Today’s topic is one we see asked fairly often, so we wanted to address this multi-faceted problem and offer a few ways you can potentially skirt around grad schools’ requirements for letters of recommendation. It’s important to note, however, that this advice is primarily geared towards non-traditional students (i.e. those who have been out of school for a number of years and wouldn’t necessarily have the same resources as a current undergraduate or recent grad). If you are currently an undergraduate student or have graduated within the last 2 years or so, you absolutely must get those letters of recommendation! While non-trads may have a good excuse for not having LoRs, since they’ve been out of school for 5-10 years, admissions committees will be much more curious about a recent graduate who cannot muster up these documents.
That being said, here’s a few things you can do for those letters of recommendation
- Take some time and do research: Whether as a research assistant or lab tech, doing paid research, even if only at minimum wage, allows you to form strong bonds with a professor who can then write you a letter of recommendation. Many professors are looking for a minimum 2-year commitment to research before taking anyone on, so this might not be the fastest route, but it’s certainly a surefire way to acquire a letter of recommendation when you might not have one, especially if you’re currently an undergrad scrambling to get letters.
- Talk to old professors who may still remember you: This is probably the least desirable option, in terms of awkwardness and strength of the letter, but if worst comes to worst, you can try going back to your undergraduate institution to talk to an old professor. If you explain your situation, that you finally decided on applying to graduate school after some time away from academia, you may find some sympathy and have some assistance there.
- Use your current employer: Some graduate programs do not specify who the letters of recommendation should come from, and if that is the case, you may be able to use a current employer as a reference. The catch is that this may not be as useful if you are not currently in a field related to your graduate program of interest. If you’re baking cakes, your head chef’s recommendation may not be useful for applying to a physics program, though of course it can still help in demonstrating your dedication and perseverance! If you’re working as an oilfield chemist, your supervisor’s recommendation may carry more weight for a chemistry Ph.D. program.