Applying to grad school after 4 years outside the US, reference and school advice?
February 4, 2008 9:37 PM   Subscribe

I want to go to grad school in the US after 5 years out of college. What can I do for references, and any recommendations for psycholinguistic PhD programs?

I graduated with a BA in psych and Spanish in 2002. I've been living in Japan teaching English in public schools for the past 4 years, but I've decided I've had enough of here and would like to go back to the US for a PhD in psycholinguistics. It's something I've thought about doing, but now that the time has come to start, I'm realizing how much needs to be done. I got really good GRE scores, and my time teaching has been good for observing how my students learn English, as well as how I'm learning Japanese.

Most grad schools want 3 references, but I haven't really kept in touch with my professors since graduation. I worked as a research assistant for one, who said if I ever needed a reference, he'd be happy to help, though I don't imagine he meant 5 years later. Would he remember me? Would he give me a reference? I took a couple grad-level courses at another college trying to get a graduate certificate (then my company went under, precipitating my leaving the US), so I might be able to hit that other professor up for a reference as well. I'm just worried they might not remember me, or write something like that. What should I do? And what should I do about the 3rd reference? Would someone from the Board of Education in my town be ok? It would certainly be more current than my undergrad references.

Also, any recommendations for PhD programs? I've had U of Wisconsin-Madison in mind, but programs at other universities would be nice to know about.

I want to begin in Fall of 2009, so I've got some time - although with how slow things go internationally, it might not be that much.
posted by Jhoosier to Education (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Lots of grad school questions on the green this evening!

Undergrad professors deal with this all the time. You'll be fine contacting them for references, even 5 years later. They won't write that they don't remember you, but you will get a really standard, boring letter that won't mean much to the admissions committee...unless you provide them with enough about yourself to allow them to do otherwise.

Write a short (2-3 paragraphs, 1 page max) biography of yourself, highlighting your achievements. Give them transcripts and resumes. If you can dig up papers you wrote while in their class, include the best one of those. If not, provide a (brief!) writing sample. Most professors really like writing good letters of recommendation but need the ammo to do so. I think your plan of 2 professors and 1 professional is a good one--but focus on getting letters from people who actually know you vs. more important people who don't know you as well.

I don't know anything about your field so I can't provide any insight there. Good luck!
posted by jtfowl0 at 9:46 PM on February 4, 2008

Since you do have a bit of time (grad school applications will be due in December at the earliest) why don't you take a grad level class at a local university? That would be a simple way to get a recent reference. For something far better, you could consider working on some topic (preferably a precursor to a dissertation idea) with a professor (I have no idea what psycholinguists do) and perhaps turn that into a paper. This could even be long distance. Letters from a research collaboration will go a long way to make you stand out from someone just getting a letter from their undergrad professor. I have known many people (I'm still in grad school) that have successfully done this as a way in.

good luck!

PS: This is also a great way to test the waters and see if you really want to do this for the next five years.
posted by special-k at 9:49 PM on February 4, 2008

Best answer: I recently had a similar problem with references for grad school. I had a BA in Linguistics from Cal (2006), but didn't apply myself as well as I could, and didn't get to know my professors. In November of 2007 I decided to go ahead and look into grad schools for MA or PhD in linguistics. I found that SF State did not require letters of recommendation, or GRE scores for their fantastic linguistics masters program. I applied, got in, and am now into my third week of classes. It really was that quick.

But the most important part, important to you that is, is that SF State has a VERY highly regarded graduate program in TESOL (Teaching English to Students of Other Languages). The TESOL program and the Linguistics program are both "housed" under the English department, but I wouldn't let that deter you in any way.

Your question is so timely...I just met with the Psycholinguistics graduate professor this afternoon...we chatted for about an hour about various linguistic programs (UC Berkeley, Stanford, etc.) graduate studies in general, and psycholinguistics!

You should really look into Stanford and UC Berkeley as well. They both offer top-notch PhD programs in linguistics, with more focus in psycholinguistics than SF State would probably offer.

Plus, California is beautiful.

Here is a list of links that you may find useful in your research. (my list tagged with "school"...various linguistics grad school programs and other relevant links)

Also check out the Zapotec Language Project at SF State. You have the perfect background for it, if it's something you'd be interested in doing.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:58 PM on February 4, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice, I should be ok contacting them, just a bit unnerving to ask people favors like this. Unfortunately, I'm in Japan at the moment, which makes taking any local uni classes rather difficult, and searching through my undergrad papers impossible. I can probably get enough together to remind them about me, I hope.

I have an acquaintance who's a professor in EFL at a local university, I'm thinking of asking her if there's any research program I could help with, though my limited Japanese would probably be a hindrance, unless I'm the guinea pig.

Also, for the references, should I contact the professors by email, by snail mail, or a short letter by email saying explaining what I want with more info to follow by snail mail?
posted by Jhoosier at 9:58 PM on February 4, 2008

email should be perfectly fine.
posted by special-k at 10:02 PM on February 4, 2008

Response by poster: "You should really look into Stanford and UC Berkeley as well. They both offer top-notch PhD programs in linguistics, with more focus in psycholinguistics than SF State would probably offer.

Plus, California is beautiful."

I've got friends in Sunnyvale, I know what you mean. I also know how expensive it is.

After 5 years experience teaching EFL/ESL, I don't know that I want to focus on TESOL, though that's probably the most lucrative subsection of my area. Second/Foreign Language Acquisition, especially the neurological part, is what interests me.

