How do I repair my relationship with my job reference?
January 6, 2009 9:09 AM   Subscribe

My grad school professor would be an important job reference, but I screwed up our relationship. How do I repair it?

I was a research and teaching assistant to this professor and she spoke highly of me to others in the department. I graduated in May 2007 and she offered me a short-term project with her consulting company. I started it, and then a confluence of events happened (death of a close family member, moving out of state, relationship problems). I was overcome with depression and anxiety, and did not finish the project. Basically I left her and her client hanging. I didn't return phone calls or emails. I never charged them for any of the work (which was 80+ hours), and I don't know what happened to the project.

I was unemployed for six months and after several half-hearted attempts to find jobs in my field, I took an unrelated job that is frankly beneath me. I've been on medication for my mental health issues and am doing much better on that front. I really want to get back into my field, but I'm afraid I've burned my bridges with this professor, and I don't know how to approach the situation after all this time has passed.

She is a crucial reference for me because she is well-known in my field and well connected in my current city of residence. There are other professors that I could contact, but she has undoubtedly told them what happened (she told everyone when another TA became unreliable). I really did not network enough when I was in grad school, and I did a similar thing at an unpaid internship (disappeared and left them hanging) that also would have been a good reference. What can I do? This is paralyzing me with fear and stopping my job search.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Contact her. If you are close enough geographically, ask her if you can set up a time to talk. If you are not close enough, call and ask to speak either right then or set up a time to talk (even better if you can set up the time to talk with an assistant). Apologize, explain what was going on with you. Don't overexplain but don't write it off either. Just be clear and forthcoming.

And then ask her if she would be willing to keep her eye out for opportunities for you. Ask her if she would be willing and able to give you a good reference (don't skip this step, you really want to know what she'll say about you). I know it's scary to ask straight out like this, but you have to know. If she understands and is willing, great. If not, well, at least you know where you stand.

The good news, and something that took me forever to figure out, is that people in more or with more experience spend a lot less time thinking about those with less experience or power than the other way around. This can be jarring to learn, but is also a big relief in cases like this.
posted by lunasol at 9:19 AM on January 6, 2009

Oh, and when it comes to explaining: the family stuff (and perhaps the mental health issues, depending) are appropriate to bring up, but I'd leave out the relationship stuff. Talking about your awful boyfriend/girlfriend won't win any respect.
posted by lunasol at 9:21 AM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

IAAP, although IANYP.

1) As lunasol says, it's doubtful that she's spent the past few months grinding her teeth over you. That leaves you free to get on with both an apology and your life.

2) Write a polite letter, explaining what went wrong, what steps you've taken to correct your problems, and what your plans are for the future. Be professional in tone; don't grovel. Don't detail personal issues.

3) However. If I were this P, I would almost certainly not feel comfortable writing a letter of rec for you, and you need to be realistic about what to expect here. By apologizing and reestablishing contact, you may be able to get her in your corner in terms of bringing your name up in conversation, informal recs for jobs, etc. But you also admit that you completely vanished. That didn't just make you look unprofessional--it also made her look unprofessional in front of a client. And coming up with a valid excuse several months later isn't as helpful as coming up with a valid excuse at the time. You do not want a "Mr./Ms. X was a fine graduate student who wrecked a consulting project, but I'm sure she's got it all together now" letter in your file. Not unless there's concrete, work-related proof that you have indeed got it all together.

4) Reestablish contact with your other professors, because she may not have gossiped about you as much as you think.
posted by thomas j wise at 9:37 AM on January 6, 2009

I think honesty is the best course of action here. I recommend sending her a letter (or call/visit her if you feel comfortable doing that) explaining forthrightly what happened from your point of view. You don't have to go into intimate detail about your mental health, but it sounds like you owe here some kind of explanation. I wouldn't guarantee that she will want to write you a reference letter after that (it partly depends on her own experience with mental health issues), but I'm pretty sure you'll feel better afterward. If she is reasonably compassionate and informed, I think it is likely that she will be willing to write you a letter of reference, given that she thought highly of your work in the past.

The behavior where you didn't contact your advisor after leaving sounds very familiar to me, along with describing this situation as "paralyzing" and "stopping your job search" - I've had a bit of experience with avoidance reactions - it can be pretty self destructive. You may want to talk to someone to try to work out how to...erm....avoid avoidance. Good luck.

PS: You might consider asking for the letter of recommendation in person - it's a nice touch. Also, if you ask for the recommendation at the same time you explain/apologize, it might seem a bit contrived. Perhaps you should explain, wait for a reaction, then ask for the recommendation. Not sure about that.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 9:37 AM on January 6, 2009

I agree that it's not a good idea to ask for a recommendation from this professor. To recommend someone involves basically vouching for their skills and professionalism--it's not just a favor you're asking her for, you're asking her to put her own name on the line. However, I think it would be a really good thing for you to re-establish contact; if nothing else, as you start a career in your field, it's better to have her as someone who feels neutrally towards you, rather than someone who will always think of you flaky. Taking the big, big step of apologizing for your lapse removes a lot of the flaky impression, I think, even if it might not be enough for her to feel comfortable putting her name on a recommendation.

