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I need a letter of recommendation, but am unsure how to get it.

I am applying to graduate school. I need three letters of recommendation. I have 2/3. Some schools to which I am applying require the third to be from an academic, such as a professor.

My undergraduate education was online. I never interacted with a professor. Even if I could get a letter of recommendation, I am not sure that it would be relevant. I am applying to graduate school in a field completely unrelated to business.

Do I submit a non-academic reference? Do I ask a professor with whom I have no pre-existing relationship?

  • Did you have e-mail contact with any professor, perhaps in turning in assignments? – mac389 Jul 13 '15 at 0:18
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    I would contact the institution that provided your online degree and ask them how they propose to help you solve this. It is a weakness of the system they created - perhaps they have a solution - otherwise, they certainly need to start working on it. It is of course unfortunate you discover this now- but maybe you can help future students (they might make some changes). Did they not appoint an academic advisor who knew you a little bit at least? – Floris Jul 13 '15 at 13:52
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First of all, what I'm about to say may vary depending on the field. I'm in mathematics.

The role of the recommendation letters is for someone who can be seen as an authority to tell the admissions committee how well you will do in academia. Someone from outside academia is unlikely to be able to tell them that. You need at least one recommendation letter from someone with experience in academia. Part of the work you do in undergrad, once you realise that you want to go to grad school, is build relationships with professors who could potentially write recommendation letters. A letter from your supervisor at work will tell an admissions committee nothing about how well you will do in academia, unfortunately. You need someone who can say, based on personal experience with grad students, that you will be successful.

Unfortunately for you, it sounds like none of your professors know enough about you to write a good recommendation letter. However, an application (at least in math) without any academic reference would be very unlikely to succeed. I would say that you should pick a professor from a class where you did well, and there was considerable coursework that the professor can base his recommendation on, and email that professor and ask for a recommendation. It won't be an excellent letter, since they don't know you personally, and they may refuse to recommend someone they don't know personally, but you should try. The recommendations are one of the most important parts of a grad school application, and by not getting to know any of your professors well enough that they can write you a recommendation letter you've put yourself at a huge disadvantage.

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PhD programs of any worth in the United States require three letters of reference from faculty who can attest to your academic qualifications - and who have met you in person.

MA programs (especially unfunded ones) are much more lenient and will take students who are borderline.

I'd recommend looking into a physical (not online) MA where you can work intensively with some faculty for one or two years who will write for you. Choose carefully though, because students at some poorly run MA programs have little contact with faculty. Be sure to talk to students in the program right now as well as graduates. A good program will be proud of its alumnae and happy to introduce to them to prospective students.

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    "PhD programs of any worth require three letters of reference" - probably, this extremely general-sounding statement should be qualified with a location for which it is valid. – O. R. Mapper Jul 13 '15 at 7:39
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    @RoboKaren: I cannot provide any global (or even very wide-spread) overview, but from what I have seen in Germany, getting a position with the opportunity of getting a doctoral degree (at least of the unstructured style) works a lot like applying for a job; you send an application letter and a C.V. to the head of the department you are applying to, and you get invited to an interview. If it is an "in-house" application (at the same uni or possibly even department where you got your Master's), there might be some communication between the Master thesis supervisor and the professor, but ... – O. R. Mapper Jul 13 '15 at 8:09
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    ... that does not necessarily happen in the form of a written letter. At the same time, it is not very likely students actually get in touch closely/frequently enough to warrant a meaningful letter of recommendation with any university employees other than their Bachelor and Master thesis supervisors (who are often doctoral candidates), i.e. normally no more than two people. Incidentally, letters of recommendation are very rare over here in general, and during my academic career, I have only ever encountered two instances of people needing any; in both cases related to going abroad. – O. R. Mapper Jul 13 '15 at 8:17
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    @RoboKaren I think the entire letter writing business is rather specific to North America. As such, I think most places outside the US / Canada don't traditionally ask for any letters. I certainly didn't have any letters when entering grad school. – xLeitix Jul 13 '15 at 13:07
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    @RoboKaren: The only mention of a country in the OP's question refers to the university where they did an online degree, so strictly speaking, that does not indicate that the OP is necessarily from the USA. But even if so, I'd consider it rather absolutely reasonable than pedantic to mark a country-specific statement as such on a site that is directed at a global audience. – O. R. Mapper Jul 14 '15 at 12:46

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