Marley in Muncie mulls a return to the groves of academe

It's actually a good potboiler!

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!”)

0 thoughts on “Marley in Muncie mulls a return to the groves of academe

  1. I actually think it is a good thing if graduate students had some other job before going to grad school. Sadly, I don’t have much good advice to offer other than to echo your idea of taking a couple of classes at a local university.


  2. I’d be delighted to get such a letter from a talented former student, even if it involved a request for a recommendation.

    I’d suggest doing basically what Historiann suggests: write a get-reacquainted letter reminding her of who you are, telling her about what you’ve been up to and your decision to go to grad school, and asking politely if she has any advice on the process.

    It’s not clear from what’s quoted whether you want a recommendation from her but are afraid to ask or if you’re covered in that department. But if you’d like a recommendation, you shouldn’t let any feelings of awkwardness stop you from asking (politely and with the knowledge that she might not feel like she can do it at this point — though it seems more likely that she’d say yes, but that it would of necessity be kind of generic.)
    Don’t be afraid of appearing opportunistic — it’s somewhat inevitable in the situation anyway. Try to strike a respectful, modestly apologetic but not obsequious tone, explain the situation, and offer to send old papers and whatever personal statements you are sending with your application so that she can write an informed letter.

    Finally, I don’t know your field or situation, but in my experience (history programs) it would be unrealistic to apply to Ph.D. programs without academic recommenders. It’s not impossible with M.A. programs if your grades, scores, and statements are good, but having at least one academic recommendation would still be a major help. (Professional degrees are probably different in this respect.) If you’re interested in a Ph.D. in the humanities and have been away from school for a significant amount of time, a good M.A. program can be an important step to reestablishing your record of academic achievement and getting a new network of mentors and recommenders in place.


  3. Thanks so much for posting my question, and for your thoughtful responses.

    To give a little more background, in case it helps, I received my bachelor’s degree in English ten years ago this year. I spent much of the time since then in retail, but after I’d worked into a corporate level job two mergers led to job eliminations and I went back to school for a paralegal certificate. I’ve been working as a corporate paralegal for about a year and a half. It is a good job, but I’ve found that I’m just bored out of my mind and wanting to get more involved in what I’m really passionate about.

    You’ve all confirmed my initial plan to go to a local university and take a couple classes in their Masters in Liberal Studies program. They are begging for students, and the application process has no deadlines and doesn’t require the GRE. (And I can take a couple classes without applying to the program if I need to). I don’t have the required three letters arranged for, and I do hope that my former professor will be willing to write one, but it isn’t the sole reason for contacting her.

    Later I hope to apply to a much more rigorous program, but I can’t give up my day job yet and I need to work on building that network.


  4. Thanks for writing in with more info, Marley. I think you should let your profs at the MLS program know what your intentions are from the start–it will help them help you better, and everyone likes to hear that there’s an ambitious student in the mix. You might want to go ahead and take the GRE sometime soon anyway, to get a sense of your score and whether or not it’s where it needs to be to get into the programs of your choice. (That is, don’t delay taking the GRE. Leave yourself time so that you can fix a not-so-hot score. But, taking grad classes now is a good way to counteract suspicion about you if you don’t test well. A letter from a rigorous faculty member who’s worked with you recently will count just as much, if not more.)

    I agree with JJO that it’s OK to ask your former mentor for a letter of recommendation–this is usually the only reason faculty ever hear from most students again, and it’s part of our jobs to help former students when we can. You can still get in touch with her now just to renew the contact and let her know what you’re up to and what your goals are. You don’t need to ask for a letter untiil you’re actively in the process of graduate applications.


  5. All good advice. I’d only add also check out the career trajectory of your old mentor over the time since you were with her. Situations do change, and it’s kind of a moving target. If she has possibly moved to a school with its own graduate programs that would almost be worth two letters. I’m sure that the Modern Language Association has tools equivalent to the kinds we use in history. Or the departmental website, or the alumni mags that most schools send out regularly. Possibly other students she’s taught before or since have moved into academic positions. Networks elaborate even while you’re technically not part of them, or actively part of them. And just the act of gathering information somewhat reduces the sense of distance created over time. Good luck.


  6. Something to consider: while I can’t speak for all MLS programs, I know that at many universities they serve as a kind of “cash cow” program that is more about making money than it is about serving students. You might consider, as an alternative to enrolling in an MLS program (which won’t be terribly helpful to you in getting admitted into an English program), enrolling as a post-bac and taking MA level English classes as a non-degree student. This may well be cheaper, and actually more useful to you. By the way, nobody who is affiliated with an MLS program will likely give you this advice. They’ll probably talk about how it’s a great stepping stone for a person in your situation.


  7. Good point–something to consider. However, I think more important than the goal of the MLS program is the attitude and accomplishments of the professors Marley might work with. If they’re smart, rigorous, and well-connected, then they’ll fill the bill whether they’re teaching in an MA or an MLS program. But, Dr. Crazy is correct insofar as enrolling as a post-bac in an MA course will more closely approximate the experience of your future MA program. There is value in meeting and working with other English grad students.


  8. I got in touch with a prof from about twenty years ago. She was a huge influence for me when I got my bachelor’s degree. I went on to get my master’s in the same field (history, natch) but then went to law school (I got wait-listed at two fine universities for Ph.D. but got discouraged). Of course, I lost touch with that professor and she too moved on to other schools.

    Even though I wasn’t in contact with her, thanks to the internet and digital libraries I have been able to continue with historical studies as time permitted. I always wanted to let her know how grateful I was for her guidance and what an inspiration she was for me.

    So, I finally looked her up on-line and emailed her a short note (identifying myself by university and year because she had moved and it had been a long time) telling her exactly what I just said above. I got the loveliest reply. She claimed to remember me and said that messages like that from former students help a lot when the blue books pile up and the departmental politics get crazy.

    Go for it. Write the professor. Life is short and people who are important to you should get a nice surprise in their day. And teachers get little real reward for what they do. Make someone’s day.


  9. nwmom–that’s a lovely idea. I have to admit that there are many, many professors from my college days whose classes I didn’t love, but I’ve come to appreciate them in the fullness of time. (Or, at least I’ve got more perspective on how difficult it is to be a truly great and inspiring teacher 130% of the time.)

    I’m sure your old prof was very happy to get such a nice note. Who wouldn’t be?


  10. Pingback: Friday food fights! Plus evidence of my evildoing, with links. : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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