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August 22, 2009 8:55 PM   Subscribe

How do older students get into grad school?

I'm 7 years out of college now and I'm thinking of going back to school to eventually get my doctorate. The thing is, when you're this far removed from college, how do you get prof recommendations to get into grad school? I barely remember them, who the heck knows if they remember me? How do people normally go about this?

Do you just email the prof and say 'hey do you remember me, could you write a rec for me?"
posted by CwgrlUp to Education (17 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Do you really need a professor's recommendation?

All the grad school apps I've looked at say that if you've been out of school X number of years (usually between 5 and 10), you can substitute professional recommendations for academic ones.

Call the admissions office of the schools you're interested in. Tell them you doubt you can get a prof's letter, and ask what they'd take instead.
posted by Netzapper at 8:59 PM on August 22, 2009

Call the admissions office of the schools you're interested in. Tell them you doubt you can get a prof's letter, and ask what they'd take instead.

graduate admissions in the US is almost always done at the departmental level. I would contact the "graduate program director" (there will be some committee which handles admiissions) at the departments you would like to apply to, explain your situation, and ask them what they would like see.

The thing about recommendations is that unless the admissions committee is familiar with the people writing your recommendations they really don't carry a lot of weight, unless they finger you as an axe-murderer. From what I am familiar with, the committee will want to see that you have good grades and will probably be prejudiced against you if your undergradute school is considered to be not especially challenging or they'v enever heard of it. After that, if they're not used to older students it's pretty much a crap-shoot what they'll latch onto the accept you or deny you. Also, if your subject GRE scores are low they will probably not pay much attention to your application.

But again, send an email to the department and see what they say. If you don't look good on paper, persistence, at a local university where you can show up in person, sometimes works.
posted by geos at 9:08 PM on August 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

May depend on subject area, but in humanities PhD programs what you want is letters attesting to your ability to do academic work in the area in question. Professional letters won't really help so much here. (Though of course call the programs you are interested in and ask. For eg a philosophy PhDs that would mean calling the philosophy department office, since there's no university wide graduate admissions office; admissions are handled in-house by each department.)

Do you have your old papers? If so you can send copies of the papers to the profs with your email asking if they would feel comfortable recommending you for graduate study. In any case you'll want to email them and explain your situation, remind them what courses you took with them, any special things that happened or what topics you wrote on, and what grade you got. They will have some records of this stuff too, at least the final grade and maybe the breakdown by individual assignments. They will want to help if they can, so you'll want to think about how you can give them stuff to work with in writing a letter for you. (eg what specific things you're interested in working on and why)
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:11 PM on August 22, 2009

I'd recommend taking a class or 2 to get some letters from professors. If you can take a university-level class in your field all the better.

Livejournal's applyingtograd community may get you some more feedback than here FWIW.
posted by k8t at 9:11 PM on August 22, 2009

Also consider doing an MA first. You'll find it is easier to get into and your app overall will be stronger.
posted by k8t at 9:15 PM on August 22, 2009

Like LobsterMitten said (great username, btw), humanities programs will likely need academic recommendations, and his or her suggestions for getting those recommendations are great. If it's a program in a professional discipline, you may be OK with recommendations from high-level colleagues with whom you've worked very closely. This worked for me in a Master's program in education, but it's hard to say without knowing more about the program and/or institution.
posted by dayintoday at 9:27 PM on August 22, 2009

IAAGraduateCoordinator, but IANYGC.

We have a lot of students in this particular boat. Here are the usual suggestions:

1) A regional comprehensive like mine, with a terminal MA program, will be more charitable about non-academic letters of rec than a Ph.D. program.

2) Bearing that in mind, as LobsterMitten says, if you want refs from your undergrad profs, you need to have paperwork. A good reference will be *specific,* as opposed to "oh, she was the super-bestest student EVAH." Papers, exams, whatever you've got.

3) "Hey, do you remember me?" is...contraindicated, as the answer may well be "um, no." (Seven years down the road? Your professor has probably had a few hundred students in the interim.) Instead, your contact should say something like: "Dear Prof. X, I took the following course(s) with you in [X year], and received [X grades.] I'm now planning to return to school to pursue my MA [Ph.D.]. Would you be able to write a positive letter of recommendation for me? I would be happy to supply any [papers/exams/anything else generated for the course] that you might need." Etc. If the professor says "I don't think so," then thank them and continue on your quest; you *don't* want somebody writing you a so-so or weak letter, and they're doing you a favor by saying no.

4) Again, as k8t says, you should take some graduate-level coursework as a nonmatriculated student. This will demonstrate that you're definitely up to the task (and will provide you with letters, to boot). You may be able to transfer this coursework later, which is an added plus.
posted by thomas j wise at 9:31 PM on August 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

It depends on your field. If you're in science, and you've been working in a related industry, letters from the head of your lab/etc. will be completely fine, since it's your ability to do scientific research that's most important. In science (chem/bio/physics), there are generally not separate master's degrees - if you get admitted to a PhD program, it's quite likely that they will make you take the full roster of classes required to pass quals/prelims, whether or not you have a master's. Which means essentially doing a 2nd master's (and I have several friends who have had to do this.) Doing one or two classes (or getting back in lab for a year as a lab tech if you have been working in a non-science field) might be a good idea - you can get new recommendations, if necessary. A whole master's is almost certain to be a waste of your time.