Plus, asking for a recommendation or job help at the same time as apologizing will come off as self-serving, not a true apology. First you need to set this right; after that, if she indicates a willingness to stay in contact, I think you might ask for advice or even job leads a month or two down the road. But definitely not at the same time, and I'd strongly discouraging asking outright for a recommendation.

To get back in contact, I'd send her an email or call her on the phone--choose whichever one you think you'll be able to handle better; there's a lot to be said for doing this on the phone (or even in person!), but if you're going to get really nervous and babble or meander or cry or make her feel uncomfortable, it's probably better to do it by written word. I'd go for something like this:

"Dear Prof. X: This is anonymous. I am contacting you because I owe you a sincere apology. I'm acutely aware of the awful position I put you in when I disappeared off the face of the earth last June, while working for you and client. That flaky behavior is very unlike me, and I've been very troubled by it every time I think of it. In [June?], a close family member died and I began dealing with some medical issues. It's only in the past month that I've begun putting my life back together, living in [nearby city]. Although I know there's probably not anything I can do at this point to make it right, I did want to let you know that I am truly sorry for the embarrassment and inconvenience I caused you."

If your professor is open to forgiving you, you've left the door open for her to inquire about where you're working (answer: I'm currently looking for work, the economy is not so great, but I'm hopeful I can find something in the field) or how you're doing. This is unfortunately the sort of thing where you need to apologize and wait for her to accept the apology or offer help rather than being able to go straight in and ask for her assistance.
posted by iminurmefi at 9:59 AM on January 6, 2009 [4 favorites]

If it were me, I would be more open to a letter of apology and explanation, and a request to meet again, to seek her advice on moving forward in your chosen field -- but not a request for a letter of recommendation.


Both are clearly requests to do you a favour, but to me the request for advice or just to chat about the prospects in the field at this time makes the favour seem more personal, more directed at her knowledge, and not at some need that anyone in her shoes could fulfill.

It is also less pressure than a letter. A letter could be used in all sorts of capacities; her advice stays with you. As easy_being_green pointed out in another tread, by meeting with her, you give her the chance to see that you are not the person who abandoned her work -- that you have it together.

In fact, if you have since learned to manage whatever mental health issue you might have or encounter in the future, you might add that to any request for help. I would hesitate to spend time or risk my name for someone who might leave someone else in the lurch.

In short, don't go for the recommendation letter. Don't make that your goal. Make the goal to demonstrate to this person that you are not the person who flaked out (for good reason) but rather, you are the person who did the great work that motivated the professor to hire you in the first place.

After you've done that, maybe you'll need to ask for the letter, or maybe things will start to fall into place some other way.

Best of luck!
posted by girlpublisher at 10:05 AM on January 6, 2009

That flaky behavior is very unlike me, and I've been very troubled by it every time I think of it.

The problem with this line, iminurmefi, is that the OP states in their question, "I did a similar thing at an unpaid internship (disappeared and left them hanging) that also would have been a good reference".

anonymous, Considering that you've done this twice in two important job situations I suggest you find another line of work and establish credible work history. You didn't just drop the ball, you disappeared from a project and refused to "return phone calls or emails" -- and then you did it again. I'm sorry that you feel like your current job is beneath you. But I am not sure I agree.
posted by kate blank at 10:08 AM on January 6, 2009

Unfortunately I'm going to have to agree with kate blank. Dropping off the face of the earth and not returning emails/calls is about the most unprofessional thing you can do, even in a family crisis/depression situation, an email response explaining the situation and even withdrawing from the project only takes a few minutes at the most. A reply to a direct question like "where are you?" is mandatory. You should call and apologize or explain what happened, but unless you're willing to keep in contact for a long period of time and really repair the damage, I wouldnt expect a rec letter any time soon.
posted by T.D. Strange at 10:36 AM on January 6, 2009

Frankly, it sounds like you don't deserve a positive reference. You've got worse problems than the lack of a reference: you lack basic responsibility. You still even now don't know what happened to the project? Take some responsibility. Forget about using her as a reference. It will never happen. Decide whether you want to apologize and make it up to her genuinely. But forget about ever getting a reference from her. You have no right to even think of it.
posted by peter_meta_kbd at 11:54 AM on January 6, 2009

Another professor here. Sadly I agree that a reference is likely out of the question, and even sadder I agree with the harsh words above.

Others above have suggested setting up a meeting or a phone conference. I disagree strongly. E-mail her. Even an announced visit or phone call from you may be the last thing she wants to spend her time on. Plus you have no way to gauge her reaction and it might not be pretty.

Ideally you would be reestablishing contact in order to apologize for your past actions rather than to leverage your relationship into a job that is not "beneath you." Even if your motivations were "pure," that is no-strings-attached apology, I say use e-mail.

E-mail gives her the decision-making power to contact you or not. Be prepared for silence or harsh words. But there is great value in reestablishing contact on the off chance she pass on informal leads at some point.

