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The worst professor April 18, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, grad school.
Tags: , ,

Between the fact that last Friday was the deadline for acceptances to grad school to decline or accept their offers and this post at Academic Jungle, I’ve been contemplating good and bad professors.  I’ll get to why grad school acceptances are relevant in a moment, but in the Academic Jungle post (or rather, the comments that follow), GMP and GEARS go back and forth about how common bad profs are.  GMP says most profs are not bad, and GEARS indicates that he thinks most are.

My experience is very mixed on this, but I’d like to share a bit about one of the worst of the bad profs I had to deal with.  He was actually a very nice person, and I worked for him for a year.  However, despite his being nice and being a good person to work with, he did two things that, had they not turned out well, could have seriously disrupted my career.

The summer before I finished my MS, I decided to apply to three doctoral programs.  As this person had been a supervisor of a research project, I felt he was the perfect person to write a recommendation on my behalf.  I gave him the forms a good six months before they were due as I was myself turning in my apps before the school year started.  As the summer came to a close, in late August, I checked the one school which had online information.  They had received two of my recommendations, but not the other one.  I stopped by the prof’s office.  He was planning to get them out at the end of the week he said.  I checked once or twice more through the semester, but his letter still hadn’t shown up.  After the holidays, about two weeks before the forms were due, I checked with him again.  Oh yeah, on their way out the door.  Two days before apps were due, one of the schools called and said it hadn’t come in.  I called him.  He was composing them, he said.  The applications came due.  Nothing.

I was fortunate that two of the schools not only considered the application without this prof’s recommendation but that they even went as far as to make me offers, one of which I accepted.  The other school called a year later, asking if I was still thinking about attending.  I have to admit that my was barely able to contain my laughter when I told them I was already attending another (much better rated) school.

I do realize now that I should’ve been wary when he still hadn’t submitted the letters two weeks beforehand.  I should’ve been hunting down another prof for the third recommendation, but I believed him when he said he had every intention of doing them.  And I’m sure he did…but he had no follow-through.

Unfortunately, this is not the worst thing that happened to me.  It turned out that this professor was on my MS committee.  On the day of my defense, he didn’t show up.  We waited for him for 20 minutes before my advisor got a hold of him via telephone.  The prof claimed that he thought the defense was on another day.  Fortunately, I had a larger committee than necessary for graduation, so we were able to proceed without him.  Had I not had an extra committee member, however, I probably wouldn’t have been able to graduate.

A couple weeks later, I was finishing up the final edits to turn into the grad school near one of the coffee shops on campus.  A couple of profs sat at a table near me, and they started talking about this particular professor/committee member of mine.  It sounds as if these sorts of behaviors I witnessed were not simply confined to me: apparently several people have had similar problems with him.

It helped knowing that this behavior was not exclusive to me, and I tried to console myself that most professors don’t behave this way.

While I still believe most don’t, I have unfortunately watched similar things play out with friends.  One friend, who is a brilliant researcher, decided not to get his PhD because his advisor would do absolutely NOTHING to help him or, for a while, acknowledge his existence.  It made me a little sick to see this person claiming credit for his student’s research (which won awards!) when he couldn’t be bothered to even have a meeting with him or read his thesis prior to his defense.  He left with a MS, but he was very angry about all of it.  And since then, I have seen more examples.

While this is not intended to claim that all professors are bad and careless, it is unfortunate that there do seem to be a good number of them.  I realize that professors like to see things from their colleagues perspective, and probably can better than any grad or undergrad student.  However, just as there are students who really care and those who don’t, there are also professors who fall various places along the continuum of professional behavior, and one shouldn’t be so quick to assume that because these stories come from students, they aren’t valid.



1. ARC - April 18, 2011

I think the whole issue is the amount of power the profs have over their grad students. Stuff like this happens in industry jobs, but fortunately we have the option to just go find another job if we get a crappy boss. Not so with grad school unless you want to start completely from scratch.


2. Miss MSE - April 18, 2011

My advisor is a milder version of the absentminded procrastinator: fortunately, if there is any sort of concrete deadline, he generally pulls through. It does make things very frustrating when there isn’t an external deadline, though.

I also agree with ARC that part of the problem is changing advisors often means going back to square zero. This is also compounded by funding issues, and research interests. It may be impossible to find another advisor who will enable you to continue on a tangential related topic, let alone continue the work you’ve already done.


3. GEARS - April 18, 2011

Regarding the LoR, after your Prof did not send one in a timely fashion (and a few reminders), you should have written one yourself and asked him to sign it. I did not run into this personally, but I have had colleagues do this (and it went fine).

I don’t think all Profs are bad. Rather, if they get a bad student, they are pretty jaded but their life goes on. However, if a good student gets a bad Prof, they get jaded and leave engineering completely (or don’t finish a PhD, etc). It’s definitely in the ratio of outcomes in the situation. The Prof can (in most cases) keep chugging along, albeit somewhat wary for future slacker students. But that one Prof can total screw the careers of 5-10 students on a whim and have no recourse.


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