I have recently developed an interest in a hot topic of computer science and I would like to pursue a master's degree in that topic. Looking at the available grad school programs and their admissions process they all (very understandably) require recommendation letters.

The issue is that I graduated 6 years ago and not expecting to ever need a recommendation letter for further academic development I have not kept any connections with previous professors. I could try to contact some of them who I had a good relationship with back then, but I believe the most I would get now is either a rejection or a run of the mill "This student was punctual and had good grades" type of letter.

In the past 6 years I have served in the army for a year and worked in the industry for the next 5. I believe I have a good chance of getting a good recommendation letter from past and current managers.

My question is this. Do I absolutely need recommendation letters from professors in order to get a place at a grad school program or is anybody who I have worked under a good reference? How do admissions committees look upon recommendation letters by non academics?

I am not looking for a career in academia. I want to apply the knowledge I will get in the industry. (And I intend to put this in my motivation letter)

If it makes any difference I am interested in European universities

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    Most universities will state if they require academic letters of recommendation or not. Often times for industry-oriented programs, some or all of your letters can come from coworkers, bosses, clients, etc. In the US, I think it’s common to require one academic and the rest can be from anywhere. If you can’t find this information online, you should call the admissions offices at schools you are targeting and ask. Jul 25 '18 at 12:12
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    Do you know of anyone in industry who has the type of degree you're pursuing? While it probably wouldn't be quite as helpful as a letter from a professor, someone who went through a similar program would be able to speak to how well they think you would do in a similar environment. Jul 25 '18 at 15:45

This is the sort of question that can only be answered correctly by an individual university. Some will interpret such rules very strictly, others not so much. You can, of course, inquire directly with either the admissions office or an individual academic department, giving your situation. The feedback you get should guide you and help you avoid some of the frustration.

However, as you do that, you can also try to re-establish the relationships you once had, in person if possible. You may be surprised and some of the people may remember you and wish to help. This reestablishment of old relationships is a good thing in any case and people may be able to guide you further.

The comment of user Stella Biderman about industry letters is also correct and will help in most cases.

Another avenue that might be open to you, however, is to actually approach a faculty member at one of the universities you would like to attend. You can most likely learn their office hours from an administration office. Show up, perhaps having first sent a letter stating that you will, and talk about what you would like to do. If you can interest them in you, they might be able to ease your way.

Faculty members are busy of course, so make any such meeting at their convenience and be ready to state your goals and make your case succinctly. Again, you are likely to get further advice, rather than a brush-off.

In general, I think that unusual situations don't fare well unless unusual measures are taken. If you just meld into the crowd you won't get any "special" consideration.

There are likely a lot of others in similar situations. Find a way to stand out a bit from the crowd.

  • +1: I was in a rush earlier, but had I written a full answer it would have been approximately this. I especially like the point about contacting faculty at the target university. One potential downside to this is that you’d have to do it separately at each university you apply to, which might be prohibitively time consuming or not plausible if you don’t have physical access to the universities you wish to attend. Jul 25 '18 at 13:30
  • I can endorse @Buffy's advice from personal experience having sought to embark on a PhD program over 40 years after my last academic work and in a field quite unrelated to my work experience. The key thing was to interest my intended supervisor in my proposed research, and only then discuss how to meet the formal requirement for a reference.
    – JeremyC
    Jul 25 '18 at 23:32

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