Requesting a recommendation for grad program unrelated to undergrad major
July 25, 2012 4:21 PM   Subscribe

How do I ask my old professors for a grad school recommendation when my program of interest is in a totally different field?

I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing in 2010, and after much deliberation and research and soul-searching, I have decided to apply to grad school for counseling psychology. However, I don't quite know how to word my request for letters of recommendation. I have a Psych minor, but I wasn't particularly close with any of my professors, though I did quite well in my courses. I also did well in my nursing courses, but I feel a little like a dog with its tail between its legs asking them for a recommendation for anything other than something nursing-related.

So, how do I ask them for recommendations? Should I ask them for recommendations? Any other ideas?
posted by constellations to Education (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It shouldn't be a problem. Most professors understand that undergrads don't necessarily wind up spending their whole careers in the same field they studied when they were 20!

So yes, definitely ask them for recommendations. If you feel you have to address the career change, I'd just say something like, "after some serious research and thought, I've decided that I'd be well-suited as a psychologist, so I'm going to apply for counseling psychology programs."
posted by lunasol at 4:34 PM on July 25, 2012

Oh, and the template I used for asking for grad school recommendations was a brief intro asking how they were, reminding them what class I took and when, and a brief summary of what I've been up to and what I'm planning to study, followed by a request for a recommendation. I always made sure to include my phone number in case they wanted to reply that way, and attached my current resume to the email for reference. Of course, tailor the style to your relationship with the professor - some of my emails were chatty, some were formal, depending on what the prof's demeanor was like.

Most professors got back to me pretty quickly - those that didn't, I followed up with a phone call a few days later and that was fine. Do bear in mind that it's summer and professors might not be checking their email or office voice mail every day!
posted by lunasol at 4:38 PM on July 25, 2012

Don't worry about it so much. It is quite common for someone to pursue graduate studies in an something different from their undergraduate degree, so professors are asked to do this all the time.

I studied political science and classical civilizations as an undergraduate student and ended up in communication grad program. My letters of recommendation were from a professor who knew me well in each my undergrad degrees, plus a supervisor at the school newspaper, which was where I had spent a lot of time towards the end of college. I'm currently a faculty member in a communication department, and have written letters of recommendation for students and read them as a graduate admissions committee member.

In your letters of recommendation, professors should comment on your capacity to do graduate level work as well as how your goals and background align with the program to which you are applying. Your professors from Nursing should be able to do these things just as well as your Psych professors, but better than your Psych professors if they know you well and have observed you in different contexts.

When you ask for letters of recommendation, explain what your goals are / why you are interested in counseling psychology. Offer to share your C.V., transcript, statement of purpose if your letter writers would like to see them. Most importantly, give them lots of lead time, because that is the polite thing to do.
posted by raisinbran at 4:39 PM on July 25, 2012

You should. I did this, and it was fine -- I emailed each professor and reminded them of who I was ("I'm sm1tten, and I took your Basket Weaving 101 class in 1901") and told them what I was emailing about ("I'm interesting in pursuing graduate studies in Palentology and I was wondering if you would write a recommendation for me) and why ("During our course, I learned that basket weaving dates back to 8000BCE , which in part sparked my interest in pursuing Paleontology, as I hypothesized that dinosaurs probably became extinct as a result of their failure to be able to make and carry baskets. "

[obviously mileage is varying here, by light years.]

My long winded and absurd point is that while no professor is obligated to write you a recommendation, it helps a lot if you remind them of who you were and why you are asking them (so that they can write you a specific recommendation) - can you do that with any of the professors who are likely to write you a GOOD recommendation? Most professors know that you may change your mind about your studies at some point down the road, but SOME will need to feel like they can actually help you. (Some frankly won't care.) Basically what I did was an abbreviated mission statement and that worked well enough. Best of luck!
posted by sm1tten at 4:39 PM on July 25, 2012

The field of study is not as important here as the traits that you bring to the work. So yes, absolutely ask for recommendations.

Your professors can talk about your work ethic, your desire to genuinely connect and help people, your ability to balance life and school, etc. There is significant overlap between nursing and psychology, so present that overlap to the professors when you ask them for recommendations.

This is an excellent practice for the future, as well. It's important to be able to identify how your previous experiences set you up for future endeavors, and this is a great opportunity for you to get some practice with people who like you.
posted by frizz at 4:42 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Even though the fields are different, you can still specifically ask them to comment on things that you think the psychology programs will be looking for. I'm not sure exactly what psychology programs look for, but I suspect the list of characteristics you'd want recommendations to highlight might include:

- Excellent verbal and written communication skills
- Empathy and compassion
- Works well in a team
- Cultural competency
- Conflict resolution skills

Hopefully you know people from the nursing program who could comment on such skills.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 4:43 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

On preview, agreeing with frizz. Very helpful to have something along these lines prepared as a response for an interview, as well.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 4:44 PM on July 25, 2012

ah, right, I meant to say that it didn't have to be a specific a-z link between the professor and your future goals, but more like a "this is a skill/idea that I learned/demonstrated/improved upon in your course."
posted by sm1tten at 5:01 PM on July 25, 2012

N-thing what everyone else above said. I asked both one of my math teachers in college (I studied math) and one of my history teachers to write me a letter of recommendation for law school. I had a personal statement written, so I passed that along to help guide them in what to write.
posted by Geppp at 5:35 PM on July 25, 2012

So, how do I ask them for recommendations?

Like this!
Dear Prof. Whatever,

I hope this finds you well, BLAH BLAH.

I'm in the process of applying to graduate programs in counseling psychology and was hoping you would be willing to write a letter of recommendation for me. Over my nursing degree, I took CLASS and CLASS from you, where I earned GRADE and GRADE. I would be happy to forward you copies of my old papers, a working draft of my statement of purpose, and anything else you might find helpful in writing a letter for me.


posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:02 PM on July 25, 2012

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