If you are in a non-basic-science field, my advice is much less applicable. Certainly, though, it will be worth contacting any of your undergraduate professors who you think have a good reason to remember you, specifically, as a person who did well at (project X, paper Y, labwork Z.) No matter what, you should also contact the departments of the specific universities you are interested in and find out what their guidelines are. (Some schools will rely heavily on subject GRE scores, some won't require them at all, some may have very specific rules for letter-writers, some may only care that they are from people who saw you studying/working in a related science/humanities discipline, etc...) Contacting the grad school is apt to be somewhat useless, since it's the department who will have most of the control over admissions.
posted by ubersturm at 9:55 PM on August 22, 2009

I took the route of taking some classes as a non-matriculating student. I was able to get a recommendation that way and also confirmed my interest in the field.
posted by ursus_comiter at 3:56 AM on August 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thomas J. Wise has excellent advice, but I just wanted to reiterate that it really depends on your field. In my field (anthropology) it's quite common to come to graduate work after a period in the work force. Professional references may be appropriate, especially if your research project grows out of your work. Time away from school is often considered a boon, because people bring with them a much richer set of experiences and a more firm grasp on the problem that they are trying to solve.

Calling the department(s) you are interested to find out what they are looking for from mature students is entirely appropriate. If it's not clear who you should talk to from the website, call the graduate secretary and ask to be directed.
posted by carmen at 5:35 AM on August 23, 2009

If you haven't been in regular contact with your former professors, because they're your mentor, it's not beneficial for you to contact them.

I am in a similar boat as you, and I am taking courses within the same department, as some schools allow you to take graduate level courses to a certain extent before entering the program. Yes, it's money out of your pocket, but that shows the department head that you're serious about your education during this hard economic time. You also want to get a good grade in that class, if not work extra hard to seem brilliant. You also need to go talk to the professor AND the department head at least a couple of times.

Tell them that you've concluded that the best way of showing your ability to succeed in the program is to show it and would like to ask for a recommendation from the professor, AND ask for a recommendation on the class that you should take, whose professor is generous one.

Good luck!
posted by icollectpurses at 6:35 AM on August 23, 2009

If you took undergrad classes in your chosen subject, you might ask some of those professors for an informational interview. Tell them you're applying to grad school, and you'd like advice on which programs would be a good fit (or on how to apply, or on writing a good statement of purpose, or....) Don't just gin up questions for the sake of having something to ask — but surely there's some part of the process you're genuinely wondering about, right?

You'll go and ask a few questions. The prof, if they're at all interested in up-and-coming students, will ask how you got interested in $SUBJECT, and what kind of research you're thinking of doing, and hopefully you'll have a nice chat about that. Worst case, it ends there and you've got some questions answered and renewed an academic contact.

But if you think it's going especially well, you can follow up by asking for a letter of recommendation. You'll be in the best possible position to do it — face to face conversation will hopefully have jogged your prof's memory about you, especially if you were an active participant in their class back in the day, and it will also have given you a chance to demonstrate that you're serious about research.

As others have said, you should still offer to provide old term papers, tests, a CV, whatever the prof needs. (A half-hour conversation can only jog one's memory so hard.) And the crucial question is not "Will you write a recommendation?" but "Do you think you'd be able to write a strong recommendation?" That way, if the prof really doesn't remember you well — or doesn't have anything nice to say — you give them an easy out, and avoid getting a half-assed or negative letter which will hurt you worse than no letter at all.

Now, it could happen that all your profs decline, or that none of the interviews go well enough that you think it's worth asking. That means it's time for plan B — which, depending on your field and your finances, might be a few extra classes, a master's degree, or a round of applications with professional recommendations instead of academic just to see if anyone bites.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:04 AM on August 23, 2009

Sorry I didn't specify - I am interested in Psychology. And my undergrad school is 3 and a half hours away which makes face-to-face contact with any profs not impossible by any stretch, but definitely a planned outing.
posted by CwgrlUp at 7:15 AM on August 23, 2009

I would reiterate the advice above. Contact the schools you are applying to and see what they say. It also depends on what your professional work has been in the interim. Does it speak to your ability to do research or work in a clinical setting? If so, as a reader, I would be much more interested in those. It also depends on your grades as an undergrad. If you have stellar grades and are 7 years out, those will speak for themselves.

I would also add that as a student returning after a long absence it might make sense to aim for getting the MA first. You may decide that is enough. Or if you are a stellar student you will be able to build from there for admission to a top-flight PhD program.
posted by Tallguy at 7:52 AM on August 23, 2009

I'd imagine professional letters are fine for a program in any employable field of psychology, i.e. clinical, industrial, etc.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:09 AM on August 23, 2009

What kind of psychology? What kind of program? This answer is based on my extensive research and friends who have done what you're doing, but I'm not an admissions counselor or department chair or anything like that.

If you're interested in clinical psychology you might be well-served by volunteering in a clinical capacity; volunteering in a research lab; and/or taking a higher level course.

If you never took something like abnormal psych, developmental psych, or social psych; or if there is something advanced in your field of interest that you never got around to in undergrad, you could take it and excel and maybe get a recommendation that way.

Consider volunteering as a research assistant. I stalked you and you're close(ish) to the University of Arkansas, which seems to have a healthy psych department. On the left you see a list of professors. Click their names to get information about their research. Look for links to their lab. See if their research interests you. If it does, inquire about working as a research assistant.

Or you can volunteer in a clinical capacity (if that's something you're interested in). I have friends who've worked at suicide hotlines, for example. This would be less about research/academics and more a reference that says that you are genuinely interested in working with people in a clinical capacity, you know what it entails, you're responsible and reliable, you can handle tough situations, are empathetic, etc.

Good luck!
posted by kathrineg at 12:13 PM on August 23, 2009

Other places you might be able to get clinical experience: hospitals, VA centers, hospices, domestic violence shelters or centers.
posted by kathrineg at 12:17 PM on August 23, 2009

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