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January 21, 2009 10:06 AM   Subscribe

How do I get accepted to a top-notch Ph.D. program without having academic recommendations?

I'd really like to get my Ph.D. in organizational developement and leadership (either from a business slant or a psychology slant), but have a bit of an issue obtaining recommendations from professors.

I have an MBA from Thunderbird School of Global Management. It's small, but fairly well-known within its niche and has an outstanding reputation and rankings. However, I did all of my course work via a pilot distance program, where 90-95% of my coursework was asynchronous delivery via online learning.

As such, although I communicated with the profs via discussion boards and papers (the usual), they don't know me as well as some traditional students that sat in a physical location with them on-campus. I didn't expect to want to pursue a Ph.D., so I didn't specifically focus on developing a relationship with them like I (probably) should have in order to facilitate these types of requests. My grades were fine, but not stellar (since I was working full-time in addition to my studies), so I know I didn't wow anyone with my academic prowess. Additionally, my undergrad degree is in Philosophy (with a heavy emphasis on Religious Studies), so those profs aren't going to be able to comment on my ability to pursue a business/psych/sociology Ph.D.

So, what now, hive mind? How do I circumvent the need for recommendation letters? I've heard that if I can approach a prof who researches stuff that I'm interested in at a program that I'd like to enroll in and cultivate a relationship, they could make my candidacy sail through without the other recommendations. Is this true (I'm sure it varies from school to school, but as a general rule)? I'm sure it's more difficult at top-flight schools, but what are my chances? Any other way come to mind besides what I've mentioned above?
posted by jasondbarr to Education (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I forgot to mention that I've approached a couple of the profs that did know my name, and neither of them were too confident in being able to provide a good letter, due to "not knowing me well enough". So, not like I haven't tried to be conventional. :)
posted by jasondbarr at 10:08 AM on January 21, 2009


Although your question is how to circumvent the need for recommendation letters, I think you might have a much better shot at getting accepted to a program if you figure out ways to get the letters you need. To that end, take a few classes at a local or community college that relate to the degree you're interested in for the purpose of obtaining some academic references. It's not ideal, but it might be necessary. The letters of recommendation are often required not just by the program that you apply to but the general graduate college or school, and I imagine that getting around that requirement would be very difficult.

You could still ask undergraduate professors to write you recommendation letters, even if they're not in your field. The letters attest to your ability to do graduate-level work and don't necessarily have to be field-specific. You might also consider asking a former employer, especially if the job you did was related to the degree you're trying to earn.

You really will need academic recommendation letters, even if you are able to cultivate a stellar relationship with a professor in the program or programs that you are applying to. For example, what if that professor is not on the admissions committee? You have no way of knowing how much weight they might have in the acceptance process. Your application might never be considered if it is incomplete. I'd focus on getting a complete application ready to send in, even if it takes a bit of extra time and you have to hold off on applying for another six months or a year. Good luck!
posted by k8lin at 10:21 AM on January 21, 2009


Did you explain your situation to the profs that you asked? It could be much more difficult to get someone at the top-notch PhD school to look at your app with form-letter-ish recommendations than with none at all.
posted by originalname37 at 10:23 AM on January 21, 2009


Well, the purpose of reference letters with respect to a PhD is to demonstrate your capability to perform successful research. It is true that if you have a champion in the department it makes things much easier, but the only way I could see you skipping the recommendations is if that prof knows you well enough to vouch for your research ability (i.e. providing a reference for you). The only way he or she would do so, likely, is if you've actually done research with them. That makes it difficult.

Even asking 'how do I circumvent the need for recommendation letters' is a weird question to ask, because these letters are one of the most important parts of the application. It would be like trying to get a job without going through an interview. Instead you need to focus on how to get where you need to be. This might mean spending a year in preparation, finding a job as a research assistant to get you the experience (and references) you need.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:23 AM on January 21, 2009


because these letters are one of the most important parts of the application.

