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I'm an undergraduate senior seeking to continue on into academia, and one of the avenues I'm pursuing to accomplish this is through an NSF GRFP proposal. I spent well over a hundred hours agonizing over every word of this, and I'm happy to have three professors that I've done research with who agreed to write my letter of recs.

The deadline for these letters is just a week away, and over the course of the past three weeks, one of my professors stopped responding to my emails, as he is prone to do on occasion when he gets busy. In the past, I had a negative experience where a careless professor forgot to submit a letter on time and this led to my sophomore study abroad proposal being returned without review. In this context, I sent the following email to his secretary (names redacted):

Hi [Secretary],

I wanted to inquire about an issue I'm having with Prof. [professor] at the moment. I asked him a number of weeks ago to write me a letter of recommendation for my NSF proposal (due November 2nd), to which he kindly agreed. He asked me for various things, including my transcript and statement of purpose, which I provided. Unfortunately, since then, I haven't been able to contact him in any way. I've sent him three emails over the past two weeks with no response. It is extremely important to me that this letter actually gets sent in; to put it bluntly, it's my future that's on the line here. I have in the past encountered the terrible experience of having a professor miss a similarly non-negotiable deadline, and I suffered from the loss of that opportunity as a result. I would greatly appreciate it if you could gently remind him of the deadline and ask him to confirm that he did indeed receive all of the application materials I sent him. If he needs anything else from me, I am more than happy to send it to him.

Thank you very much,

[Me]

Of course, the first thing she does is forwards this email directly to my professor, even though it was never written with his eyes in mind. I'm now worried that my professor (with whom I otherwise have a good relationship) will think less of me and write a poorer letter of rec on my behalf. I was wondering how academics would feel if they were put in a similar spot, and if I ought to be proactive in rectifying the situation, or if I should just let sleeping dogs lie.

A Socially Anxious Student

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    Always assume that emails could be or become public, then you'll never write something you might regret later (unless you explicitly decide to take a calculated risk). I would just not write anymore, though - if you want to push further, go to the secretary in person. – Captain Emacs Oct 25 '17 at 11:13
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    Your email is totally fine. If your professor reads it, I'd guess he will not be offended or annoyed at all, and will think your email is reasonable. At least, that would be my reaction. – littleO Oct 25 '17 at 11:37
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    It's very simple. Never, ever commit anything to print (digital or otherwise) that you would be embarrassed to have read back to you in a court of law. As it is, your email is perfectly fine. – Strawberry Oct 25 '17 at 11:58
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    @littleO And a little bit ashamed of not replying to the student. – Chris K Oct 25 '17 at 13:23
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    "Oh goodness, this student is motivated to meet deadlines and takes polite by firm action with a reasonable amount of time to react to keep them. That's terrible!" - no professor ever. – corsiKa Oct 25 '17 at 19:32
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My first question is what you thought would happen? In my experience, many secretaries would handle it exactly in this way - your email is fairly unspecific in what you thought the secretary would do ("remind him about this" - he/she did by forwarding your mail, and at the same time probably wondering why you did not send it directly to him). If you thought that the secretary would take responsibility for hunting down the recommendation letter for you, I think this is an unreasonable assumption. The secretary is the professor's assistant, not yours. In the olden times this may have included managing the professor's work backlog, but nowadays most people prefer doing this themselves and just having the secretary arrange meetings etc.

even though it was never written with his eyes in mind.

Tip for the future: never write something to staff where you would be embarrassed if the boss saw it, especially if you don't know the person well. However, I see little in this email that would offend me, other than maybe the implication that you thought I could not be approached directly about this. But of course other people get offended by other things.

I was wondering how academics would feel if they were put in a similar spot, and if I ought to be proactive in rectifying the situation, or if I should just let sleeping dogs lie.

I am for "letting sleeping dogs lie". Very likely there really isn't a situation to address, and if there is you can still tackle it once it comes up.

