 at 15:39
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    @PatriciaShanahan As I commented under Noah Snyder's answer, in many countries you don't need letters to apply to a Master's program. – Massimo Ortolano Dec 9 '16 at 18:21
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I suggest you ask References #1 and 2 to ask the admissions committees to disregard Reference #3. If you feel comfortable communicating to them what happened, great; if not, you could just say you had a falling out with him but don't have time to find a third reference at this time. (And if one of them asks a colleague to serve as a substitute reference, so much the better.)

Consider taking some incompletes in some or all of your courses. Protect your safety by being escorted by friends, classmates, campus security, whatever it takes to avoid leaving yourself vulnerable to a second attack. Find a women's organization that can help you with self care.

If you wish to communicate what happened to the departments you're applying to, you may. Nothing is accomplished by sweeping it under the rug and pretending it didn't happen.

  • Could you elaborate why you are suggesting taking an incomplete in some courses? – Aditya Dec 11 '16 at 7:45
  • @Aditya - OP wrote, "I’m currently deciding what to do, all while trying to get my applications done and finishing up my last semester of my master's program. To put it bluntly, my life is currently hell." OP needs to process the recent trauma. There's nothing to be done about the application deadlines, but it could be helpful to get some wiggle room for finishing the semester. – aparente001 Dec 11 '16 at 13:27

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