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I graduated with a BS in physics in 2009, so it's coming up on ten years since I've been in academia. I have a great relationship with one professor, with whom I'm still in contact, and my old advisor would most likely also help me.

The problem is that most places I see want three letters, and I don't know of any other professors that'd likely remember me. I do, however, have about half a dozen former class mates. I have a friend doing a postdoc at Yale and another at Lawrence Livermore. I also have another friend who just finished her dissertation at Berkley.

I have a wide range of research experience, am published (I helped an experimentalist and got tacked on to the groups paper in phys rev), and have fair grades from a very challenging curriculum (e.g. general relativity, qft of a scalar field, theoretical techniques, intro to string theory), and am not worried about the subject GRE hell (I've done it before and scored in the 80%s once and 90%s the second time).

My problem is that usually one needs 3 letters. I currently work in tech, and could get a great letter from my department's boss, but the only time I do math there is when I make corrections to complex integrals an EE's whiteboard. Or when I'm bored and start calculating connecction coefficients for a metric or dervice generators for SU(n) n>2.

Any advice would be most appreciated!

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Your situation isn't clear. You say you have a professor you are still in touch with and a boss who is also ready to write you a letter---what about that experimentalist, with whom you published? Won't he/she give you a letter?

And of course, you can take a letter from your current boss. What graduate course are you applying to? If it is analytical, your current boss could comment on your analytical skills.

It is important too to remember that graduate departments are not just looking at your letters for evidence of your math/physics skills. They can get that information from your grades too. They are also interested in learning about your work ethic, work habits, your ability to communicate with peers, your ability to work in a team. I am sure your current boss can provide great commentary on these other very important skills.

  • Yes, I have two professors who will definitely write me letters. Most of the programs I'm looking at requires 3 (high energy theory, PhD programs). My work is largely unrelated to physics, although you have valid points about the skills. I haven't had to use a tensor in almost a decade (although I have practiced my skills and read text books on my own in the interim). – user45878 Sep 5 '17 at 3:25
  • You should also ask letters from profs, whose classes you took and got excellent grades. since you have a BS, I am sure you have many profs. from the many classes you took. – Arjun Sep 14 '17 at 19:19
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From what you say it is not clear how your current job is related to the PhD you plan to study. But in general, excellent recommendation letter from your working place might be a good complement to two academic letters. At the end, your work did require technical / analytical skills, and those are the skills that will be useful in academia. Had you been a soccer player or dancer, this would have been a different story. Also, probably you can ask your boss to focus on some aspects that you think are important to emphasize (e.g., technical skills).

  • Having at least one recent letter is also important because admissions committees want to understand why you've decided to go to graduate school now. If the reason that you're applying is that you just got laid off, that would look bad. On the other hand, if you've got a letter from a supervisor saying that you're a hard worker but the job just isn't enough of an intellectual challenge for you, that could be helpful. – Brian Borchers Sep 2 '17 at 20:25
  • I wouldn't say that being laid off would look bad. It's the economic situation, not an individual flaw. And I don't think any letter would say, such and such person is getting laid off and is therefore applying for grad. school. -:) – Arjun Sep 14 '17 at 19:17
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Two ideas that might help:

  • Do what you can to find out about what the institution you are applying to might expect. You might be able to correspond with some prof there whose interests align with yours. In fact, this might be a good thing to do in any case - expressing interest. You should learn something about the prof's interests first, of course.

  • In addition to your letters, I assume you make a statement yourself. There, you can and if space permits, include a short section saying that you have been working in the field for a while and so have included both prior academic letters and more current professional letters of recommendation. Have the latter letters stress your brilliance, of course.

  • Thank you. The first is almost a given; a PhD program is really hinges on the advisors. And yes, there is absolutely a statement, and I would most definitely be able to address the gap. – user45878 Sep 5 '17 at 3:27

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