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Ghosting is well known in online dating: after exchanging messages and perhaps even meeting in person, a person disappears forever, sinking into the online abyss. But it doesn’t just happen in the world of romance. It can happen in science too.

Being professionally minded, I know how emotionally devastating this experience can be. Lack of information can be stressful.

If a person makes it clear that they don’t want to or can’t work with you anymore, you can face rejection and move on. But the ambiguity of ghosts can haunt you.

I’ve been funny twice recently, in quick succession. In the first case, I turned to an expert in an advanced methodological field that was complementary to my own field, business and health ethics and leadership. I asked if we could collaborate and we discussed three projects that we will start working on immediately. At the initial Zoom meeting, my future self was enthusiastic and energetic.

I sent a follow-up email a few weeks later and heard nothing. I followed up after another week, and then a week after that, still no response. My ghost was active on LinkedIn: every day they published several posts and liked other posts. I also sent them a few messages on LinkedIn, which they read but did not respond to. None of my emails or messages were desperate or rushed – they were clear and professional questions about if and when we could start the projects we discussed.

I do not intend to send messages to this person again. Our cooperation is dead. No message received. But would it be too difficult to say, “Thank you, but I can’t work with you anymore,” and maybe briefly explain the reasons?

Another experience was with someone I met in person at a conference and then followed up online. We discussed opinion writing together and agreed that I would send a first draft – which I did, and then I heard nothing. I sent another email two weeks later, just in case my earlier one was buried in their inbox, and got no reply. I sent a final email a few months ago asking for their opinion on the first draft. So far there has been no response.


I have now accepted that my collaboration with these two spirits is unlikely to happen. Hurt feelings won’t go away completely, but I have a few tips to reduce the haunting feeling.

The first step is not to blame yourself. None of us know what the other person is going through—perhaps the spirit is dealing with the burden of stress. Maybe they thought they would respond to your messages later, but then the time never came, or your email got buried in their inbox under an avalanche of other messages. Or maybe they don’t want to work with you anymore and are trying to spare your feelings by not speaking directly. It’s impossible to know, so there’s no point in blaming yourself. They made the decision to take you in – but your reaction is entirely up to you.

If someone doesn’t respond to your messages, follow the “three strikes and you’re out” rule — don’t email them more than three times. And it’s important not to pick apart your messages, trying to figure out why they didn’t respond – their silence is their response, and there’s no need to play Sherlock when you’ll never get any real information.

To avoid feeling hurt and abandoned, mentally reframe the situation. Instead of thinking, “What did I do wrong here?”, start thinking, “I don’t really know what this person is going through.” Maybe it’s nothing I did.” Stop blaming yourself and move on. There are plenty of other potential collaborators to reach out to.

I try not to mislead anyone – if I have an existing or potential working relationship with another person, and I no longer want to work with them, I tell them politely but clearly. Being silent and not responding is neither clear nor polite, and it’s also incredibly disrespectful. If and when you get ghosted, exorcise the ghost by reframing your thinking and not placing unnecessary blame on yourself.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place where nature readers can share their career experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

By Editor

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