Thanks for the links, iamkimiam.
posted by Jhoosier at 10:03 PM on February 4, 2008

Best answer: Dear Dr. N,

After four years in reality, or at least in Japan, I find myself preparing to return to the academic world in pursuit of a Ph.D. in psycholinguistics. I intend to apply to X, Y, and Z. Would you do me the favor of writing a letter of recommendation?

As you recall, I took Prag 451 (Comparative Indo-European Profanity) from you in the fall of 2003. My term paper, on diachronic trends in Balto-Slavic blasphemy vs. scatology, was one you shared with the class as an example of a carefully-defended thesis statement. I also submitted shorter assignments on techniques for translation of profanity when subtitling Bollywood films, and on possible substratum influence on Spanish swearing in the Basque country. At that time you said you would be glad to write me a recommendation. I elected to go into the workforce, but I have kept that offer in the back of my mind and hope it still stands.

If you are amenable, I will provide you with envelopes addressed and stamped to the various schools. The letters will need to be sent by June 19th.

I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely yours,

Note: The small possibility that Dr. N might in fact remember what you did in that class is irrelevant. Your goal here is to gracefully provide a preemptive infodump, so that recalling who you were does not become too laborious, because every additional exchange of e-mails is a chance for this to lose momentum. Likewise the envelope thing. Procuring U.S. stamps from Japan might be tricky, though. Can someone mail you some? International Reply Coupons do not reduce the sender's burden as effectively.
posted by eritain at 10:25 PM on February 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

Professors are typically used to writing letters for students some years after teaching them. The easier you can make it on the professor the better -- include lots of information about yourself (don't make him have to go look up what class you took with him or what grade you got). Definitely reference anything you might have done during the coursework/research that made you memorable. Also good to include when contacting him is anything you can show that makes him comfortable that if the department accepts you, they won't regret it and question his judgement later. Tell him the impressive things you've been doing since his class, how great your GRE scores are, and offer to show him a writing sample.

Which brings me to the writing sample. I've been on the admissions committee at my graduate program a number of times, and the writing sample was often a deal breaker (both ways). What you come up with doesn't have to be something you wrote for a class -- spend the time between now and December writing something that shows you have what it takes to make it in a research program. Pick a (correctly-sized) topic, read a bunch of articles, make some observations, possibly gather some data, and write it up. Maybe a particular construction in English that seems particularly difficult for Japanese learners of L2 English -- figure out why this is, what mistake they typically make, and what it says about the structures of Japanese and English. This will be MUCH more impressive than just a nicely-worded statement of purpose.

My department (linguistics at the CUNY Graduate Center) has a lot of students who didn't go directly to grad school right out of undergraduate, including many who realized they wanted to study linguistics after teaching ESL. There's a very strong psycholinguistics focus, as well as acquisition (both L1 and L2). Departments these days realize that most people shop around on the web so that should be your way to go when choosing where to apply. Send me a message if you'd like to know more about CUNY -- it seems to be a good match with what you want intellectually, although it's crazy expensive to live here...
posted by tractorfeed at 10:59 PM on February 4, 2008

Best answer: Yes, just email your profs and ask politely, while giving them the necessary context etc to remember you. Happens all the time. I would delete "As you recall" in eritain's sample, it's not necessary and sounds a bit pompous (without intending to, but still). I would let the prof know if you can provide copies of any of your undergrad work for them to look at. I would add a short paragraph (2 sentences?) about what you're planning to study in grad school, why you're thinking of going back now. Assuming they're close to the field you're interested in, I would make it a bit open-ended -- would they have any advice for you of programs to look at, or other advice about the admissions process? etc.

Also - in general, grad school references should be professors or people close to the field. A letter from your current boss might be nice as a fourth, above-and-beyond, thing, but it's not the academic reference you need. The admissions committee wants to hear from someone who knows what grad school in the US is about, and who can provide an assessment of your research skill etc as compared with the other undergrads from your institution. These are not character-reference letters.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:12 PM on February 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

(The advice about letters from non-academics is true in philosophy. YMMV in other fields.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:13 PM on February 4, 2008

Best answer: A couple of times, students from the past who are asking for a letter some years after graduation have done two things that helped a lot (though some professors might well disagree) -- if they did a major essay of some kind with me, they tell me what the title was or what it was about (I might well remember the essay and not the person), and some have also emailed a picture of themselves. Putting a face to a name can trigger a bunch of memories and firm up a subjective impression that might result in a more personal letter or more detailed letter than the standard "Sue took two courses from me including Basketweaving 401, achieving an A, based on a score of 87.4%, ranking her 3rd in a class of 27 students......."
posted by Rumple at 1:05 AM on February 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've heard that the University of Michigan has a phenomenal linguistics program. Several of my linguistics professors graduated from there.
posted by mynameismandab at 8:20 AM on February 5, 2008

I agree about the 'as you recall'. I had a better way of phrasing that whole bit once, but I've forgotten it. And my requests for letters did not go through my prosthetic memoryGmail, so it's gone. Any other ideas?

I'll ask my psycholing prof which programs are really prestigious for you. The last psycholinguistic paper I read (Graf Estes et al. 2007, Can infants map meaning to newly segmented words? Psychological Science 18:254-260 or here) was quite thrilling, and three of its four authors were from U Wisconsin-Madison. Especially if the interactionist theory grabs you—that's where Saffran works.
posted by eritain at 10:49 PM on February 7, 2008

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