I have completed my Master's degree 25+ years ago, and I decided to go back to college to further my education with a Doctorate degree. I fulfill all the requirements, except for the need to provide 2 academic references.

How should I proceed to obtain the references? Should I hunt down my former professors in their retirement and hope they retain their faint memories of me?

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    I suggest contacting the admissions office and checking that they're really interested in academic references in your case. The generic requirements are probably aimed at applicants who have been in education more recently than you. Try to get referees that can vouch for your critical thinking and problem solving, and if you have been working in a similar area to the doctorate you should ask referees that can vouch for your subject area knowledge.
    – ping
    Commented Aug 1, 2015 at 17:05
  • @Alexandros I just wanted to emphasize the fact that they are really old. They were already old back then. Commented Aug 1, 2015 at 17:08
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    You can use the "edit" button if you would like to rephrase. (Registering your account will help make sure you don't lose this ability.) Commented Aug 1, 2015 at 17:16
  • @DeniseRadi I've edited to remove the age joke while hopefully preserving the idea.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Aug 1, 2015 at 18:43

2 Answers 2


Your situation now is very similar to my situation in 2001. I got all my references from colleagues who knew my recent work. Fortunately, I had been doing research-like work, except in an environment where it lead to product and patents, rather than papers.

The professor who supervised my master's degree project was still working, and I could have contacted him, but I felt that my recent work was more relevant than a project I had finished in 1975.

I made sure one of my references was academically well-connected, although working in industry at the time. The other two were a software engineering manager and a computer hardware engineering manager who could write about my range of knowledge as well as my research potential.

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    Agreed. They are more likely interested in hearing from someone who knows what you have been doing recently, rather than from someone who knew you only 25 years ago.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Aug 1, 2015 at 19:22

I was recently in a similar situation. Although my time away from academia was somewhat shorter than yours (10-15 years), and even though some of my professors were still active in research, I did not think they would be in a position to write a strong recommendation letter. "I vaguely remember this student from 15 years ago, and she got A, so she must have done alright," is not the sort of recommendation you want.

My solution, which has worked out well for me, was to spend a year taking graduate level courses at a local university. In addition to taking the classes, I went out of my way to introduce myself to the professors at the outset and explain my situation. I was able to get involved (in rather minor roles) in two research projects, one each semester. This allowed the professors to write much stronger letters than I could have gotten from professors of 15 years ago. It also had the benefit of improving my applications with recent, relevant coursework and research. Even if you have all of the requirements, some recent academic experiences may be valuable, depending on your field. "Fulfilling all the requirements" and having a strong application are not quite the same thing.

Of course, this may not be applicable to you. It is a full year, at least, without funding. It requires a nearby university at which you can get involved with classes and research. It delays your starting time by at least another year. These are all drawbacks, and may be more or less burdensome depending on your situation.

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