After college, I never kept in touch with this professor even though he was one of my favorite professors, did very well in his class and have thought of him often. I was basically conflicted over his expectations of me and feared he would just see me as a failure. Fast forward 29 years, I'm fine, healthy and a working professional in marketing but switching to pursue a Master of Social Work. I want more purpose and skills and my graduate school of choice requires/strongly encourages an academic reference.

I already have an employer recommendation - do I need an academic one? If so - how might you approach him. Keep it simple?

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    Does this answer your question? How should I phrase an important question that I need to ask a professor?
    – Sursula
    Mar 21 at 5:19
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    If you only had involvement with him through attending his class, it seems nearly impossible that he will remember anything about you. The program you are applying to will recognize this, so even if he writes a letter, I don't think they will attach any value to it. Mar 21 at 8:17
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    "it seems nearly impossible that he will remember anything about you" – and more importantly, even if he does, it is basically impossible that he has anything to say that will be of any relevance the OP's current situation, 30 years later. Mar 21 at 13:03
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    Is this professor still working / alive? Mar 21 at 13:47
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    @Sursula -- that question doesn't address the time aspect, which is really central to this question. Mar 21 at 14:41

3 Answers 3


I agree with @DavidKetcheson . One class, 29 years ago? Did you do something absolutely stunning in his class? Like, say, write a paper that led to a publication in a serious journal with him as co-author? Otherwise, how will he remember you?

Instead, in your application, simply point out (in the appropriate spot) that it's been 29 years since you were in school, so you don't have any academic references.

If the school you are applying to welcomes students who are returning in mid-life, they are surely used to that. And, if they don't welcome such students, you may be better off elsewhere. If you graduated 29 years ago, then you are in your early 50s. You probably don't want to be the only 50 year old in a sea of people in their 20s and 30s.

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    I started my PhD around age 40, and also had no meaningful academic references. I had kept in touch with a few professors (when I went back for recruiting purposes) but they had no ability to say anything meaningful. I stuck with employer references and it was fine.
    – Anonymous
    Mar 21 at 13:22
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    I initially thought the answer is ok, but the last paragraph ("you probably don't want to be the only 50-year old...") is irrelevant, if not harmful. OP knows whether they are ready to be the odd-person-out in a sea of youngsters. I think it is not good to burden the outlook towards further education with the concern about age differentials. Mar 25 at 21:55

You are what we call an "atypical applicant", and review committees will not expect a typical application.

I don't believe a recommendation from a casual professor three decades ago will prove valuable to a review committee, and think you should find a better way to tell the committee what they need to hear.

In terms of holes in your application package, I would think that what your more contemporaneous recommenders couldn't provide that an old professor might is some statement that they believe you can successfully complete the coursework in their program. Nobody wants to accept students that are more likely than not to flunk. This is probably most important for PhD programs than Masters programs, as there's a bigger financial and time commitment to the students, so flunking out is more tragic. This is less important for Masters programs, which happen quicker, with less financial support from a department. This is why Masters programs are easier to get into.

In any case, if your GPA was a solid B or higher, that might be enough to convince a committee. If it was lower, you should probably include something in your application package telling the committee why you don't think their coursework requirements will be a problem to pass.


I have found that professors do remember me 20 years later if I did research with them, but don't necessarily remember me otherwise. Sometimes, if they have previously written a letter of recommendation for me. However, I wouldn't necessarily ask for a letter of recommendation that old. In my situation, I am seven years out of academia. I may look for a job relevant to my old field (not in research, in computational something) some day, but I think at this point I would ask for confirmation of employment from those employers rather than a reference or a letter of recommendation. It has just been too long. If you want to do something similar, validate that you took specific classes or did specific projects, maybe you could get permission to attach additional supporting materials like syllabi (if you or the professor still have them) or course notes or assignments?

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