See, this is the kind of thing I need to know. I don't know the whole process, and to me the letters don't seem like "trying to get a job without an interview" (although, incidently, I've done that twice due to connections with people, which may be coloring my thinking). Are these truly (one of) the most important parts of the application process, or just ancillary?
posted by jasondbarr at 10:31 AM on January 21, 2009


First off, there is a big difference among the types of programs that you are discussing. It would be good to get a handle on what grad programs interest you before you hunt down letters. If you want to study leadership, business schools generally have strong interest in the field, but scholars who study leadership tend to divide into psychology and organizational behavior approaches (rooted in sociology), though there are also economists and historians at business schools with the same interest. Generally, we would say that the phenomenon that you are interested in is leadership, but you will need to study it from a discipline (sociology, OB, psych) and using a particular set of methods (ethnography, experiments, large-sample datasets). Deciding among these approaches, or at least thinking about them, will go a long way to showing schools you are serious and helping you find letter writers. And yes, the letters are important.

You may want to check out this business PhD discussion board for better answers.

And, as for leadership scholarship, you may want to look at the work of Victor Vroom (Yale), and the MIT Sloan Leadership Model to see some of the work that could be of interest.
posted by blahblahblah at 10:35 AM on January 21, 2009


What I have heard (I'm in English, it might be different for your field) is that good letters won't get you accepted without a strong application built around them, but that the lack of any good letters can take you out of consideration quickly.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:36 AM on January 21, 2009


It's a red flag if your Thunderbird profs decline to write a rec for you. Presumably they don't know any of their students that well, given that it's a distance program. Not knowing you well may be a polite way of conveying to you that they don't think you're cut out for a prestigious phd program, especially since you say your work didn't wow anyone.

A candid conversation with them is in order. But you have to be prepared for an honest answer. They will tell you whether they think you are capable of doing the phd in that field, and what schools you should aim for.

Someone may be better able to speak to your particular field, but you've got to have academic recommendations.

You should contact your professors from your undergrad days. Explain your career path and remind them what classes you took with them. If you still have papers you wrote for them lying around, offer to send them those.

You'd be better off with recs from professors who teach in an established program rather than in a pilot distance program anyway, no matter how many years have passed since you graduated, and no matter how unrelated it is to the field you're in now.

Or did undergrad professors decline to write recs? Can you clarify your follow-up comment?
posted by vincele at 10:42 AM on January 21, 2009


Truly important. Letters for a doctoral application are essentially certification of your credentials as a potential member of the tribe in your field: "jasondbarr is someone I think would represent our field well, do interesting research, and foster his future students in the same way." In smaller fields, letters are also letters of introduction - for example, my field is small enough that the members of my doctoral committee equal about 10% of people doing active research. A letter (or, more importantly, the absence of a letter) from one of them would probably be a single point of failure or success. As PercussivePaul says, the purpose is to demonstrate your research skills and potential. Your dissertation topic will be expected to contain an original contribution to the knowledge in your field, so programs generally don't accept people (on whom they will spend time, money, and intellectual support) who aren't a known quantity.

It sounds like you are interested in the end result - a PhD - but don't know much about what the process entails. You're not alone; the MBA experience, especially at an atypical school like Thunderbird, is not the same as an academic masters' program, and I have worked with MBAs trying to make that transition to research-based programs who find it baffling. You should spend some time looking at graduate handbooks for a variety of schools to see what the requirements are like; they are generally available online. Also, you mention a "business/psych/sociology PhD" - these fields are very different. Unless you are already focusing on specific cross-disciplinary programs that do these things, you might be well-served exploring the individual cultures of those fields a bit more before you decide.

[On preview, what Vincele said.]
posted by catlet at 10:47 AM on January 21, 2009


I'll put it to you this way. A PhD is always done under the work of an advisor who has maybe four to ten students. Because each student takes several years they will only take on a couple per year. Typically admission to the program will include an offer of funding so your tuition and living expenses are covered; funding is always very limited. When I stammered during an interview with a prospective prof once he put it like this (with a Texas accent that somehow made it worse): "Listen son. When I make a bet on a graduate student, it's a half million dollar investment. Now tell me something interesting."

