From the mailbag at Historiann HQ:
I am interested in getting back in touch with a professor who was a great mentor for me in my undergrad years ten years ago. I unfortunately did not go to grad school as I had hoped, and as she had encouraged, so I fell out of touch. I am finally pursuing grad school again and have a renewed sense of purpose, and I would very much like to reconnect with her. I am afraid of coming across as opportunistic, and that is not at all what I want. I don’t plan on asking her, all these years later, for a letter of recommendation nor am I going to be applying to the university where she works.
I hope that you will be kind enough to give me some advice so that I don’t make the kind of mistakes that would end up being complained about on a professor’s blog!
Ouch, Marley! I guess I need to stop linking to Rate Your Students. I’m sorry if we’ve frightened you with a glimpse at the blighted souls of most liberal arts proffies. (Then again, if you’re thinking of going to grad school, you can’t be all that scared, right?)
Well, since you asked: I would write a longer version of the letter above reminding your former prof who you are, which classes of hers you took (or any other identifying information, like the title of your senior thesis, etc.), what you’ve been up to for the past decade, what has inspired you to go to grad school, and (as specifically as you can say) what you’d like to study when you get there. You should leave the letter fairly open ended in terms of what you’re looking for from her, so you could open the letter by saying something like, “I was and remain grateful for your guidance and encouragement when I was in school. I’m finally ready to go to graduate school, so any advice you can give me (about X, Y, or Z graduate programs or potential future advisers, or who should you ask for letters of recommendation, or other things specific to your field of interest) would be extremely valuable.”
You may luck out, and she might write back to say, “Marley, of course I remember you! You were the highlight of my dismal career so far! I’d be delighted to write letters on your behalf, as well as help you through the process of application.” She might say that–but even if she doesn’t, she’ll be glad to hear from a former student who wants to follow in her career path, and she’ll likely be generous with her advice and insider information. (If you saved copies of any papers that you may have written in her classes, it’s a good idea to offer to send them to her to jog her memory and remind her your undergraduate chops.)
If your former professor can’t write for you, one thing you might try is taking a graduate course in or near your prospective field as a guest student at a local university. This would ideally accomplish two things: 1) assure you that grad school really is right for you, and 2) allow you to work with a professor who can testify to your seriousness and your capacity for graduate work at this point in your life.
I’m going to turn this over to my readers, who always have lots of great advice to share: How would you advise Marley? It’s a common problem that people have when they decide to go back to school five or ten years after graduation (and for those of us who have survived our twenties, those years are like dog years!) How can she get enough letters of recommendation to fill out her file? My sense is that for people who have been out of school for a few years, it’s fine to ask for one letter from a boss or trusted senior colleague. But Marley will need letters testifying to her intellectual capacity and her ability to succeed in graduate school, and that’s something only a faculty member can provide.
Readers–what’s your advice? (And no, you can’t be a spoilsport and say, “abandon hope, all ye who enter here!”)