I'm currently a second-year student at a CSU (California State University) double majoring in Political Science and History. I started getting involved with undergraduate research this year, and it has been super intellectually stimulating and fulfilling. I worked as a research assistant in the fall and began my own independent research study this spring semester. Everything was going great until the professor I was working under informed me two weeks ago (literally right before finals week) that I could potentially be receiving an authorized "incomplete" in her class. I was shocked to be hearing this, as I had been working so hard and slaving away at my research all semester. She told me that she needed to see a paper that summarized all my findings, and that it had to be at least 20 pages. I was overwhelmed to have had this huge assignment dropped on me at the very last minute, not because I was incapable or unwilling to do the work, but because the professor had failed to communicate the terms of the class clearly to me.
Because the class is an independent study, there is no syllabus, and I am the only student in the class. I assumed that, like any other course, my grade would be based on a semester's worth of work, not just one paper. Had known that my grade in the course would come down to just one paper, I would have started working on it MONTHS ago. Even if I would have known, however, it would have been difficult as I would not have had the data that I have now (my research involved an interview that I just recently obtained after months of reading).
With only two weeks to grind out a paper, I sat down and got ready to go to work. I sent her a draft of my paper this morning, and she informed me that I had a long way to go from getting an A, and advised me to take an incomplete, as if I were to turn in my paper as is, I would receive a B- in the course. I pleaded her for a few more hours to work on the paper, and was able to bring it up to a B. She again offered me the same options, B or incomplete with the guarantee that I would get an A in the course upon bringing the paper to A standards. I ended up taking the incomplete; as per university policy, the incomplete will be changed to the grade the instructor decides (in my case, an A) as long as I complete the work within one calendar year, with the caveat that there will be a footnote on my transcript that shows that the grade was an incomplete at some point. I took the incomplete as getting an A in this course would boost my cumulative GPA from a 3.8 to a 3.85, while taking the B would have kept my GPA stagnant at a 3.8.
Obviously I have legitimate grounds to stand on for having an incomplete grade, and I would hope that law school admissions would understand how the nature of research can prevent someone from meeting an institutional deadline, especially when they are dealing with studying human subjects and matters that they cannot manipulate in a lab. I would definitely write an addendum explaining the incomplete, and this would be the only potentially sketchy thing on my application so far (no Ws or anything like that).
Basically, where do I go from here? Are my chances at the tippy top schools going to be diminished? Again, I will definitely have a 3.85 by the end of this year, and will hopefully be able to raise it a bit before it comes time to apply. I'm thinking of contacting the Dean of my college to complain as well, as I cannot imagine a scenario where it is acceptable or fair to drop a huge assignment on a student right before the end of the semester and base their entire grade in a course on it when the terms of grading in the class were never explicated by the professor.
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First, calm down. You have a GPA of 3.8 even if you just get a B. That puts you between the 25th percentile and median at Harvard with two years of undergrad to further boost your GPA. Second, reasonable people should understand your situation. Even if everything was communicated to you upfront, research delays happen. Third, maybe talk to an adviser of some sort before going to the dean, if you have such resources available. Finally, before you talk to anybody, check every possible corner of the university/department web sites to make sure there are no universal requirements for this type of research. You don't want to walk into a meeting with the dean only to be told that all independent research requires a paper and directed to some web page.