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Is it unusual to ask for a letter of recommendation from an advisor who sat on my thesis committee a decade ago? I received my MA in (human) geography in 2009. One of my committee advisors was a sociology professor. At the time he encouraged me to consider a Ph.D. in sociology. The recession and personal life factors intervened and I ended up working in government. A few years ago I started on a second bachelor's program (online) in sociology while working, which I have just completed. Based on this experience, I realize I do indeed want to pursue a doctorate in sociology.

I do of course have professors from my recent sociology program who will provide me with LORs, but I would really like to ask my former thesis advisor. Yet I am embarrassed that I did not maintain contact with this advisor. Any advice on how to approach this? Any thoughts much appreciated.

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  • There is nothing wrong with asking a reference from an old acquaintance or not being in touch. However, I am not sure about the level of contact the OP had with the potential referee. If that was a one-time event and did not include teaching, supervision or contact over a considerable amount of time, he might not remember and/or not be in a position to provide more than a typical reference. – user117109 May 14 '20 at 16:41
  • Hello Titus, thanks for your response. The professor I am hoping to ask is one who sat on my MA thesis committee. He was not the chair, but he was the only sociologist on my committee. He supervised my work and was immensely helpful in guiding me in the social theories undergirding my project. He also helped with qualitative methods. This was over a period of three years. Cheers, Rhodope – Rhodope May 14 '20 at 17:18
  • In that case I do not see any problem, and if you can visit his office even better. Academics are always happy to meet old students and are perfectly aware that life happens so you certainly won't be out of place. – user117109 May 14 '20 at 17:59
  • There is nothing you can lose and there is something you can get. :) You weren't interested in sociology befpre, now you are. For me, It would be a compliment for someone to remember me after a decade.. I would help you, in his place. – Visnja Jovanovic May 15 '20 at 5:14
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First of all, congratulations on completing your second bachelors degree online, while working, 11 years after finishing a Masters. In my opinion, this is a bigger accomplishment than might meet the eye, and certainly a bigger accomplishment than you get credit for on paper.

There is nothing wrong with asking for a letter of reference 11 years or 50 years later. However I do very much sympathize with you that it is a little bit embarrassing that you did not maintain contact for 11 years. I have had the same experience, with more than one reference writer from the past. One of them did not even reply to my email saying that I wanted to re-connect with him (I did not even ask him for a letter of reference, just wanted to meet him since I was back in town briefly); another took forever to reply but did remember me and said he was willing to help in anyway; and another one replies to me immediately every time I write to him (once was after 5 years of no contact and once was after 4 years of no contact). In every situation, I am embarrassed that I didn't stay in touch, and it takes me a long time to write to them, and I feel guilty for it afterwards.

However professors often have hundreds of former students, so you can imagine they have a wide spectrum of experiences: from people who they generously provided thousands of hours of time and love and care and resources to, who show no appreciation and never speak to them again, and even might backstab them at some point in the future; to people who stay in touch monthly by email even if they were barely acquainted.

It is not going to be the first time that this professor has been asked for a letter of reference from someone who he doesn't know very well, since we often get asked for reference letters in some of the strangest circumstances, so don't worry about that. It is also not the first time this professor has had someone not stay in touch wtih them, just think about the thousands of students he's had in the past.

The professor will probably be happy to know that you are pursuing an academic career like he recommended 11 years ago, he might be happy to see that you still remember him and considered to ask him rather than someone else, and maybe he will take the opportunity to help you (which often leads to you helping him, later down the road). It has certainly been done before, with gaps much longer than 11 years.

You probably don't want to go in right away asking for a letter of reference though.

  • Get back in touch with him as soon as you can, with an email reminding him of who you are and which thesis he advised.
  • Make the email personal (make sure it does not look like a copy-paste job): Tell him some of the ways in which he influenced your life, for example quotes of his that you still live by everyday.
  • Update him on where you've worked, and that you did the second bachelors degree
  • Tell him that you now wish to pursue the PhD just as he originally recommended, and why the recession caused you not to do it before.
  • Keep it short, please !!!

The last point might seem a but surprising, considering everything I recommended for you to do. However you just need 1 or 2 sentences for each of these points. If you go into too much detail, he might feel obliged to do the same in return, and then you'll never get any reply, because it will be a reply that requires a lot of devotion on his end.

He will either not reply at all, in which case you can tell me and I can try to help you with a follow-up email. Or he will most likely reply saying that it's good to hear you are pursuing a PhD (maybe even with some advice, but don't expect too much). At that point, you may thank him for his kind words, and say that you are happy to know that he supports you, and would find it helpful if he could convey that in a short letter of reference. Make sure your emails are pristine and very polite and respectful.

There's still a good chance he will not reply or will not be helpful, but there's an even better chance that you do get some positive support/encouragement, so it is most certainly worth a try.

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    Hello user1271772, thanks for all your extremely useful advice. I will follow through and let you know what comes of my efforts. Hope this comment is the right way to respond to your post; I am new at communicating on the stack exchange. Cheers, Rhodope – Rhodope May 14 '20 at 17:09
  • @Rhodope no problem at all, and feel free to comment any time you want! – user1271772 May 14 '20 at 17:10

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