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I am a life sciences graduate from 2015. After a career in the corporate world, I am preparing to apply to PhD programs in universities abroad. As part of the application process, I am required to provide a certain number of references (usually 2 or 3).

Is it appropriate to approach my old college professors for references after a gap of 4 years? What things should I take into account if I am contacting them?

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I agree with the other answers that you should ask old professors. I was in your situation after a break of five years, and while I felt awkward approaching people I hadn't seen in so long asking for a favor, the particular professor I asked actually did remember me and was happy to help.

I'll reiterative the general advice I was given (by a current friend who is a professor in another field, both of us in the US):

  • Try to get at least one recommendation from a professor who's had you as a student. Not having an academic reference would be a disadvantage, and having a recommendation that speaks to your ability to do research is an advantage.
  • Recommendations from industry are fine, normally your first choice would be an immediate supervisor. Your approach will depend entirely on your relationship with your peers.
  • Recommendations from friends typically aren't great, but if they're in the same industry as you, have collaborated with you on stuff, and can speak to your professional competence then they're probably good.
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  • To add onto this: a professor who had supervised you during some larger project (preferably your master thesis, if you did such a thing) is a prime candidate.
    – pgunnink
    Feb 14 '20 at 15:28
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I would definetly approach your old colleagues. Explain that you need an Entry point after your corporate phase and reason why you didn’t do a doctorate earlier / why you want to switch careers.

If you left on good terms and show them the necessity of it, I’m pretty sure they will do you the favor. At least they would here in Germany.

Consider that references of old colleagues still look better than no references. I think you should also briefly explain your return to academics in the cover letter.

If you can’t get your ex-Professor etc. to review for you, you still won’t make a fool out of you or have other negative side effects. In that case I would also look for other academics in your environment who you might briefly have worked with to ask for support.

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I would absolutely ask my college Professors for a reference letter - keep in mind that most academics are extremely reluctant to provide a negative recommendation, and would rather refuse altogether or provide a positive one (at least in Europe). So, the worst-case scenario is that they will refuse, and not a soul will be the wiser. I therefore see no harm in asking, but instead remember that "if you don't ask, you don't get"!

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