After you've sent this first e-mail apology, wait two weeks and begin contacting other professors you knew. Ask for recommendations. I'd be shocked if they included gossip about your flakiness in their letters.

Finally, please reconsider, with your mental health provider, whether you should pursue work in this field. No work is "beneath" anyone. That comment alone suggests you come from a certain privileged background. Coupled with what you have written here, hard work in an intense work environment, however glamorous in your mind, does not sound like a good match for you.
posted by vincele at 12:18 PM on January 6, 2009

You need to suck it up and apologize. You should do so just because it's the right thing to do.
You can ask if there's any way she could still write you a positive reference, but you should expect that the answer will be no.

She may be willing to do you some sort of smaller favor, though, such as recommend an event at which you could network with potential colleagues or give you the name of someone who may be willing to give you an informational interview or the like.
posted by desuetude at 12:23 PM on January 6, 2009

kate blank is right.

If you get paralyzed with fear - look, it sounds like this is your current state, but it happened before when you left your two internships with no explanation, didn't it? I've done this myself (not lately, but a while ago when, in fact, I was in graduate school and depressed and overwhelmed). The fear that they won't understand when you explain what's happening just compounds with the fear that they'll be upset because you haven't contacted them in a timely manner.

Since this seems to be repeating itself, I think you should step back and take a break. Give yourself credit for graduating, that is very hard, but.. you aren't owed a recommendation if you haven't earned it. You should stick with the job that is beneath you, make sure you do well and are reliable, and then bit by bit, connect with people in your field and you can build that credibility...
posted by citron at 12:26 PM on January 6, 2009

This article may help somewhat (although it's aimed more at graduate students and their dissertation writing), if only to assure you that it is not unusual. Re-establish contact, apologize, and (if you are serious about getting back to work in your field), offer to do anything you can to make up for the fallout. Depending on the kind of project it was, it may in fact still be hanging around. If not, it will still be good to re-establish positive contact with her, although I agree that you should not expect an outright recommendation.
posted by carmen at 12:36 PM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

The last several posters are completely correct, and I say that as someone who has flaked out of a variety of projects due to emotional health issues. Don't even think about asking for a letter. You most definitely should get in contact and apologize, but it doesn't come close to changing the fact that you grossly mishandled a critical situation. While it sounds harsh, it doesn't really matter that you were dealing with depression and anxiety at the time — what does matter is that you didn't produce when expected to.

Why do you feel that your current job is beneath you? Because you're not given a significant amount of responsibility or expected to work independently? Well, you don't seem to have a history of demonstrating responsibility so no offense, but you're exactly where you deserve to be.

Finally, please reconsider, with your mental health provider, whether you should pursue work in this field. No work is "beneath" anyone. That comment alone suggests you come from a certain privileged background. Coupled with what you have written here, hard work in an intense work environment, however glamorous in your mind, does not sound like a good match for you.

I don't entirely agree with this. If you have indeed tackled and overcome the issues that caused you to flake out in the first place, you need to start establishing a consistent record of responsibility and integrity. It doesn't matter what field you're in or how low-end your job is, being a hard worker is highly valued.
posted by thisjax at 12:43 PM on January 6, 2009

Hummm....I have to disagree with some of the responses - if the OP was really "overcome with depression and anxiety", I think they deserve a chance to make it right, and depending on the details, I would expect the professor to give them that chance.

Mental illness is not carte blanche for all behavior, but in some cases (I can't say if this is one of them), contacting that professor during a period of severe depression and anxiety could be just as hard for this person as walking to work would be for someone who is paralyzed.

Just a little counterpoint.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 5:14 PM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hummm....I have to disagree with some of the responses - if the OP was really "overcome with depression and anxiety", I think they deserve a chance to make it right, and depending on the details, I would expect the professor to give them that chance.

But a letter of rec is not about giving someone a chance; it's about honestly evaluating what that person has already done. There's a line between putting the most positive spin possible on an applicant and making unprovable claims about him. For example, if the poster were to come to me and show me that s/he has not only fixed all the personal issues, but also has proven himself/herself in some area of responsibility (in the field, in managerial work, in whatever), then I could honestly write "X has had some issues in the past, but his/her recent performance [concrete example here] demonstrates that s/he has successfully overcome these problems." (Add more positive observations about candidate's determination to succeed, etc.) If there's no concrete example, then I'm stuck saying the equivalent of "X showed promise as a graduate student, but disappeared during a consulting job. S/he promises that all of her personal issues have been solved." That? Major red flag to any employer. In fact, the poster will improve his/her chances by dealing with a professor whom s/he hasn't already antagonized. It doesn't improve the applicant's profile at all if the professor's letter is half-hearted, no matter how famous she is.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:00 PM on January 6, 2009

But a letter of rec is not about giving someone a chance; it's about honestly evaluating what that person has already done.

I suppose that's true - I guess my comment would more apply to a situation where the OP were asking to be re-employed by the professor, rather for a letter of recommendation about previous performance.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 7:39 PM on January 6, 2009

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