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I've actually just finished applying to 12 graduate programs all around the country and so far, things have been pretty smooth but there is one thing that I am concerned about.

I have three people that I asked to write a letter of recommendation for me. Two of them have all sent in their LOR's already which is great, but there is one that I'm kind of having issues with sadly.

I told her last week that I'm still missing LOR's from her. Her response was that A) she didn't know that I was applying to that many schools and B) she's way too busy to send out those LOR's. I totally understand the amount of stress she probably has to deal with for someone as busy as she is, but at the same time, I'm really bummed out about it because she did initially agree to write them for me before the application submission season even started. To add, I also sent her a list of all the schools I was applying to at that time.

Now fast-forwarding to this week, she sent in LOR's to four of the schools I'm applying to. That's a start! But I reminded her again that I'm applying to other schools as well, eight more to be exact, and they're all currently waiting for her LOR to be submitted. She responds that no, she sent it in to five schools--and I hope this is just my online checklist lagging, but this doesn't seem to be the case--and that she's too busy to do even more. She explicitly said that she wants this to be the last time she'll have to turn in any more letters due to how busy she is on the last email she's sent me.

I'm awfully depressed about this situation and I'm not certain about what to do. I'm not the richest person in the world so I literally spent a good portion of my savings just to apply. Those application fees add up. To have that money and all that time I spent working on my apps go to waste just because one single component of my application was missing would be a major disappointment. At the same time, I really don't want to cause tension between her and me. I totally sympathize for her situation, and I really don't want to burden her, so I'm a little hesitant to try to talk to her again. I definitely don't want to come across as pushy.

Any suggestions on how to tackle this? I get a bit teary-eyed and anxious when I have to think about this.

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It's hard for me to understand how this can really be an issue for the professor, because in this day and age of online submission, once she has written a letter, it takes very little time to submit it to each additional school. Twelve schools is a little on the high side but certainly not ridiculous. However, it won't really help the situation for you to tell her that. Of course, overwork and burnout are definitely things for faculty, and there could be issues like that in play. But my point is that based on what you've said, it sounds like your request is totally reasonable, and this is unprofessional behavior on her part.

I would suggest you discuss this with her department chair. You could share your email chain with the chair, making it clear that you requested the letters well in advance and the professor agreed to send them; that she has actually already written the letter; and that the reason for her balking is not apparently related to any concerns about your qualifications.

The chair will be better positioned to speak to the faculty member about sending the letters. Departments have an interest in seeing students succeed, and I think most chairs would not be happy about seeing this obstructed for relatively trivial reasons. The chair may also be able to offer to adjust the professor's workload, or have the letters submitted by some other staff member. As a last resort, the chair may be able to lean on some other professor to write a substitute letter at short notice.

Be prompt about this, but don't panic too much about approaching deadlines. Graduate programs are usually able to have some flexibility about letters submitted after a deadline, as long as the student's portion of the application was in on time.

This might hurt your relationship with the professor somewhat. However, I would say she already blew up your relationship by refusing to submit your letters. That's a breach of a very straightforward professional obligation.

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    Thanks for your response! I think that's a good idea. I'm not sure if this is relevant to note but I might as well just throw it out there. My recommender is an instructor that taught a class at an extension course, and not in an actual university. Still, I'm sure I could talk to the department head of the extension about this. – jessica Jan 26 '17 at 3:25
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    @jessica: Yeah, that does affect the situation somewhat. I would say any instructor of a university-level course has a similar obligation, but the department head may have less leverage over her in this case. But I think that is still your best bet. The only other idea I can think of is to approach some other professor who knows you well, explain the situation, and ask if they can write you a letter fast. – Nate Eldredge Jan 26 '17 at 3:39
  • On the other hand, it's possible that the department head has even more leverage, since future hiring of the instructor may depend on being in the department's good graces. In any case, I agree with the answer, and I wish the poster luck! – Raghu Parthasarathy Jan 26 '17 at 4:30
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    @MarcGlisse: Edited to "very little time". – Nate Eldredge Jan 26 '17 at 15:00
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    @industry7 - I thought something awful happened in her personal life like a family emergency or whatnot, but I pray for her that's not it. – jessica Jan 26 '17 at 20:12
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(I agree entirely with Nate Eldredge on this, but anyway...)

