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Context: I am a nineteen-year-old sophomore at a small college who is studying science. The summer of my freshman year, I did a few months of research for a research mentor who works as a professor at the college. It was a great job and I'm happy that I did it. This year I work for a different professor and so this mentor is no longer my mentor or employer. Everything I have been doing for him now is only to present my research to the department and others.

The problem: This year, there was a seminar in the department to present the research of students who worked over the summer. It was a prelude to the larger conference later this year that I am planning to go to for certain. Unfortunately through a series of events that was beyond my control and which isn't relevant to this question, I missed going to this first seminar to present my research.

Obviously, I felt horrible about not living up to my promise to my mentor to go, so I emailed my mentor. I apologized, told him honestly why I had missed the event, explained that I was happy to make it up to him if there was another seminar or event I could attend instead, etc. etc.

His email in reply was... unpleasant. He said that I had broken my research contract, threatened to never write me a letter of recommendation again, threatened to also make sure no one else in the department wrote me a letter again ("did you think about that?"), said that no one would believe me, said I was making excuses, and so forth. He ended by asserting that I obviously don't care about any of this and that I could "believe whatever I wanted." It felt very vitriolic to me and I remember just sitting there in a state of shock reading this viciously worded email from a former mentor.

Now I don't know what to do. I don't recall that this seminar was explicitly in my research contract, but if it was, then I don't want him to accuse me of breaking my contract, which I know could have rather frightening legal consequences. I'm a young adult who's struggling financially (read: paying college tuition) and can't afford to hire a lawyer. The summer research was my first real full-time job, and he was my first real "boss." I have no idea how to resolve this situation because I have no experience with any of this. Have I made a more serious mistake than I thought? Was his response rational to the situation or was it as hostile and unreasonable as it seemed to me at the time? How do I resolve this situation in a way that doesn't do severe damage to my career?

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    Might be a better fit on academia.stackexchange.com. You can flag a mod to migrate. – paparazzo Nov 3 '18 at 16:44
  • It sounds bizarre. Immediately print the email and go physically to the officials (whoever that may be) at your university. Colleges are like McDonalds, you're a paying customer. – Fattie Nov 4 '18 at 7:26
  • Im wondering did you give a heads up to your mentor before the conference? Or you just went MIA? – Juan Carlos Oropeza Nov 5 '18 at 15:41
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Send that email to your university's ombudsman. Threatening you in that way is totally unacceptable. The professor's conduct goes beyond unprofessional.

  • Do you think I should? The response felt very aggressive and unprofessional, but at the same time I'm hesitant to make waves and I don't want to embarrass him further. The message might have been written in a moment of frustration. – Sciborg Nov 3 '18 at 16:40
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    Yes. If your professor is doing this to you, they are probably doing it to others as well. Dealing with young, inexperienced students is part of the job. There is no excuse for threatening you with such a massive overreaction. They are abusing their position and behaving incredibly immaturly. – Glen Pierce Nov 3 '18 at 16:47
  • @Sciborg I would give him a chance to cool down first. And hopefully a more tempered response. – paparazzo Nov 3 '18 at 17:17
  • Thank you both for the help, you helped me realize this was not the right way for a professor to talk to a young student. I definitely messed up, but his response was disproportionately hostile and threatening. I'll give him time to cool down and rethink, and if nothing changes I'll forward the email to someone in authority. I'll mark this answer as the most helpful, but I'll also try apologizing to him face-to-face as @paparazzo suggested. – Sciborg Nov 3 '18 at 21:57
  • Well, as an adult and professor, you might expect him to know already that answering impulsivey is generally a bad thing. So give him a few days to cool down, right, but don't expect too much to come out of it... – Laurent S. Nov 5 '18 at 7:52
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You don't have to disclose the series of events but maybe he did not find them believable or felt you did not make enough effort.

You embarrassed him in front of his colleagues.

I suggest you try and apologize again in person. Acknowledge you understand he is upset. Don't argue.

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    That's a good suggestion, thank you. I know he is upset and I will apologize to him in person as soon as possible. I have never been in this situation before so I am grateful you took the time to offer your advice. – Sciborg Nov 3 '18 at 16:35

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