PhD application references--whom to ask?
November 10, 2014 3:16 PM   Subscribe

I'm in the process of applying to a few history PhD programs. My problem is deciding who I should ask to write references. The programs, naturally, would prefer academic references. However, I finished my Masters back in 2003 and my thesis supervisor has since moved on to another university.

I guess my question is twofold: 1. Would using work references necessarily be a deal-killer? I work as a research librarian, for the past 2.5 years in an academic library, if that makes a difference. 2. Would it be strange to contact my MA supervisor out of the blue for a reference? How useful would that reference even be, given the passage of time? (I am submitting my MA thesis as my writing sample).
posted by orrnyereg to Education (20 answers total)
I had a longer gap than yours and contacted my old supervisor, who had semi-retired, for a reference. It went fine. Perhaps you could include the synopsis of your MA thesis to jog their memory?
posted by dontjumplarry at 3:24 PM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

If it's anything like my field, they only care about the potential quality of your work as a historian. They don't care about character stuff like work ethic, or other things a normal work reference would be able to tell them. I would say get in touch with your MA supervisor with a lot of lead time, send them a copy of your thesis and a brief reminder about your particulars, and an explanation of what specific history thing you're wanting to work on for your PhD. (You'll need to identify a subfield in your personal statement, and it's good if the letters can reflect this.)

Exception to this would be if your work supervisor has a history background, or you've done research with historians in your job, if you've worked in a special collection that is important for the area you're going to study, that kind of thing.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:24 PM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think it's kind of necessary to contact your MA supervisor. Who cares if that person moved on? That doesn't have any bearing on your relationship to them, or how well you did your work.

I was kind of in your position; when I applied to a master's program, I'd spent several years working in that field (which was quite different from my undergrad program) and thought it could help to get a reference from my boss. And I did get one reference from someone in my office, but that was because I work at the university in question and he was a highly respected colleague of some of my potential profs.

So it's probably fine, but I'd keep a work reference as your third or fourth reference and have them be very specific about how your work at the library relates directly to the aims and methods of your program.
posted by Madamina at 3:27 PM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Would it be strange to contact my MA supervisor out of the blue for a reference?

Not strange at all. Unless there's something you didn't tell us about. The supervisor moving universities does not have any bearing here.

How useful would that reference even be, given the passage of time?

It'd probably be the most useful reference out of those available to you.
posted by grouse at 3:37 PM on November 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I guess I mostly wanted reassurance that my MA supervisor wouldn't be annoyed with me because asking for a reference after 11 years isn't the done thing.

But apparently it IS the done thing, and so I shall contact her today!
posted by orrnyereg at 3:43 PM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Given that you're a research librarian in an academic library, you should also get references from your supervisor or the library director. They can speak to things like your ability to conduct in-depth historical research, initiation of any academic/research programs that you've organized, etc.

They'll be worth something in addition to your MA supervisor.
posted by barnone at 3:52 PM on November 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ask anyone you want for a reference. But, here's the key. Ask them if they can provide you a strong reference, or a good reference. Give them an out - because you don't want to put yourself in the position of having them reluctantly provide you a lackluster reference, or, worse, a negative reference.

I recently went through hiring someone where a strong candidate asked someone influential in our community for a reference. He gave acquiesced, and told us clearly that he didn't think that the candidate was the right person for the job.

No references or few references are better than a neutral to negative reference - if someone you selected and sent me to gives you a neutral reference, that is a pretty bad thing in my book.
posted by arnicae at 4:03 PM on November 10, 2014

PhD history programs are almost always going to require 3 letters. They should ideally be from all academics, but two should suffice. No references or few references aren't really an option: the OP's file wont be considered unless the requirements are fulfilled.

try taking a graduate history course at a local college and getting cozy w/ a prof there and getting a letter from then.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 4:06 PM on November 10, 2014

A reference from your MA advisor is pretty much obligatory. The head librarian(s) at your library likely either have faculty appointments or something approximating a faculty appointment, depending on the university, so asking them is more sensible than asking your boss if you worked a bank or something (though it would probably help if their background was history or at least something social science-y and not, say, physics). Options I can think of for a third person are someone else from your MA committee or a historian you worked with while in your current job (this would also be a good person to ask for advice on who would be an appropriate reference).

Once they agree, you should give your references as many of your applications materials as you have prepared, so your writing sample (probably no one's going to read it in its entirety, but they'll skim bits), your statement of purpose, your CV and whatever else.
posted by hoyland at 5:11 PM on November 10, 2014

The other secret to getting into a PhD program is to have someone on the inside batting for you. If you can find a PhD supervisor whose research is a perfect match to your research interests, start building a relationship with that person. All supervisors need to know what's in it for them if they choose you as a student.

That will go a long way to making up for weak recommendation letters.
posted by wenat at 6:44 PM on November 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also, if you are planning to keep on working as a librarian through your PhD work, make that clear to your potential supervisor. In these days of diminished funding for humanities programs, having a grad student who's not on the "payroll" (in need of grants, research assistantships or other support) can help your chances in some schools.
posted by wenat at 6:51 PM on November 10, 2014

Definitely your MA supervisor, and if any other professor from your MA who liked you (or gave you great marks), email them asap as well. If you have two solid academic references from your MA I think you can get away with a third that is less relevant but really aim for all three to be from professors, even if that was over 10 years ago, or even from your undergrad degree if you're really stuck on the third.

