To prof or not to prof
August 26, 2012 3:03 PM   Subscribe

Recommendation Letters filter: grad school in MPH and no academic references? Snowflakes within.

I am applying to grad school for next year in MPH and have no academic references to buttress my application. I have graduated college in Dec '08 and have since held two research assistant positions within two top-5 universities directly relating to what I want to do in my post graduate career. I have co-authored two papers that have been published in well-known journals.

My original idea is to use my PIs as references (I have 3 PIs who I worked closely with and have done research for) but upon reading further application paperwork I see that not having anyone from my college to attest to my academic abilities can hinder my chances in getting into the schools of my choice. Unfortunately, I have not worked with any professors in college and was not even on their radar during class. My undergrad concentrations were all over the place (I did double bachelors in Psych and Math, and a minor in Comp Sci).

If the hive-mind has any comments regarding this and the importance of having past profs to write recommendations, I would really appreciate it. Thank you all in advance!
posted by mooselini to Education (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Did you have a faculty member who was your advisor in college? Did you take multiple classes from the same professor? Did you ever do a really good job on a major project or term paper for a class? Those are professors who might remember you. I know 2008 seems like forever ago in your life, but it really wasn't that long ago.

I do wonder, though, if you were that anonymous, if that signals a relatively uninvolved and undistinguished college career. Plenty of people have gone to grad school with that background, but in the current economic climate, getting into any grad school can be hard, and of course it's even harder to get some funding, too.

At the same time, I do wonder about the wisdom that not having anyone from your college write. recommendation woukd be a red flag. If your work since then has been as good as you say, and you can get at least 3 good recommendations from folks in your current life, I am not sure that it matters that much to get one from your college.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:21 PM on August 26, 2012

Presuming that, as it sounds like you're saying, the PIs can write their letters based on their direct firsthand knowledge of your background in public health, then that absolutely should trump any need to get letters from faculty who are both less well acquainted with you and less directly in the same field as your planned graduate study. People who are in the field themselves and who can talk in detail about your education, skills, and knowledge in the field are almost always the best choice for recommenders. If you're concerned about this looking like you're trying to hush up your college transcript, you could ask one of the letter-writers to talk about it explicitly — but my sense is that this is really not necessary if the letters are as strong and detailed, and as field-specific, as it sounds like they'd be. People reading your application will likely just think you got the strongest, most recent letters from the people most closely connected to the field, not that you're trying to hide anything.
posted by RogerB at 3:45 PM on August 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yes, seconding what RogerB said. Practical, proven experience in the field already trumps the need for college recommendations. Academic recommendations are for people who haven't worked in Public Health yet. At least that is how I would view it if I were on the admissions panel.
posted by seasparrow at 4:32 PM on August 26, 2012

A good percentage of getting into grad school is in WHO you know. Get as many glowing letters as you can from people already in the field.

Caution: Make sure they're going to be glowing letters. You shouldn't see them, but if the supervisor is at all hesitant about writing a letter for you, take the hint that it might not be entirely positive. Honesty with you up front is a lot better than disappointment at the other end after you've done a lot of work.

Your post-grad publication record should also serve you well in your application.
posted by wenat at 4:36 PM on August 26, 2012

I also graduated in '08. I did not work with any professors in college but asked one who taught me a seminar to write me a rec for my MPA application this past year and it worked out fine. The seminar wasn't even in my major. Is there a professor who would at least know who you were/ have something nice to say about you if you sent them a paper to jog their memory? (Send the paper only after the indicate that they'd be willing to write your rec, of course.) I think if the school does request a professor recommendation, I would try to comply.
posted by mlle valentine at 5:50 PM on August 26, 2012

So long as you have strong letters from PIs who know you and have good things to say about you, don't bother with professors who arn't likely to remember your name. The general advice for this sort of situation is to take an interesting class at a local university if you have enough time or failing that to get one or more of your PIs to talk about what they know of your academic abilities, if you explain your situation they should understand.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:16 PM on August 26, 2012

Overall, I think your PIs will make much stronger references than professors who aren't in public health and will offer something non-specific.

I would offer some advice that if you are asking these questions, you may want to seriously consider some advising from someone who is in academic public health (actually, the more people, the better in this case) about your application and your ideas for the future. You have a distinct idea of what you want to do after graduating (which is good), but public health is a field where many people spend time and money only to learn that they aren't competitive for the types of jobs they wanted and thought they could get with an MPH. Especially without a clinical or policy background, you should tread carefully.
posted by artdesk at 11:41 AM on August 27, 2012

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