Here you come with your good but not stellar grades and little else. The admissions committee is going to balance your potential against your risk: potential that you will excel and produce great research, and risk that you will not have what it takes, sputter, and leave the program. Your grades say very little about either. If they were stellar it might help, and if they were bad it would definitely hurt, but good grades are neutral, so you are still at zero. In order to see if the potential outweighs the risk the committee will look for prior research experience (especially if you've published), a capacity for structured thinking as shown by your admissions essay, and references from other academics who can assess your potential and your risk. I personally think the letters have the highest weight of the three because it is the only thing you can't really fake. Many many people can get good grades and write an essay (perhaps with help); the letter is the only component that provides personalized information about you that the committee can trust. An absence of letters throws you WAY into the "risk" category and rejection is a certainty. Make sense?
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:48 AM on January 21, 2009 [10 favorites]


Are these truly (one of) the most important parts of the application process, or just ancillary?

What I have heard (I'm in English, it might be different for your field) is that good letters won't get you accepted without a strong application built around them, but that the lack of any good letters can take you out of consideration quickly.


Having sat on my department's graduate admissions committee when I was in graduate school, I can confirm that this is the case in physics as well.
posted by Johnny Assay at 10:48 AM on January 21, 2009


@vincele - To clarify, Thunderbird is a small school that has been operating since the mid-1940's. About three years ago, they began to offer an MBA for distance learners, rather than full-time students who would study on-campus. Same courses, same profs (all with terminal degrees, etc.), different residency requirements and content delivery methods. As it was an MBA program for working professionals, I'm fairly confident that there weren't too many others in my program who were interested in pursuing a Ph.D. (as opposed to the on-campus students, who could potentially be looking for a Masters in International Management degree, which would lend itself more readily to further studies). This may be why the topic hadn't come up with these professors before. Or, it may have been, as you say, because I suck :).

Hadn't approached any of my undergrad professors; it's been over 10 years (good grief, it's almost 15 now that I think about it), so it would take some more digging for them than the profs I'd been in a recent program with.
posted by jasondbarr at 10:50 AM on January 21, 2009


Did you explain your situation to the profs that you asked? It could be much more difficult to get someone at the top-notch PhD school to look at your app with form-letter-ish recommendations than with none at all.

I said the opposite of what I meant. I meant to say: It could be much more difficult to get someone at the top-notch PhD school to look at your app with no recommendations at all than with form-letter-ish ones.

My point is that, having been on a grad-school admissions committee, I don't think an incomplete (short of the required number of recommendations) application would have even gotten through the department secretary to me. Whereas, if the application gleams in all other respects, a set of "I have no specific reason to believe this will be a bad student" recommendations can probably be overcome with an explanation.
posted by originalname37 at 11:08 AM on January 21, 2009


Still it's worthwhile to have the conversation with the professors at Thunderbird. They might be unprepared to write you a letter, having never encountered such a request before, but I think it's important for you to find out where you stand with them.

But if your instructors at Thunderbird have only masters-level training, they don't necessarily know what a phd program is about. You don't want them writing your letters. A close friend teaches at a reputable distance learning school confirms the large gap between MA and PhD instructors knowledge base about such things.

Letters from phd's will be taken a lot more seriously-- all the more reason to get in touch with your undergraduate professors. So do reestablish contact with them even though that much time has passed. It is part of their job to write recommendations, and it's not at all strange to have a request like that coming ten-fifteen years after you saw a student, nor would it look particularly odd to an admissions committee.
posted by vincele at 11:32 AM on January 21, 2009


To clarify, Thunderbird is a small school that has been operating since the mid-1940's. About three years ago, they began to offer an MBA for distance learners, rather than full-time students who would study on-campus.

If your professors are not willing to write recommendations for you, this is a HUGE problem with the Thunderbird MBA program that needs to be addressed, both with the school and with the professors. Presumably, because this is a pilot program, Thunderbird is open to input from you about how the program went. If the nature of student/faculty interaction is such that no professors know you well enough to write a rec, something is flawed in the education model.

So I think you should take a two-pronged approach:

(1) Talk to the profs again, and explain to them that you need meaningful recommendations. If they don't know enough about you, write a summary for them of your performance and experiences in their class that semester, including how you did on exams and summaries of your term-paper topics. If you meaningfully participated in an online discussion, give them a summary of that participation ("I was the student who argued that [x], while virtually everyone else took the position that [y]"). Once they have had a chance to review that summary, they may say their recollection is refreshed, and they can then provide a meaningful recommendation.

