How do career changers get letters of recommendation for grad school?
June 14, 2021 7:59 AM   Subscribe

How do career changers get letters of recommendation for grad school?

- The accountant and weekend painter who thinks, "I'd like to teach art to children."
- The drummer who thinks, "Getting an MLIS and working in libraries would be a great way to spend the second half of my working life, once I turn 50."
- The stay-at-home-parent who realized how much they love plants, enough to study botany or forest management for a new career now that the youngest child is in school.

All of these examples are people that I know. They graduated from college 10-20 years ago. If they apply to programs, they have to get letters to attest to their ability to do graduate work, which seems to exclude bosses, co-workers, and even volunteer supervisors. Their previous academic experience is long ago (professors retired) and usually unrelated to the new field.
posted by xo to Education (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
It’s usually recommended that people take a class of some kind, usually related to the field that they’re interested in studying, then get a letter from that instructor.
posted by corey flood at 8:01 AM on June 14, 2021 [6 favorites]

Some of these programs *will* accept letters from bosses, etc., or from long-ago professors. For the others, the best bet is to take a class or two as a non-degree student (ideally pre-reqs or foundational courses that you'd have to take for the degree anyway) and get letters of recommendation from the professors teaching those courses.
posted by mskyle at 8:02 AM on June 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

These individuals can take credit (or sometimes not for credit) courses at a local university/ community college.
posted by oceano at 8:02 AM on June 14, 2021

For my most recent degree, I used:

(1) a prof. for a course I took in the area of discipline before applying to the program (with the intent of transferring credits)
(2) my current boss, who was aware of my application to grad school
(3) a former advisor (for applying to a PhD program, I used my Master's program adviser, who knew my work from 7 years prior)

Bosses were definitely accepted in the program I applied (engineering) to, but it may depend on the discipline or school as to if that is acceptable.
posted by chiefthe at 8:38 AM on June 14, 2021 [3 favorites]

I did something like this, with about 10 years between graduating from undergrad to applying for graduate school. I took a bunch of prerequisite classes at a community college just before starting the application process. I also shadowed and volunteered at a number of places.

The people I asked for letters of recommendation were:

- My boss from my first career (very unrelated to the second career)
- One of my community college instructors, who seemed to think highly of my work on a major project in the class (also quite unrelated to the second career)
- Two different professionals who I shadowed and/or volunteered for. One I knew for a long time and spent many hours helping out, the other I only worked with for a short period but we had a good rapport.

(I got into most of the grad programs I applied to, so that mix of letters worked out well)
posted by sweetpotato at 8:39 AM on June 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

This was me a few years ago!

My grad program specified explicitly that you were required to get letters of recommendation from former professors. I had been out of undergrad for over 10 years. I reached out to a couple of former profs who were still working and they were super nice about writing my letters (even though the grad program was a totally completely different field from theirs). My professors asked for 1) a photo of me to help jog the memory 2) my grad school entrance essay 3) a paragraph summarizing my time in their class, my goals, and what I have been up to.

However, several of my grad school classmates got letters from their bosses and said the school didn't actually care about academic letters of recommendation.

Honestly, I think it's better if you can get a letter from someone who actually knows you and speak to your strengths and qualifications for the grad program. You probably just need to email the program director directly to inquire if that's ok (like seriously, how useful is a letter from an English prof I haven't seen in 10 years compared to my boss who actually works with me day to day?).

Also potentially helpful - Captain Awkward answers a similar question.
posted by forkisbetter at 8:39 AM on June 14, 2021

I had no academic references when I applied to library school; I asked a few people I'd been working with (including one I'd been reporting to) to write the letters. Worth noting that when you ask non-academic people for a reference, it can be helpful to basically write the letter for them or at least be very specific about what you want them to say, because it might be a little out of their wheelhouse.
posted by saramour at 8:41 AM on June 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

letters to attest to their ability to do graduate work

I'll add that letters are, ideally, not just to say that they can do the work, but that there is reason to suspect that they know what they're getting into. Your example of the accountant who paints on the weekends thinking they want to teach children - I'd imagine admin committees will wonder, well, are they sure they can handle a classroom full of potentially rowdy 8 year olds? This can of course be addressed in their application letter, but even better would be volunteering in some capacity around groups of kids, and getting a letter from the volunteer coordinator. (Also, frankly, as someone who once taught art to rowdy 8-10 year olds, I'd advise anyone considering to do the same to do some sort of volunteer activity with kids before they quit their day job)
posted by coffeecat at 8:58 AM on June 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

I provided a former direct report's grad school letter of rec., where I mentioned his ability to still learn quickly, and in depth (since we were working in higher ed IT).

He had taken some online courses, and this wasn't a purely academic program, but anyway I suspect they didn't expect a perfect match for their environment. :7)

He got in, and thrived!
posted by wenestvedt at 8:59 AM on June 14, 2021

I've done both the "get letters from co-workers who can attest to my work ethic" route (for my linguistics grad program), and the "take pre-req courses and get letters from those professors" route (for my communication disorders and sciences grad program). Both worked fine as a means to get accepted, but in terms of longer-term outcomes I feel I was much better off taking some relevant coursework before going back to school. For the linguistics program I had read books and journal articles, and talked with other people who had pursued a linguistics degree, but honestly I still didn't know what to expect until I was in the program ... It was still a good experience but I would have been far better prepared if I'd taken a few courses first.

Which is just to say, there are multiple ways to get what you need to make it past the gatekeepers and get into a program, but some of those ways are probably going to be more helpful in the long run and that's worth considering, too.
posted by DingoMutt at 10:10 AM on June 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

I did this recently, also for a communication science and disorders grad program. The program I applied to said on their website that 2/3 letters should be professional/academic. Like everyone else has been saying, I took some prereq courses and asked a professor from one of those courses for a recommendation. I the other 2 letters were from my current and a former boss - the former was able to speak to my current skills/talents, and the latter focused more on my prior research experiences, since that was something I was trying to highlight in my application.
posted by coppermoss at 11:27 AM on June 14, 2021

I was a field changer if not a career changer when I applied to MS in Ecology programs a few years after graduating with a BA in Liberal Arts having taken no Ecology and very little even resembling 20th century science. I just got recommendation letters from faculty in unrelated fields, because that was all I had. It worked out fine for the program I got into. In fact, my master's advisor mentioned one of those letters to me when I applied to PhD programs a few years later--I was just going to use graduate faculty from my MS program, but my advisor said that this old faculty member's letter was one of the best she'd ever seen and I should consider asking them again.

As a faculty member now myself, I would be completely delighted to write a letter for a former student from 10 years ago who was applying to grad school in another field. (caveat: our class sizes are never >30, and I really do know all of my students well at the time they are in my class). At least now, all the records are on my computer or online, and so it's easy for me to look up former students to refresh myself. For a former Biology major now applying to MFA programs, or some such thing, I would make some efforts to play up the breadth of their training and skills in my letter.
posted by hydropsyche at 11:46 AM on June 14, 2021

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