I don't get angry easily, but when I hear about cases like this - and there are examples among my students and even my colleagues applying for jobs every single year - I'm always briefly enraged. Letters are quite a small time-investment and they're of enormous importance. Most admissions committees are used to letters trickling in late, sure; and if some faculty members dislike writing letters, they're allowed to feel that way. But nonetheless: when a student requests a letter (an unremarkable request) and we say yes, aren't we agreeing that we will not torpedo your plans for your future (or at least set it back a year) by messing up and/or backing out at the last minute? Few other things I do are that consequential in terms of the price of failing to follow through. I mean, if someone has a legitimate emergency or some major health issues, that's one thing. But otherwise I don't understand not making every effort to see those letters written, sent, and received. Yikes.

Over time I have stepped in for several students, sometimes with only a day's notice, who have found themselves in this kind of situation and (quite justifiably) getting panicky. Is there anyone else you could ask for a letter as a backup plan? A letter from a pretty-good-if-not-perfect referee for you is better than nothing.

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    I try to write personalised letters to reference to different faculties, andp perhaps she wants to do that, too. But, given the number of letters you ask for, why doesn't she just produce a standard letter that is invariant for all recipients? It's certainly better than not writing at all. – Captain Emacs Jan 26 '17 at 5:54
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    @trikeprof - You sound like an awesome professor then. :) Wish I had you as a reference! Haha. I don't have someone else in mind, truth be told, which makes this even more frustrating. – jessica Jan 26 '17 at 6:42
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    @Captain Emacs - I could try suggesting that to her. I don't know what the letter looks like but if she's tailoring it for every institution I'm applying to, I can see why she's stressed. Thanks! – jessica Jan 26 '17 at 6:47
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It is part of a profesor's job to deal with LORs; if a professor accept he/she has a moral duty to do it. However, it is not always so simple as copy-paste, and there are repeated questionnaires to fill, etc. This isn't much of an excuse not to do it, but please consider:

  1. Is cut-and-pasting a generic letter always the optimal solution? It certainly saves the professor time, it gets the job done, but the result can be bland. I've seem too many LORs which are clearly generic. There is a balance somewhere. As to timelines and speaking for myself, I tend to do together all those with same deadline, and usually wait until a few days before the deadline: it's a mixture of procrastination and thinking about how I can improve the previous batch of letters.

  2. What students consider urgent may not be so urgent for professor, who may have various other legitimate deadlines before LOR submission cut-off dates. With the advent of electronic form submission, it is easy to wait until very near the closing date to complete the job.

  3. Some of the emails sent by institutions end up in SPAM boxes, and it may take a while to track down.

Now: what you can squarely put at referee's door in your case is lack of communication. If the referee is busy, he/she should provide updates or timelines, and expect reminders.

I doubt talking to a department chair would be useful where I work, but maybe it would be useful in your case.

I have yet to hear of any colleague of mine who promised LORs and did not deliver; in some cases the timelines made students nervous or very nervous, to the point of sending panicked emails to referee, but that just goes back to my point #2. Some of my colleagues find it a real chore to write LORs, but all recognize how important it is, and eventually come through.

I sometimes wonder - contrary to the comment of trikeprof - if a letter send by someone less knowledgeable is actually better than fewer letters sent by very knowledgeable referees: some of the letters I see are completely useless and set aside as so by the evaluation committee.

You should be worried is NOTHING had been done so far. However, the process has started, and I would estimate that your last referee has a reasonable draft which she can easily be modify in time for deadlines.

  • Maybe I misunderstood, but it sounds to me like it's not the case that she intends to send them but is putting it off until the last minute - it sounds like she has actually said flat out that she is not going to send them. That's a very different situation. – Nate Eldredge Jan 26 '17 at 17:10
  • Hmmm... well 4 (or 5) were sent after all but you're right: does "She explicitly said that she wants this to be the last time she'll have to turn in any more letters" means she will NOT do all those requested after all or do those and but no more (as was my reading). – user67075 Jan 26 '17 at 19:11
  • @ZeroTheHero - Yeah, I wish sending it last minute were the case but I feel that she's given me a clear signal that she doesn't plan on doing any more. Bummer. But I'll still try to see what I can do about this. I really don't want this to get in the way of me going to grad school. – jessica Jan 26 '17 at 19:54
  • Wow! Unbeliveable! I'm speechless. – user67075 Jan 26 '17 at 19:59

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