(2) If that "refreshed recollection" approach does not work, approach the administration. Tell them that while you were an active and successful participant in the program, your professors do not feel they know enough about you to write a recommendation. Stress to the administration that you desperately need recommendations, and ask for the administration's assistance in resolving this problem.

In closing, here's a little anecdote about my law school application process. I needed a recommendation from my college dean for several schools to which I applied. I didn't know the dean, I had never met the dean, and I was really puzzled about how the dean was supposed to write a letter. It turned out that the dean had delegated the writing of letters to the college pre-law advisor, whom I had also never met. I went to see the pre-law advisor, he asked me for my transcripts, resume, and LSAT score report. He told me I could pick up the letter the next day. The letter that he produced was complete bullshit --- it said he had known me for my entire law school career, that I was one of the top 1-2% of students he had ever encountered, etc. I was astonished.

So, if you explain to the administration how you need these recommendations, and they intervene with the professors, you may find that the professors suddenly remember a lot more about you than they currently do.
posted by jayder at 11:42 AM on January 21, 2009


Register as a special student at a university near you. Take some courses, ideally courses related to the PhD. programs you're interested in. Get to know your professors. Get letters from them.

Yes, it will take an extra year.

Letters are super important. Not just good letters (everyone has good letters), but outstanding letters. If you think there's grade inflation, you should read some recommendation letters and look at the inflation going on there. If recommendations letters were true, we would have pedestrian traffic jams on every waterway.

And they shouldn't just be great, they should also say the right things. Academics know what the right things are. Academics in the field you want to study will know best of all. Get to know these people so they can write you these fantastic letters. They cannot (not just will not, but it's not possible) for them to write you the kind of letters you need -- filled not just with praise but with specific examples -- if they don't know you well.

As for cultivating relationships, that's great and it can help you. But if you don't have letters in your file, there's a good chance that the department administrator (or the grad school administrator before your file even reaches the department) is going to send you a little postcard saying your application is incomplete and the admissions committee will never see your file. There may well be people who get in for reasons other than their application materials, but there aren't people who get in without application materials.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:50 AM on January 21, 2009


"Tell them that while you were an active and successful participant in the program, your professors do not feel they know enough about you to write a recommendation. Stress to the administration that you desperately need recommendations, and ask for the administration's assistance in resolving this problem."

Do not do this. You do not want a letter that some administrator required your professor to write. If the professor feels that they don't know you well enough to write a letter filled with specifics and exampls, then they will write you a vague letter without specifics or examples ("This student is in the top 1% of student's I've met." instead of "This student was the only one I've had in ten years of teaching who was able to immediately spot the flaw in using analysis technique X when analyzing clustered non-nested data.").

Yes, I've also gotten a letter from a dean I'd never met for a scholarship. The letter was based entirely on what I said to the dean about myself, I'm sure. But a required dean's letter is different. It's supposed to be basically "this is a good student." A graduate school admissions letter is supposed to be about what specifically your attributes as a good student are and how specifically the professor knows you to possess those attributes. That's how I was taught to write letters in graduate school. A letter stating simply "Student X is the most brilliant person I've ever met. She is creative and has wonderful research ideas, is a hard worker, meticulous and detail oriented while still keeping an eye on the big picture etc. etc." without specific examples of these qualities would not have gotten you past my admissions committee.

Professors are ethically bound to decline to write letters for students who they don't know well enough to write good letters for. If they say they don't know you well enough to write a letter then they probably don't. Go get to know people so you can get the letters you need.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 12:04 PM on January 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


I've heard that if I can approach a prof who researches stuff that I'm interested in at a program that I'd like to enroll in and cultivate a relationship, they could make my candidacy sail through without the other recommendations.

I'm a biology graduate student (in Canada), so mayhaps things are a bit different in my field/location, but what you describe here is somewhat applicable. When I applied to my program, I was really applying to work in my professor's lab, so it was essentially a job interview. If he approved of me (wanted to make the investment, as PercussivePaul put it earlier), then as long as I met the basic departmental minimums I was into the program. I don't know how other schools/fields necessarily work, but if you find a professor doing work that really interests you, and you make contact with them and explain the situation, and you impress them enough to want you to work with them. (That's a lot of ands) then they may be able to push your application through, but you would probably need to have some academic references, but it would then be less likely that they would hinder your application if they were relatively weak.

