How to Tell Your Department About a Family Crisis–A Special Request Post

Today’s post is requested by Shane.  Shane wishes to know about the etiquette for academic workers in vulnerable positions–particularly adjuncts–to inform their departments about family crises that might impact their work.  For example, if a parent is dying, how do you ask for time away from your class without adversely affecting your standing in the department.

Now, The Professor is all about telling the truth.  And that means I tell the truth when I’m not an expert on a subject.  I’m not an expert on this subject.  I was never in this particular vulnerable position.  So I welcome perspectives from anyone about this subject, and ask you to post freely in the comments.  I’d like to learn more.

As a department head, I did have to manage, on occasion, graduate teaching assistants who had to leave their positions in mid-semester because of family crises.  What I expected in that situation was an email followed by a personal meeting–both of them as far in advance as possible, to give me time to handle the staffing adjustments that had to take place.

The email should read something like this:

Dear Professor XXX,

I am teaching XXX this semester, and the class is going well.  I appreciate the opportunity to teach in the department.

Unfortunately, I am writing today because of an urgent issue that has arisen, that may impact the class.  It is a family issue, and I would appreciate meeting with you in person to discuss this at the earliest opportunity.

Thank you,


Prior to the meeting with the Head, it would be wise for the adjunct to make her best efforts to find a replacement herself for the class periods she is going to need to miss.  Anything she can accomplish to lessen the hassle for the Department Head to scramble around looking for a replacement mid-semester is going to endear her enormously to said Department Head.   It will build the good-will upon which you depend.  Be aware that the Head cannot, most likely, legally accept a kind offer of “volunteer labor” by the adjuncts’ friends in the department, beyond one or two class meetings.  Chances are, new contracts will have to be drawn up to account for the shifting assignments.  But the true hassle for the Head is in finding a warm body to put in front of the class.  If the adjunct can handle that part, she’s going to enjoy far better standing with the Head.

In the meeting with the Head, explain the circumstances as calmly and unemotionally and BRIEFLY as possible, and explain what exactly you need.  Apologize ONE TIME only –“I’m so sorry to cause this inconvenience to the department mid-semester” and do not apologize again.  Thank the Head for any accomodation possible.  And then leave.   Follow up with an email thanking the Head again, and communicating your exact departure date, etc.

I cannot anticipate how humane and flexible your particular Head or Chair will be.  I know that I always worked with my TAs to accomodate their personal family needs.

The point I want to emphasize in this post is this:  do not grovel!  do not be a supplicant!  do not walk in apologize up and down and sideways for how “unprofessional” and “inconvenient” your request is, and “what an imposition” you are causing for the department, and to “please forgive” this hassle.  You are a human being and you and your needs are entitled to respect!

Women—hear me now!  The more you demand this respect, the more you will get it.  EVEN when you’re in a marginal status.  The fact is, if you act like a supplicant, you’ll be treated like a supplicant, and disrespected.  Walk in with healthy self-respect, and the Head will likely “stand down” and stop with (or at least modulate) the attitude.

At the risk of totally unacceptable over-generalizaton, WOMEN DON’T SEEM TO GET THIS.   Women graduate students and young faculty, in my experience, seem to think that if they just apologize enough, they’ll play on their superior’s emotions to be given special dispensation to slip by unnoticed.  NO!  It’s the opposite!  The more you apologize, the more you irritate the person in charge.  You are wasting their precious time. Stop apologizing and stand up for yourself and your needs.

In summary:  Be quick to anticipate the problem.  Do not wait until the last minute, if it’s a crisis that can anticipated (understanding that not all can), schedule the meeting early, take the steps in your power to solve the Head’s problem yourself, be courteous and brief, do not apologize more than once, and follow up with a clear statement of your plans.

With these steps, you maximize your chances for a humane and positive interaction with the department.
Now, readers—let me know about your experiences.  I’d like to hear them.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


How to Tell Your Department About a Family Crisis–A Special Request Post — 7 Comments

  1. Great post, Karen, with excellent advice.

    I’ll say this for many family/health crises: they do have a way of dissolving the self-doubt and fear that can otherwise complicate these negotiations. When one is coping with the suffering of a loved one, composing the “here’s what I need to make it through the semester” pitch becomes a lot easier, even for someone who would never dream of asking for, say, a raise, or a better teaching assignment. (Of course, picking up the wreckage of one’s career in the aftermath of such a crisis is another matter–a topic for another post?)

    • Thanks Kirstin. What I’m hearing on the twitter-streets though, is that many adjuncts’ position is so vulnerable that they are actually refraining from telling their departments about these urgent personal crises–even deaths in the family. I think it depends on how marginal someone is financially, and how dependent on the income, and how dysfunctional their particular department is. All variables that it’s difficult to generalize about.

    • OK, good. Thanks, Stacey!

      But I am sure that there are folks out there who have some horror stories about this kind of thing, and I want to be sure I account for all the ways this can go wrong, and not give too rosy an impression of these conversations, where it’s not warranted!

  2. This is excellent advice, and my experience backs it up. I notified the Adjunct Coordinator of my Dad’s illness at the beginning of the semester, so when he was admitted to the hospital, they were prepared. She also gave me good advice on handling it with my class, helped me get through grading papers, and added me to her prayer list (which was very comforting). It was a bad situation, but having their support made it easier. I think the advance notice helped with the logistics, so that they could give me additional emotional support. One less thing to worry about. Good advice, Karen.

    • I’m glad to hear that, Melissa. I’m glad that your experience was also a good one (well, as good as something like that can be).

      One thing that occurs to me is that I have personally been through some very painful family crises that needed accomodation at my job, and that certainly has played a role in making me feel compassion and understanding for anyone else who is there in that place. People in positions of power who have NOT had that experience, though, are often highly driven and judgmental about anything they view as “failure” or “diminished productivity” (as, frankly, to be honest, I used to be before life brought me low!) and that can turn into abusiveness really fast. I saw it in other administrators I knew.

  3. I am a GTA and I went through a similar situation recently. To add to my marginal status I am an international student and I needed to request leave for at least 2 weeks to go back home in order to attend a once-in-14 years religious ceremony at my in-law’s. The problem clearly was that this wasn’t the kind of crisis you’ve mentioned above but at the same time, it was for me. Given my really conservative but otherwise nice in-laws & that this is once-in-14 years kind of thing,if I didn’t go things would get really messed up personally with them for the rest of our lives. Anyway, I requested leave approx. 8 months in advance but ended up apologizing too much. the HOD is nice generally but he clearly didn’t get what the crisis was about and so things weren’t pretty. I have been assured of being accomodated but not before some “this is totally unprofessional & unacceptable” emails. Did you have some advice for situations like this? And esp. for international, married, female students for whom crises are often more complicated than illnesses & deaths in the family? Would really appreciate any words of advice. Thanks.

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