Also I agree that you should try to contact potential advisors now so that they can look out for your application, be aware that you have a gap in your schooling (and not be put off when they are reviewing applications), and maybe give you some advice or information about what they're looking for before you apply.

In your applications is there a way for you to connect the work you've done in the last decade to what you'd like to study for your ph.d.? If yes use that to sell yourself in your personal statement and create a story for the committee.

Good luck!
posted by lafemma at 7:39 PM on November 10, 2014

OK, on the principle that you must (sometimes) be cruel to be kind, I will say this: in your situation I would not apply to Ph.D programs in the humanities this year. Why? Because, at least in my little corner of the humanities, graduate admission has become increasingly competitive over the past 10 years, and you will be competing against people who have it together in ways you don't.

I in no way mean to suggest that these other people are smarter or better than you; they probably aren't. But they are going to be much more polished than your question suggests you will be. As a result, I think you will be wasting your time and money applying to top programs. Perhaps you will have a shot at less competitive programs, but then you will likely have a very hard time finding employment once you are done.

I don't want to kill your dreams, but I also don't want you to waste your money and time.

If this is something you really, really, want to do, I would take the next year to cultivate some professional relationships. For example, sit in on a seminar at your university, or revise your thesis and see if your advisor would be willing to look at it again.
posted by girl flaneur at 7:43 PM on November 10, 2014

My PhD application had references from my previous academic supervisor (Honours, ten years out from graduation) and the director of the library I worked at. I couldn't use both of my Honours supervisors since one was the head of the PhD selection committee, but they accepted my work reference as it directly related to research thanks to some big projects I'd done work on. Would your library supervisor be able to do something like that? As part of my librarian work I'd written grant applications, I'd done huge research reports and strategic planning - all things that showed I would be able to handle the PhD project.
posted by geek anachronism at 9:59 PM on November 10, 2014

having a grad student who's not on the "payroll" (in need of grants, research assistantships or other support) can help your chances in some schools.

This is faulty reasoning. Rule number one for humanities PhD seekers: if you cannot get full ride (usually 5 years plus) funding at a top program in your field, DO NOT DO THE PHD. A student who doesn't need funding is an oxymoron. PHD study IS your paid "job" if you're serious about it. My own program does not even admit unfunded students (and hasn't for over a decade) >and that is more and more typical of the best programs. And youre wasting time in anything but the best programs in a field like History, assuming you want a career in academia.

There is zero advantage to the program having a self-funded student, and real downside risk that such a student will never get a good teaching job at the other end.

Do not go unless you get paid. Period. 20 years of teaching PhD students (almost all of whom are employed) has taught me this firmly.

OP, you need academic letters. Your MA adviser will be happy to write if you did good work for her/him. One letter from an academic librarian superviser could be good -- there's s lot of overlap now in the digital humanities space btwn disciplines and library/info science folks, and tech skills are valued in the humanities world, so emphasize that.

Letters about your character, work ethic, etc. , especially from non-academic writers, do nothing for you. Letters must address your research and writing skills and potential. Letters from bosses and the like signal, in fact, that you aren't able to get academic letters.
posted by spitbull at 4:23 AM on November 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

As others have said, your MA thesis supervisor will not find it inappropriate to be contacted by you for a reference. And it is crucial that you get a letter from him or her, as well as from others whose courses you've taken. It is also acceptable to ask whether they can provide a strong letter. If not, don't use them as references.

I'll just flag two things quickly for you. First, when I'm asked for such letters, I always ask for copies of all of the work that the student did in my courses. Not everyone does, but be prepared to produce as much of it as you still have around. Letters that offer generic praise are always less compelling than those that make concrete reference to the applicant's written work.

Second, I don't know how long your MA thesis is, but I suspect it is FAR too long to use as a writing sample. While disciplinary norms vary, anything over 50 pages certainly won't get read, and even 40 is pushing it. You should probably extract a short, standalone paper from the thesis and submit that instead. You can always provide a link to the whole thing if they're really interested.
posted by informavore at 5:33 AM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

By the way, a "good" humanities phd program is, by definition, one that can tell you unequivocally "all our students are fully funded with tuition and stipend for at least five years, and more than half get tenure track jobs within three years of finishing the phd (and we can prove it)."

That narrows it down to about 10 programs in History, to be blunt.
posted by spitbull at 6:12 AM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

For which 50-100 places or so there are about 500-1000 or more *competitive* applicants, if history's numbers resemble my own field even slightly, as I suspect they do.

Your letters and writing sample matter immensely.
posted by spitbull at 6:19 AM on November 11, 2014

I am also applying for a PhD this year and I've similarly been working as a research assistant for the past two years. The general advice I've heard is that I should get two academic letters (the bigger the name, the better) and one from the place I'm working now. People have said it would look weird if I was doing something for two years and didn't get a letter from any of them.

You should definitely contact your MA supervisor, who probably knows your ability to research better than anyone. What I generally did when contacting my professors from a few years ago was I asked them if I could meet with them to talk about graduate school and then asked them in person. I live in another city, though, and could only do this once, so I had to ask for one letter via e-mail.
posted by peacebone at 7:49 AM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

What I generally did when contacting my professors from a few years ago was I asked them if I could meet with them to talk about graduate school and then asked them in person.
This is exactly the best approach.
posted by spitbull at 5:12 AM on November 13, 2014

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