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    About the wondering why not directly contacting the Professor: I think for the secretary it is clear that mails that she forwards will likely have a higher priority for reading by the prof. He might have not even opened the mails by the student as they are low prio for him, a mail forwarded by the secretary - his well trained filter - has higher chances to be checked out. Whether he then finds the time to act on it is a different matter again. So this approach does have some merit and forwarding - and thus pushing the issue - makes probably total sense to her. – Frank Hopkins Oct 25 '17 at 15:47
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    I would extend that to "Never write ANYTHING you'd be embarrassed if anyone saw it" Data breaches and subpoenas happen. If you commit something to text, especially digitally, assume its going to be read. – JeffUK Oct 25 '17 at 16:44
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    Although it’s correct that many assistants would handle the email in the way that the current one did (and also true that OP likely has nothing to worry about), in my opinion forwarding the email was poor form, and a really competent assistant (yes, such people exist!) would handle the request more tactfully. So OP was perfectly reasonable (if a bit naive) to assume that their request would be handled in precisely the way that they were asking for. (I have made a similar incorrect assumption myself several times.) So your “what did you think would happen?” tone is needlessly judgmental IMO. – Dan Romik Oct 25 '17 at 17:19
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Always assume that someone might read correspondence you write to their assistant or secretary. However, your email is polite and reasonable (although I would have skipped the "blunt" part).

I would expect them to respond by writing the letter as soon as possible or contacting you if they are unable to do so. If neither of these happens call the secretary or visit in person. It'll be fine.

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Always assume, at all times, that the people you interact and work with will take the path of least resistance to solve any problem you present them with.

In other words, if you're writing an email to a coworker asking them to remind another coworker to do something, then just assume that, no matter what else was said in the email, it will be forwarded whole cloth to the person in question. It only takes a couple seconds to forward an email, but it takes significantly longer to write a new email from scratch and both will satisfy the requirement in their mind, no matter how insensitive the original email might have been.

A little exercise I use with every work email I send: "Would anyone be greatly offended if they read this and they weren't supposed to read it?" If yes, then reword it or go tell them in person and in private.

I've seen this happen 20 times across a very long career, sometimes resulting in huge backlashes and sometimes not. In your case, the wording is very mild. I wouldn't be offended at all if I saw this email in my inbox from one of my students/employees. In fact, I would be more irritated at myself and apologetic that I didn't act sooner.

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If I was a secretary with dozens of unread emails every morning, I would probably do a glance-only first swipe of them (what I and some colleagues call "diagonal reading").
And if I glanced over your email, and read something like this:

"Hi blahblah Prof X blahblah write me recommendation blahblah not able to contact him blahblah extremely important this letter gets sent in blahblah"

I would immediately stop reading and just forward the email to the prof., which is what you seem to be asking for, and exactly what the secretary did.

Next time:

  • be less chatty and more specific about what you want;
  • please make use of line breaks and paragraphs to break your emails into:

    Greeting
    Introducing yourself (when needed)
    Current Situation
    Effects of not solving the situation
    Requested action
    Thanks

This would make grasping of the important concepts easier for people that are in a hurry. Your email would be clearer if it looked like this:

Dear Secretary,

I'm Me, a former student of Prof. Professor. We have an ongoing issue right now, maybe you could help me?

Professor agreed to write a recommendation letter for my NSF proposal. I provided all the information he asked me to, including transcript and statement of purpose, so everything should be good to go.
Unfortunately, I haven't received the recommendation letter yet. I've tried contacting him by email several times over the last weeks, with no response.

The deadline for the recommendation letter is November 2nd.
It is very important that we don't miss that deadline, my future depends on it. I have in the past encountered the terrible experience of having someone miss a similarly non-negotiable deadline, and I suffered from the loss of that opportunity as a result.

Could you please check with him if he already wrote the recommendation letter, or remind him to do so before November 1st so as to meet the deadline?
If he needs anything else from me, I am more than happy to send it to him.

I greatly appreciate your help.
Thank you very much,

Me

Even when "diagonal reading", human eyes tend to focus on the beginning and end of paragraphs and lines. So, by putting your most important points in there, it is less likely that they would be overlooked.

  • Yes, but put the requested action first! Follow with everything else. – user3067860 Oct 26 '17 at 19:17
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I've said this before and I'll say it again - phone. If you have this secretary's number, or even his number, phone it. He won't begrduge you for being proactive in the situation.

I have done this before when chasing a reference after waiting a few weeks with a deadline approaching. I phoned the supervisor in question and she provided it within 24 hours.

Definitely be proactive. It's more likely to gain respect from him/them rather than thinking you're some kind of academic irritant for getting what you need.

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