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The answers to previous questions indicate it's possible to apply for and complete a PhD even at age 65+ (example, another example).

If these applicants did undergraduate studies at a conventional age of 20+, by age 65+, their undergraduate supervisors are probably retired or deceased. Who writes the recommendation letters then (especially if the applicant's job did not involve research)?

If the answer to this question is also applicable to all students whose supervisors are retired or deceased (e.g. a campus shooting kills all of a student's supervisors), I'll edit the question to include the broader scope.

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    I applied to grad school after working and my boss wrote me a letter of recommendation. Is there a particular reason you think the answer wouldn't be "coworkers, colleagues, bosses, and anyone else competent to evaluate the person's work"? Is there some aspect you expect to be different between 65+ year olds and 35 year olds? – Stella Biderman Apr 17 '18 at 23:22
  • @StellaBiderman don't graduate schools usually require at least one academic reference? – Allure Apr 17 '18 at 23:23
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    It don't know. I do think it seems silly to expect someone's undergraduate professors to write them meaningful letters of recommendation 10 years later, let alone 30. Presumably the PhD applicant has a relevant career, and has met and worked with academics and PhD-holders in their career capacity. I also suspect that 65+ year old applicants are sufficiently outside the norm that the usual rules don't apply. – Stella Biderman Apr 17 '18 at 23:28
  • @StellaBiderman that requires the applicant to know people who can comment on the applicant's research ability however. Even if the applicant knows some academics or PhD holders, if the career does not involve research, they might not be familiar with the applicant's research ability. – Allure Apr 18 '18 at 8:10
  • Are you asking out of curiosity, or what? // There's going to be some variation among individuals in how the person would approach this. // Sometimes in this situation it helps to take one or two courses as a non-matriculated student, and ask the instructor(s) for a current recommendation. // If your former professors are gone or won't remember you, you can send an unofficial transcript to a department administrator, explaining the problem, and asking for a somewhat generic LOR. – aparente001 Apr 19 '18 at 2:07
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I am not aware of a specific rule requiring academic references. It may be more a matter of common sense. If an applicant has recently completed a lower degree, the committee may expect to hear from professors who saw the applicant's work.

I was admitted to a PhD program over 25 years after my master's degree was awarded. What I had done in the last quarter of a century was far more relevant than my last academic experience.

I got references from my manager, my prior manager, and a chief technology officer. The last person was less familiar with the details of my work, but had a PhD and connections to the department where I was applying.

  • Did you work in research during the 25 years? If not, do you know what happens if the applicant did not work in research? – Allure Apr 18 '18 at 2:17
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    @Allure My work was not specifically labeled "research", and resulted in trade secret information and patents, not published papers. On the other hand, several of the projects were at least as substantial and difficult as my dissertation research. – Patricia Shanahan Apr 18 '18 at 2:25
  • This is a useful but limited answer, since it covers one possible path. I'm kind of thinking the question is too broad and too hypothetical. – aparente001 Apr 19 '18 at 2:08
  • @aparente001 I'm inclined to agree. I can say "This set of references worked given my situation". I can't say anything, for example, about what would happen for someone with a similar gap who was not in a demanding technical position in their proposed field of study. – Patricia Shanahan Apr 20 '18 at 13:24

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