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I live in the US and have been working as an engineer in industry for over 10 years. I graduated from a top UK University, with outstanding grades in a Masters degree and several university-level prizes.

I have decided that I want to pursue a PhD, as I have a strong desire to be doing more advanced and challenging work. So, I am planning to apply to the PhD program of the best university that is in my area (which happens to be a top-tier US institution). My family and I are fairly settled in the area and we have no desire to relocate.

The institution has an admissions requirement that I have to provide three recommendation letters, two of which should be academic. Therefore, it seems that I have little option but to reach out to some of the professors that I worked and studied under during my undergrad course 10+ years ago. I am planning to provide one industrial reference and two academic; however, I am concerned that my undergraduate course was so long ago that the professors will struggle to remember me, given the hundreds of undergrad students they interact with each year. So, at best, even if they do generously agree to write a letter, it will probably be fairly generic and unspecific. And of course, it won't be in any way a good reflection of the more experienced and mature person I am now.

At worst, they might simply refuse, given the amount of time that has passed. I wouldn't blame them, and in a way I feel bad asking, after all this time.

So, what should I do in this situation, given the amount of time that has passed? Is there another way I can approach this?

The irony is that, given my industrial experience and personal development over the past 10 years, I think I am almost certainly a stronger candidate for a PhD program now than I would have been straight after I finished my undergraduate degree; however, given the amount of time I have been out of academia, obtaining strong recommendation letters is going to be much more challenging.

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    Have you asked the university if, in your situation, they will accept all industrial references? – Patricia Shanahan Jul 28 at 2:17
  • @PatriciaShanahan I haven't, no. That probably would be a good thing to try. Even two industrial and one academic would help me a lot. – Time4Tea Jul 28 at 2:26
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    I faced a similar, but more extreme, problem applying to a PhD program 25 years after my last college education. I used all industry references: two managers who had supervised me (hardware and software), and my employer's CTO who did not know me quite as well but had very good academic connections. – Patricia Shanahan Jul 28 at 2:50
  • @PatriciaShanahan ok, thank you for your advice. I will contact the school and see if I could do something similar. – Time4Tea Jul 28 at 2:57
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    When it comes to references, rules get bent and broken all over the place. Just provide what references you can get. – A Simple Algorithm Jul 28 at 14:12
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In contacting your old professors you might start by reminding them of what courses you took with them and what grades you earned in those courses. It would also be appropriate to supply a copy of your full academic transcript.

I frequently get requests like this from students that I haven't seen in 10 years or more. I comment on the students transcript and grades in my courses and whatever I can remember about the student. This isn't ideal, but it's better than nothing.

Another common strategy for students who've been working in industry for a long time is to begin graduate study by taking a few courses on a part-time basis at a local university. It's much less of a commitment by the department to allow you to take a course or two than it would be to admit you as a full-time student and provide you with financial support. If you do well in those courses then you can ask the instructors for academic references.

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    Personally, I would find it very helpful if the student came to visit me personally to talk over their past and future. It would jog my memory about them and our former interactions in a way that an email contact would not. – Buffy Jul 28 at 11:32
  • Thanks for your helpful answer, I will request a copy of my transcript today. I also like your suggestion of part-time courses. If I don't get accepted during this cycle, I will look into those and see if i can do something to build up some fresher academic references for next year. – Time4Tea Jul 28 at 11:41
  • @Buffy thanks for the suggestion. I will try to meet them in person, if I can. – Time4Tea Jul 28 at 11:42
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I believe you should look for industrial references with academic experience, of at least industrial refs who have a PhD and can comment on your likely success in that endeavor.

Unless you had some special experience with a prof that provided reason to remember you, a recommendation from a generic source will not help an admissions committee. Let your transcripts speak for themselves, and find references who can help lay out your reasons for a career change to the committee.

You are an "atypical candidate". You should embrace that.

  • Yes, letters of recommendation that primarily comment on transcripts are rarely helpful. Anyone can read transcripts. – paul garrett Jul 28 at 19:05
  • Thanks for your helpful answer; however, looking back at my time in industry, I can't think of a single person I've worked closely under in 10+ years that had a PhD (unfortunately). – Time4Tea Jul 28 at 22:08
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    In my case, with a gap of well over 40 years since my last academic work and having been out of employment for 7 years, I first talked it over with my intended supervisor and the university relaxed its requirements to one industrial reference. My referee did not have a PhD but was an engineer of international repute. – JeremyC Jul 29 at 1:21
  • @Time4Tea Then find someone to attest to your ability to learn complex subject matter, your ability to handle large projects, your determination to finish what you've started .... – Scott Seidman Jul 29 at 10:59
  • Ok, thanks for the advice. – Time4Tea Jul 29 at 17:29

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