1

This was a few years ago now. My PhD program had two exams. The first I passed with high marks the second I failed.

I did not really know who to talk with about this. It is common in my program for people taking their exams to fail on the first attempt. However, the nature of the way this news was conveyed by the graduate program director and other passive aggressive tenancies by another closely related senior member, really shook my confidence.

Unfortunately, I did not recover and ended up switching departments and programs, which has cost me time and money. I won't blame my failures on this professor, though I believe he seems to have abused his power in order to act out a personal vendetta.

Here is the email:

Dear XXXXX,

I just received the results of the XXXX comprehensive exam in XXXX. I will follow up with a more formal letter shortly, but I wanted you to know the basic results as soon as possible.

I'm pleased to relay that you received a Fail.

This is disappointing news. With my formal memo, I will be sending feedback on individual questions to assist you with further study.

Best regards,

So here is my question:

  1. Is there anything to be done about this? Or is it better to keep my head down and not complain?
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  • 1
    What exactly do you mean when you say none of them looked like yours? Was the difference only in the I'm pleased to relay that you received a Fail. sentence or was the whole letter different.
    – StrongBad
    Dec 14 '16 at 20:35
  • 21
    This seems like a severe overreaction on your side for something that was most likely a copy&paste error. Let it go.
    – mdd
    Dec 14 '16 at 20:41
  • 3
    Of the various problems you mention, the most serious is the failure to provide additional preparation time, if you have a relevant disability. Many universities have some sort of “Accessibility Office” or similar (e.g. this), who should be able to back you up, or at least provide a good explanation why you weren’t judged as eligible for accommodations. The professor “jeering” is serious if it really was jeering — but I’m concerned you may have misunderstood something there, like you seem to with this copy-paste error.
    – PLL
    Dec 14 '16 at 20:45
  • 10
    Let it go. If this had happened last week I would say maybe mention this to your department chair. But after a few years, and given the tenuousness of your claim (as pointed out by others, this could well be an innocent copy-paste error)? You have no recourse, legal or otherwise. Do your best to forget about it and move on.
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 14 '16 at 20:46
  • 3
    @fsmart You are getting honest feedback here from people - and it seems like they are almost completely in agreement from the information you have shared. PLL was not at all rude and made no sweeping statement, they only pointed out that if you already had a reaction that many here judge as a misunderstanding, that misunderstanding could lead to further misunderstanding. This is a very real thing that has nothing to do with value judgments about you, but a common result of poor or miscommunication between people in both professional and personal contexts.
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 14 '16 at 22:17
15

Like Raghu says, this clearly sounds like a case of mistaken copy/paste. However, I have a few other things for you to contemplate.

1) Since you are in a PhD program then you need to realize that you've entered into a fairly small professional world. The only appropriate way to respond to interpersonal problems such as this is to talk it over with the person(s) involved. Jumping straight to legal action or public shaming is a sure-fire way to destroy your professional reputation end your career before it starts. In general, pursing "pay-back" is never an appropriate response in a professional setting.

Even if your actions don't spread beyond your graduate department, these are the people who are going to vouch for you in front of the larger community when it comes time to assemble a dissertation committee and ask for future letters of recommendation. Destroying these relationships is what is known as "burning bridges"

2) This is tangentially related, but maybe you need to hear it. (Advice is free, amirite?) Anyone pursuing a PhD needs to learn early how to deal with criticism, because you will be given a lot of criticism. Committees are going to criticize your portfolio and thesis. Reviewers are going to criticize your papers. Partners and co-workers are going to disagree with you in public and in meetings.

It appears as though you've taken an honest mistake and then turned it into a personal insult. Then you've decided you need to retaliate based on that perceived slight, all without talking to the person involved. You should take a moment to reflect on your personal disposition and whether you're really OK with being criticized for the rest of your career. Of course, criticism does not mean subjecting yourself to personal insults.

However, if this person really intended to hurt you, the only professional response is to grin and bear it while bringing it up with the relevant supervisory bodies.

3) Which brings me to the next point, which is that most graduate programs have a designated person (or committee) who exists to mediate conflicts between graduate students and their advisers or other authority figures in the department. (For example, in my graduate department this person was just the director of graduate admission.)

If you really feel as though there is a personal conflict here, the first step (as always) is to discuss it with the person involved. If you feel you cannot talk to this person yourself, the alternative is to go to this trusted mediator and ask them to inquire about the situation for you. Then, if it turns out that there is a personal conflict that you cannot resolve yourself, the next step is to turn to this mediator or other supervisory individual and seek redress there.

4) Lastly, you need to realize that nobody has guaranteed you the right to be liked by everyone you work with. This does not mean you need to subject yourself to their snide comments or insults (they are expected to be professional as are you). However, if a genuine conflict exists and it is unresolvable then there is not a lot you can do other than to agree to disagree and move on with your life. This is true whether the conflict is between you and a co-worker, supervisor, or subordinate.

Again, in no case is it professionally appropriate to seek "pay-back".

1
  • More likely than not, he didn't even prepare the letter himself—a secretary wrote the letter, and he signed it.
    – aeismail
    Jan 15 '18 at 19:38
26

No one writes these letters "by hand," but rather cuts-and-pastes names to avoid writing the same thing dozens of times. It seems extremely likely to me that this person copied a standard "I'm pleased to relay ...", used to tell students they passed, into the letter telling you you failed, and then didn't notice this. There isn't anything else in the letter that seems at all disagreeable. Seeking legal recourse, etc., without even finding out whether this is a typo seems like a severe over-reaction.

3
  • 4
    Agreed, that was exactly my reaction.
    – SPPearce
    Dec 14 '16 at 20:33
  • I contacted several other students who had also failed the comprehensive and none of them received such a notice. Dec 14 '16 at 20:34
  • 6
    @fsmart: I'd say that strengthens the assumption that there is at least one manual step in preparing the letters where mistakes can happen as described in this answer. Dec 14 '16 at 20:40
0

I think that both humans and bureaucratic/electronic systems need feedback. Most humans are emphatic and curious, they try to learn about the results of their actions and learn from them. Some systems, although originally built by humans, are not any more monitored. Sometimes they run well, but sometimes they cause damages which may remain completely unnoticed among those who could make a change and nobody fixes these systems. Pointing attention to malfunctioning parts of our systems is a key point in improving our society, also acknowledging positives can be very helpful.

Summary: do give feedback.

In my opinion the only question here is who to send the feedback to.

  1. Write directly to the professor who sent the email that hurt you? If he is an honest man who had the good intention to give an early notification, just it went wrong he will feel bad learning that he hurt you, and he will probably be more careful in the future. He may talk to the programmer if it was a program that mass mailed the results to the students. I believe that if your professor was accidentally hurting your emotions he will value a gentle, non-blaming feedback that his went wrong. - Rarely professors have bad characters, and showing him that you were hurt may make him happy and will bring no benefit.
  2. If you have good reasons to believe that the professor had bad intentions you can send your feedback to a higher level, send a formal complaint etc. Keeping a malicious professor in an important position is a system error, too. Your letter may get ignored, but it also may be the last straw that will start an investigation into his practices.
  3. If you think that the system is malfunctioning, and an answer like "we will take appropriate action, but we can not give you information about the outcome" means the shredder you could contact many other students asking their experiences with this professor. You might convince yourself that he must have made a mistake, but you might end up with sufficient evidence to improve a malfunctioning system or to get rid of the rotten apple.

Having recommended to take action I'm not recommending any kind of revenge. For a good exaple you may want to study the life of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gandhi .

1
  • Has the downvoter thoughts to share?
    – winerd
    Jan 15 '18 at 17:10

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