Alternative sources for grad school letters of recommendation?
January 9, 2013 2:53 PM   Subscribe

I am concerned about the quantity, quality, and available sources of recommendation letters to work/industrial/occupational psychology Masters programs in The USA and Europe. (I'm North American) I want to make sure I get the most effective letters possible with my limited access to academic recommendation sources. Are there any alternatives or options that I am not or should be considering? Details inside.

I’m just starting to pull the documentation together to apply to some Industrial/Organizational Psychology Master’s programs in The USA and Europe. I’m concerned about the quantity, potential quality, and sources for recommendation letters I have. Here are my details.

Undergrad work in Economics and business administration at The University of Colorado - Boulder more than 10 years ago. Let’s just say my performance was mediocre at best. Chance for a recommendation? None.

I took 5 core psychology courses online through CU over the past several years and received A’s in all of them. I had fairly little contact with the instructors and suspect my chance for a recommendation is little to none.

I am now on my fifth graduate level course at Colorado State University’s online Industrial/Organizational Psychology Master’s program and have received a certificate in organizational design and am working toward a certificate in training and development. Again I have received straight A’s. I have had three different instructors, one of them I really couldn’t say I know at all, the second I had some correspondence with, she may remember me and be willing to provide a recommendation although I’m not sure it would be a strong one, and the last teacher has been my instructor 3 times. We have had some email correspondence directly related to the course and a few tangential and not directly related emails. Although we have never met in person, she knows who I am, and I believe she knows my abilities and potential. I’d say she’s my best opportunity for a recommendation from somebody directly academically related to the field. I fairly confident I have a decent recommendation here but still concerned about it because the relationship has only been online.

An management/organizational design consultant whom has been upper-management in a few large companies and works occasionally as an adjunct business professor at The University of Denver has offered to write a letter on my behalf. He knows the quality of my work and has acted as a personal mentor outside of the consulting work he has done with my employer. His recommendation will be strong but I’m just not sure how much water a business consultant/adjunct professor holds to an university admissions committee.

My professional career has consisted of working for the family business over the last 8 years. A recommendation from my boss would be coming from my father and therefore useless.

I think the recommendations are going to be the make it or break it for me along with my statement of purpose to overcome my lack of a spectacular undergrad GPA. Most programs are looking for 2-3 letters. That third letter is the real challenge.

Are there any alternatives or options that I am not considering? Has anybody else been in this position? Does anybody know the differences between North American and European academia in this regard? Any other advice? If so, I thank you in advance hivemind.
posted by Che boludo! to Education (5 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't understand this. You are already in a master's program in organizational psychology, albeit an online one. Are you planning to transfer before completing the degree requirements? Or are you planning to get the master's here and then get another master's somewhere else? Why?

Are there other senior people in your workplace that you are not related to that could write you a recommendation?
posted by grouse at 3:02 PM on January 9, 2013

Sorry if I wasn't clear. I was trying to keep things as simple as possible and focused towards the question of the recommendations. CSU offers many of the online courses to students not formally enrolled in the complete masters program, allowing them to get various certificates as I have done. Initially I was also using the courses to test the water on my interest in I/O. and then my plan was to work online and get to know the staff, show my abilities, and apply to that program, but I am not satisfied with the online learning experience and have the luxury of enrolling in an actual full time on campus program. (Also, even if I have to repeat some material, in Europe it's quite a bit less expensive and more applicable for my focus on cross cultural issues in I/O).
posted by Che boludo! at 3:08 PM on January 9, 2013

I'm also curious about this, as one who graduated 5+ years ago with unspectacular grades, and never had a real adviser anyway---there was a lot of turnover in my major department, so the only time I saw an adviser was to register for next term's classes, and it was a different person each time. I don't think I ever even had two classes with the same person---but is now preparing to apply to library school....
posted by FlyingMonkey at 3:41 PM on January 9, 2013

Can you get a character reference? From a friend of your parents/family friend? Are you in any societies or clubs? Have you volunteered at all?

I went back to school after a long break (not as long as yours, but still a pretty long break compared to my 22-year old classmates). I did my undergrad in the US and am doing my postgrad in the UK (I dunno where specifically you meant in Europe?). I got in into 100% of the schools I applied to with a shitty undergrad GPA.

I had one recommendation from a prof who I hadn't kept in touch with, but I sent him my resume and I did pretty well in his class so he was willing. (I asked another prof, who seemed to not remember who I was and was unwilling.) The second recommendation I got from a good friend of my parents who is a professor, but not at a school where I have any affiliation.

Hope this helps... Good luck!
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 4:22 PM on January 9, 2013

I think the 2nd and 3rd professors along with the consultant are your best bet for letters. The graduate classes are in the field you want to be in and you've had a class with each professor recently (i. e. not 10 years ago). Even though these classes are online, so face-to-face/casual interaction is limited, both of these professors have had a chance to see your capability for academic work in the field you're hoping to continue in in graduate school.

I know it seems like the connection is tenuous, but professors are actually used to this sort of thing - in your request letter, remind them of the class(es) you took with them, send samples of your work (to help prompt their memory) as well as your CV and whatever materials they need to write the letter. Be sure to ask them if they think that they can write you a strong recommendation (offering them an out if they really don't think they know you/your work well enough). Consider that if the professors are both teaching in the same program, there may be discussions of students (even online students) outside of the classes they're currently teaching, so they may be aware of your progress outside of their own classes with you. I know that you're not currently in their graduate program, but you are taking graduate classes in an established (certificate) program of study, so you're not just some random person who took a single class and flitted off - you've got a track record!

As an example, I got a letter from the (very busy) chair of the English department (I was in Computer Science, not an English major) who I'd had only two classes (2 years and 5 years previous) when I applied to grad school. I had asked him since I was applying to library school and wanted to round out my recommendations with a professor from the humanities and he was literally the only one I'd had more than a single class with. He was happy to hear from me (I wasn't sure he'd remember me at all) and happy to write the letter.

Contrary to your fears about the consultant not being as good as an academic reference, I think he's a great complement to the two academic letters - I'm assuming that like most Master's programs, this is a professional degree - and a letter from a working professional in the field who thinks highly of your skills already is a great thing to have in your application. In this way, you're showing that not only are you excelling academically in your current graduate line of study (the same one you want to continue) but that a working professional and occasional adjunct has seen your work "in the field" so to speak and has been impressed enough to mentor you. This speaks to your abilities in and out of the classroom and paints you as someone who will reflect well on the program.

Good luck with your applications!
posted by clerestory at 7:23 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

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