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I worked for a while with a company developing software, at which I also used mathematics (my field of undergraduate study) often. I was close with my employer until the company shut down, but we still keep in contact every so often.

When applying to master's programs, alongside the normal letters from my undergrad professors and research advisor, would a letter of recommendation from this employer hold any weight? I know he could write a very positive one, but it would be more concerned with work-effort, attitude, etc than anything academic.

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    I have not sat on admissions committees, but my common sense approach to this is that if the boss can enthuse about your stellar qualities, such as work ethic and attitude, and can say something about your having used lots of math on the job, such a letter would be a plus. It would be even stronger if the former boss could add a few things such as communication skills, creativity, problem solving, follow-through -- maybe I'm forgetting something -- basically, the letter should convince the committee that you would be successful in their academic program. – aparente001 Dec 9 '15 at 2:03
  • Without commenting specifically on your specific comments, as a general rule I think it is quite difficult for people who have not sat on admissions committees to provide accurate advice about the process. – Tom Church Dec 24 '15 at 1:18
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There are quite a few issues to be careful about when considering a recommendation letter from an employer. Some examples:

  1. Make sure they understand the culture of academic recommendation letters. In industry, lots of the time recommendations are more-or-less a token statement that someone worked for you and didn't cause any issues. Academic recommendation letters are very different, so make sure they have an idea of what kind of letter to write.
  2. What exactly is the background of your letter writer? This is a bigger issue with PhD (or research-based masters) recommendations, but if your recommender doesn't have the background or credentials to understand what it takes to become a successful researcher or academic, then it's unlikely that they will be able to speak intelligently about whether you have those traits.
  3. How common are industry to graduate school moves in your field? In a field like mathematics or physics, my guess is that most candidates do not have significant work experience and any work experience is usually far removed from the subject material. In a field like that, the people evaluating your profile are more likely to discount an industry recommendation, especially if it comes from a non-PhD, non-researcher. On the other hand, fields like business or engineering have many more applicants from industry and are probably used to seeing those recommendation letters, so it is unlikely to put you at a significant disadvantage.
  4. How well are your other bases covered and what are your alternatives? If you have recommendation letters that already focus on your undergraduate classes and research, then it may be more valuable to have a letter describing traits you exhibited in the workplace than another "he got an A in my class" letter.

In general, an employer's letter is never going to be as good as a great letter from an active researcher that you worked closely with. But most applicants don't have three of those on hand. Can a letter from an employer be useful? Definitely. Given the alternatives, is it the optimal decision for you? It's possible, but that depends on a lot of factors that you should probably spend some time thinking about.

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    I guess a question would be -- even if it's not particularly useful, is a good employer letter ever harmful? – galois Dec 7 '15 at 3:28
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    @jaska It could be harmful if the employer praises attributes that they think are good for business but might be perceived poorly by the professors reading the application. – jakebeal Dec 7 '15 at 3:49
  • @jaska employer letters can be very harmful, for the reasons stated by jake above, and because they may give the impression that people are not serious about academic work. This is less of an issue in an MA program, where many people are not going to be doing scholarly work, but few programs are OK with being merely a credential. If the employer accidentally conveys that you are a "great programmer who will probably be running her own company soon" that could be a death blow to an application at some schools, because they want to train mathematicians, not CEOs. – The Pompitous of Love Dec 23 '15 at 17:20
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I've been on math grad admissions committees before and our school gets a number of applicants from people who've been in the work force for some time. For these applicants I generally look for 3 things: (1) academic background to date, (2) how far they are removed from academic math now, and (3) motivation to pursue grad studies.

(1) is about your abilities, preparation and your work ethic in the past. This is something your former professors/research supervisors discuss and is reflected in your transcript/CV.

(2) is mostly about if you've forgotten too much advanced math to succeed in grad classes. This is reflected in your CV/letters/statement, including how long you've been out, and your GRE score.

(3) is because motivation and work ethic are just as important as ability and preparation to succeed in grad school, and these may have changed quite a bit since you finished undergrad. So I want to see evidence of this in letters from people who have had recent interaction with you, which might exclude your former professors. Also, this should come through in your statement and may be supported by your CV as well.

Assuming your employer can address (3) and possibly (2) in a compelling way (e.g., by giving concrete examples rather than a pro forma generic statement), I would find one letter from an employer quite useful. You should still be able to submit 3-4 additional academic letters, which should be sufficient to discuss your academic experiences, so I don't see this letter taking away anything from your application.

  • what happens if (3) is strong but (1) is weak? Also, as long as the application shows a solid ability of research, then forgetting some knowledge is a bad thing, right? – Ooker Dec 23 '15 at 15:37
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    @Ooker if (1) is weak, then one should try for master's programs that admit students with a comparable level of preparation. motivation isn't going to replace preparation. – Kimball Dec 23 '15 at 18:24
  • @Ooker for your second question, i guess you mean "forgetting some knowledge is okay." certainly it's okay if you forget some things, but if you've been away from math for many years, there's a concern you've forgotten basic skills, like reading and writing proofs. (for master's students we don't really care if they've shown an ability of research---none of our master's students do a thesis option though I think they technically can--this varies by country, culture, etc) – Kimball Dec 23 '15 at 18:29
  • Yes sorry I had an absentminded. For the LOR, I mean, most of the time you only work for one advisor. Requiring three strong letters while you only closed to one is quite difficult. – Ooker Dec 24 '15 at 8:59

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