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I am a chemistry undergraduate student applying for master’s programs in electrical and computer engineering or computer science (ECE/CS). All my programming skills are self-taught so my professors have no idea about my program switch.

I’ve already contacted some professors and they are willing to give me the references. But once I said I am not applying for a chemistry degree but ECE/CS, two of my references said they cannot give me the reference for non-chemistry related programs since they know nothing about my programming skills. Those two references are who know me the most (IMO) and I think I performed well in their courses/projects.

What can I do? I cannot put too much workload on each professor if two of whom quit.

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    Is it possible the professors are politely refusing to provide a good reference beyond the basics? I've worked with several chemists-turned-programmers, most seemed to make the shift, it's not an enormous leap.
    – smci
    Aug 17, 2020 at 7:38
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    Coming back to this question; I think it's a little odd two professors have declined for the same reason. I wonder if there is an unstated reason Aug 17, 2020 at 15:39
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    In my experience as a freelance software developer, I have seen again and again that many academics and science majors without a formal education in computer science are terrible programmers. They are often self-taught or only taught the bare minimum to squeeze numbers out of Matlab, R, or Python. The code they write is convoluted, inefficient, and almost impossible to read. It is completely inflexible and breaks if anything is changed. The CS department may want to be sure you don't fall into this category. You may need to overcome the negative connotation of "self-taught".
    – user45623
    Aug 17, 2020 at 22:11
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    I've had physics professors write recommendations for teaching English. IMO I think it's most likely they don't know you that well, or like you enough to make the extra effort to write a custom recommendation. Usually professors will have a copy+paste recommendation plus a sentence or two, and in this case would likely have to work harder to help you out. Aug 18, 2020 at 0:06
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    Is it usual where you are to get recommendation letters from professors that taught you undergrad courses? It's not where I am. Maybe from where you wrote your thesis, or did some work on the side.
    – smcs
    Aug 18, 2020 at 11:50

5 Answers 5

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Your professors are in essence, trying to help. They think that their letters would not carry enough weight to help you. They may be thinking about if they'd admit a student from a different field whose letter-writers said nothing about their chemistry experience (and apparently deciding they would not). Professor's time is valuable, and they don't want to spend it writing a letter that they think would be useless.

But once I said I am not applying for a chemistry degree but ECE/CS 2 of my references said they cannot give me the reference for non-chemistry related programs since they know nothing about my programming skills.

I do not know whether you need letters that espouse your programming skills, but the solution is to:

  • Tell the professors that you have already got a letter-writer addressing your programming skills, and ask them to write about something more specific, like your research experience, or go-getting-ness (etc., etc.). You have a letter that explains why you'd be a good ECE/CS student, right?
  • Explain why that's not a concern, and then ask them to focus on something more specific.

If they still refuse, unfortunately, there is little you can do.

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    It is not for the referee to guess how much weight her/his reference letter will have. The best a referee can do is advise the student that he or she does not think the letter will have much weight. Aug 17, 2020 at 1:59
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    @Zero Well I would certainly agree that the professors in question should be more explicit about their reasonings, but no one is obliged to write a letter or rec, least of all for someone that only took a class with them. In effect, the profs think their letter would so worthless as to not be worth their time (which is valuable) to write. Therefore, it is up to OP to convince them their letter would be worthwhile. Aug 17, 2020 at 3:19
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    I agree. In fact, I tell any student who asks me for a letter of reference that he should make a list of bullet points that he wants said about himself, identify a mix of referees who can speak to each of them, and tell those referees what he's hoping they'll mention in their letters.
    – workerjoe
    Aug 17, 2020 at 12:29
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I'm retired now but I bluffed my way into several courses - including a Masters. Luckily I went on to get the qualifications.

If you got a first-class degree in anything, (apart perhaps from a so-called "soft" subject, I won't go into details), then this in itself is enough to indicate that that you are bright enough and determined enough to cope with studying at Masters level (IMHO).

My suggestion is that you pick one of these profs who know you the most and try an experiment.

Write your own reference, laying out your strengths, e.g. Works hard, capable of team work, but also capable of working alone, excellent attention to detail in the lab, etc, etc. Make sure that you are truthful and realistic.

Now comes the experiment (let's face it you have nothing to lose)

Send the above reference to one of the profs who has refused. Ask if s/he would be willing to send it as one of your recommendations even though it says nothing about computing skills. Ask them simply to redact or amend anything that is not true. This will save them a lot of work.

The professor can respond in a number of ways. Let's consider two.

  1. They give you a straight "No". Then you are no worse off because they weren't going to anyway.

  2. They say "Yes", then you have the opportunity to go ahead. Make sure you do use the letter though or the prof will resent putting in even putting in the limited amount of work.


Note

There are Masters and Masters. Some are clearly designated as conversion courses. They are for experts in other fields who want to add new knowledge; These courses are rather like doing a three-year first degree but in one year. This is tough but can be done - however you won't get too advanced - probably you'll only be able to reach graduate level in the subject.

Others are intended as an advance from a first degree in the same subject. In my opinion, unless you are a genius) you would be crazy to attempt this coming from a different subject. Computer science is not about having written a few C programs or any other programming language. It is about understanding data structures (trees, stack, heap etc), search algorithms, graph traversal, computability theory, operating systems, machine architecture, etc. (Those are just the first that came to mind). Already being fluent in several different programming paradigms (OOP, Functional, Procedural, etc.) is taken for granted.

I think you should carefully read the prerequisites for the course and see if you believe you have them. Otherwise think again.

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  • The OP is applying to an EECS program, not a CS so it is likely their background is sufficient to the task.
    – iheanyi
    Aug 19, 2020 at 17:04
  • @iheanyi: What makes you think that an EE masters would have less in the way of background requirements?
    – Ben Voigt
    Aug 19, 2020 at 17:49
  • Ben Voigt, I would argue CS should have an even lower bar for entry than ECE as most CS classes are not as math intensive. And in fact most CS graduate programs accept people in related STEM fields. Most undergrad CS programs are pretty bottom of the barrel in so far as requiring particularly difficult technical development. Aug 20, 2020 at 4:50
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This is disappointing but you may have dodged a bullet there. It seems from the information you provide that this professor would have not gone much beyond the boilerplate stuff that admission officer can get from the transcript.

It is simple enough to state in the opening paragraph that the referee cannot comment on the ability of the candidate to perform in the proposed program but instead focus on what not in the transcript.

Indeed, the strongest reference letters are those that go beyond repeating what’s in the transcript, i.e. the discuss the work ethics, industry, collegiality of the candidate, etc. If this professor is cannot do this, then it’s unlikely the reference letter would have been useful in the first place.

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    Yes you are right but thing is I can't apply for the graduate study without even a useless reference Aug 17, 2020 at 3:55
  • looks like my initial comment was removed, ha. legenddaniel it's obvious the professors aren't interested in helping you. This has nothing to do with programming and reflects their personal issues. It's unfortunate you're dependent upon them for help. Aug 17, 2020 at 18:41
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Computer Science is more than just programming it also involves theory, logical arguments, and problem solving. If you can suggests to your professors to instead discuss you abilities as a good problem solver or abstract/mathematical thinker that should be something they can write about.

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You need to gain relevant experience so that you can obtain relevant letters of recommendation. This can be done by working in the software industry or conducting academic research that uses your programming skills.

Alternately, I would expect that some masters programs do not require letters of recommendation. You can seek those out.

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