I finished my MS in mathematics 5 years ago. Over these years I have been teaching at a community college (primarily calculus 1,2,3 with analytical geometry and Ordinary Diff. Eqs). When I was in my masters program I was having trouble narrowing my interests and decided to stop at my masters and start teaching. During this time as an instructor I have become very interested in some applied mathematics (biology in particular). I plan to apply to several PhD programs in the near future. With that said, I didn't keep in touch with too many people from the university I attended. I did stay in touch with a couple of my professors (on a minimal basis) and plan to ask them for letters of recommendation.

My questions...

Would a letter of recommendation from my department chair at the community college be of any advantage (and even suffice as 1 of the 3 required)? Or should I call a professor from 5-7 years ago that may remember the grade they gave me? To me the latter seems very generic and I feel my department chair could say more about my dedication to mathematics and teaching.


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    Does your department chair have a Ph.D.? That could make a difference, since the admissions committee may wonder whether someone without a Ph.D. really knows what is needed to succeed in a Ph.D. program (so if you have a choice between several colleagues to ask for a recommendation, I'd choose one with a Ph.D.). Feb 17, 2013 at 23:29

3 Answers 3


I agree, the letter from your current department is likely to be more meaningful than a letter from someone who barely remembers you. The people reading your file will immediately recognize you as a "non-traditional" applicant (i.e., not straight out of undergrad), and will not be surprised that the letters in your file do not follow the pattern of traditional applicants.

While many employer letters are utterly dispensable in graduate admissions, it's a different story when the employer is a math department, "even" at a CC. Chances are that some of your target departments (at least those that combine pure and applied math) are struggling to staff their remedial courses. Slightly cynically speaking, they will be happy to have an instructor with faculty-level experience and TA-level salary (in addition to research prospects).


I was accepted into a number of Computer Engineering PhD programs with recommendations from the following people:

  1. My then-current department chair at the high school where I taught physics and computer science.
  2. A professor from the graduate education program where I got my Master's degree in teaching.
  3. A professor who taught "how to teach physics" courses at another university, where I had been taking a series of the courses in order to become a better physics teacher.

I would have loved to get recommendation letters from professors from my undergraduate engineering curriculum, but my degree was from 15 years prior, and no one would have remembered me, nor been able to write anything substantial.

The letters I did get gave detailed information about my work performance from a teaching perspective for technical classes, and from a learning perspective in (somewhat) technically-minded classes.

Bottom line: get letters from people who can comment on your ability to do research, if possible, but more importantly from people who know you well and can add information to help a committee decide on whether or not to accept you.


As a "non-traditional applicant," you will be evaluated more on your work experience, and less on your coursework than most. So a letter from your department chair where you teach would be very helpful.

Fortunately, your work experience is very germane to your graduate study aspirations. I (and most others) can see how an interest in "applied mathematics (biology in particular)" grew out your your teaching calculus, analytic geometry, and differential equations. (And there's the old saying, "those that don't want to practice, teach. Those that don't want to teach, do research.")

Even in a research-oriented graduate program, teaching ability is a "tiebreaker." In your case, with your heavy experience, a potential "deal maker." Graduate students are expected to do research first, but teaching, second. You already offer the teaching "bird in hand," and if someone has doubts about your academic background, the likely thinking is that since you can teach this stuff, you're not likely to be bad.

While research earns the advancement, teaching "earns your keep." You may take particular interest in programs where there are tenured associate professors, people who can't get promoted to full professor based on research, but get tenure based on teaching ability.

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