Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

It's Late: How to Communicate After the Deadline

So, the unwanted thing has happened. You told someone that something would be in by X day, or at Y time, and the appointed hour has come and gone. So now you have some choices. 

You can:



  • work as hard as you can (reasonableness be damned!) to try and get it done ASAP so you can turn it in before anyone notices it's late. 
  • decide on a new deadline, focus on that one, tell people if they ask you about it.
  • hide forever and hope no one misses you. 

A missed deadline or two during grad school probably won't derail you - life happens to everyone, paper draft or not. But a pattern of missed deadlines, and perhaps even more so, a pattern of no communication about missed deadlines, can be a serious professional stumbling block. So, what do you do? Here are a few ways to move during a situation like this that can both reduce your anxiety and let you weather the setback, professionalism intact. 

  1. If you know that you're going to miss the deadline, or there's even a chance that you might, communicate that as clearly and quickly as you can.
    1. For example, if you're going to be late returning grading to your students, you could say: "Hey folks, Due to unforeseen circumstances, I will not be able to return your graded midterms by Wednesday. I expect to have them back to you by Friday. If this doesn't work for you, let me know."
    2. Or if you're emailing your advisor expecting a draft: "Dear Dr. {x}, I unfortunately have become delayed in the revision process. I now expect to have the draft to you by Tuesday, May xx. Thank you for understanding, and I'll be in touch with any further changes to the schedule." 
  2. If you've already missed the deadline, acknowledge it and update the timeframe. 
    1. To students, expecting grades: "Thank you for your patience, students, the grading for the Shakespeare papers has taken longer than I expected. I am aiming to have your papers back to you tomorrow, and will be available in office hours as normal." 
    2. To an advisor, waiting on a draft: "Dear Dr. X, My apologies for the late chapter. [Do you need any help? Here's a great place to say that you're missing a source, or struggling with a specific experiment!] I am working to have the draft to you on Friday, May 7th, but will communicate any further changes as soon as I'm aware of them." 

A few things to note about the writing of these updates. Many students, especially female ones, are conditioned to apologize, sometimes to excess. I read this comic, suggesting that you replace "sorry" statements with "thank you" statements: 


If a draft is late, an apology might be warranted - people use deadlines as a way to measure and plan their time, and missing that timeframe can have an impact on their scheduling. But, framing it as an acknowledgement of the disruption, and thanking someone for being kind/accommodating/patient towards you still acknowledges the disturbance, but feels more empowering. Try it! 

But most of all, I encourage clients to view their deadline-based work and the people who expect it as a "work-product ----> boss" situation. If you were a worker in an office, and you said you'd finish something by Tuesday, and now it's Friday, you'd expect some consequences for that, especially if you haven't communicated about the delay. Just because the structure of academia is a little looser doesn't mean that there will never be consequences for late work - communicating clearly and kindly about delays when they happen will help you feel more professional, and more in control, when and if delays happen.