It's not easy at all, and frankly, if you're attempting to apply to a top-notch PhD program, then the competition will be fierce and you might not even get a chance to make a connection with a professor that is likely important, busy, and in demand.

Also, it's hard to get into a PhD program without either good marks or good references. Maybe if you can get some really good experience in the field, that would qualify you as well. Essentially, you need to show the department that you are capable of doing high-quality work in the field.
posted by dnesan at 12:37 PM on January 21, 2009


I am a professor at a business school and we actually met today to talk about admissions to our PhD program. What many of the people have said above is true, we do weigh letters from researchers very heavily. My approach when evaluating a candidate goes something like this:

1) I look at his/her test scores & grades. If they are good enough I keep looking. If they are bad, I stop. We have enough applicants with good test scores & good grades to avoid wasting my time on applicants with bad scores.

2) I read their statement of purpose. I am really looking for a couple of things. First, I am looking for whether they can demonstrate that they really understand what it means to get a PhD in business. Unlike other disciplines, a lot of people who apply to business PhD programs don't really understand that it is a research degree. They seem to think it is an advanced MBA program, or that it is training to be a teacher. Second, I look to see if they can articulate that they have some understanding of the field. I realize very few applicants to business PhD programs will have done any meaningful research, but I want to see if the person had done his/her homework. Can they demonstrate some knowledge of research topics in the field? Third, I look for some kind of fit between their interests and the faculty at my institution.

3) I then look at their letters of recommendation. The most important thing is who they are from. If they are not from professors, I often will not even read them. I know that all of the letters are going to be positive, so often the content is meaningless. I am looking for some indicator that a candidate has the capacity to be a top researcher. The only people who can really evaluate that are other top researchers. If a faculty member that I know and respect says that a person has potential, that carries a tremendous amount of weight.

So, letters of recommendation from researchers are very important. That being said, there are many applicants who are non-traditional who apply to business PhD programs. The better the school you apply to, the more important your letters will be. If you are really thinking of applying, it must be for next year. That gives you some time. What I would suggest, is for you to find the closest business school near you that has faculty who do research in an area that you are interested in. Approach some of the faculty members there about volunteering for them on a research project. Be upfront that you have a desire to pursue a PhD and that you are looking to build a relationship with them. Even just one good letter from a faculty member could make the difference. If you can convince them, that you can add value in some way, they are likely to respond in a positive way. Business school faculty are relatively resource-rich in comparison to other fields, but still can generally use help on data collection and analysis of their projects. Be willing to do whatever the faculty member wants, and this could help you. Good luck in the future.
posted by bove at 2:20 PM on January 21, 2009


I think you should talk to your undergraduate professors. Knowing you well, and being able to comment on your intellectual ability, motivation, creativity, etc., is more important than being in the right field...
posted by paultopia at 2:52 PM on January 21, 2009


You say that you might want to study leadership from the perspective of business, psychology, or sociology. That's a pretty wide range of possibilities. Here, then, is a suggestion that might help you figure out where you want to go and will take care of the letter problem as well:

Spend the next year working in a lab that's doing research you're interested in and taking a class or two (if you have the time or money.) Depending on your financial situation and on that of the PI, you might be able to work as a volunteer or (much better) you might be able to get a position as a research technician. You'll have a year to work on figuring out what you actually want to do, and during this year, you'll be forming relationships with your professors, your labmates, and the PI. You'll be able to use these people to provide rec letters - recent rec letters, written by academics in your field who have had a chance to see your academic and research styles. These letters will be waaay stronger than anything you might be able to beg from the Thunderbird folks or your long-ago undergraduate profs.

A note: dnesan's experience is not typical for science fields. In the much more common application process, you will apply to the department, and not to the school. There may be some professors you find particularly interesting - do say this! - and some professors may in turn find your background potentially suitable for their lab. However, you are admitted to the program, not to a particular lab. Labs are chosen either on the basis of extended presentations by the PIs and their grad students or after you've had a chance to spend several "rotations" in labs that interest you. Because of this, while it is certainly helpful to have a professor who is interested in you, you're not applying solely to join their lab. The decision process is broad enough that you'll still need to have a solid and complete app to get in.
posted by ubersturm at 4:30 PM on January 21, 2009


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