Applying to graduate school many years after college

I am considering applying to PhD programs, to study sociology. I am a teacher, and would like to study education, particularly how it relates to race and class. However, I’m pretty far out from undergrad ('01), and from my MA ('03). I did very well in college (at a SLAC), and if applying straight from there, I would have had excellent recommendations. However, 20 years later, not so much. (My advisor and I actually kept in touch, but he passed away a few years ago). I tend to test well, so I’m not super concerned about the GRE.

My two primary concerns are:

  1. I have no idea where to get letters of recommendation; and
  2. I have no idea where to get a writing sample. I write things all the time for various jobs and volunteer activities, but none would exactly be research-based sociological papers.

I was looking into taking some summer school classes at local universities (I’m in Boston, so there are many on offer), but they all seem to be online still for the summer, and I am wary of paying a whole lot of money without having the opportunity for a professor to get to know me well enough to write a letter of recommendation that rings true (“Was not noticeably dancing to TikTok dances while I was teaching” is not exactly a ringing endorsement? Can you tell I’m a teacher and this is my life currently?).

What do people who apply to PhD programs later in life do? I’m not getting any younger, and would like to be able to apply in the fall, if possible.

Hey there!

Yeah, this is a tricky one. Usually for people who are a few years out, I’d still encourage them to contact their old professors - they may not remember you, but you may be surprised; some of them may. (An old student of mine from about 10 years ago reached out on LinkedIn a few days ago and I immediately remembered her.) Usually in these cases, I would tell the candidate to send that professor their resume, their statement of purpose, and a little blurb about what they’ve been doing in the interim.

I think you have the right idea in trying to take some summer classes to get some more recent feedback from professors who know your work - and since you have an MA, you want to take graduate-level classes with graduate professors. To give yourself the best shot, you may want to delay this by a bit so that you can take in person classes, but there are ways to get close to professors virtually too depending on the size of the class.

More importantly, though, you need research experience to be competitive for a PhD program in sociology. If you haven’t been doing research with a sociology professor/PhD holder recently (like within the last 5 or so years) and don’t have a professor/sociologist who can testify to your potential to succeed as a researcher in the field, you’d be less competitive for PhD programs in sociology. Most competitive applicants are going to have ~2-3 years of part-time experience doing that. So rather than thinking about applying in the fall, I would think about this as a period of time when you strengthen your application portfolio.

First, I would say you should consider programs in schools of education rather than (or alongside) pure sociology programs. They’re going to be more forgiving of someone whose primary previous experience is K-12 teaching. There are PhD programs in Sociology of Education - for example, Teachers College at Columbia, UC-Irvine, Stanford, Harvard, Chicago all have one. Since you want to study education + race & class, that may just be a better fit for you anyway; you’ll be in good company with lots of former teachers.

As for a writing sample - you may want to sign up for a graduate class that has a seminar paper requirement. That can help you get a letter of recommendation AND can help you write and get feedback on a paper to submit as a writing sample.


Thank you! It’s disheartening to hear that I would need research experience in order to apply… I’m not even sure where I would get that!

What is your professional goal?

That’s a good question, and I don’t have a good answer, but I have a bunch of bad answers? I love research and crunching numbers and analyzing trends. Some sort of research gig analyzing social trends about basically anything is my life goal? I don’t need to earn a ton, although I need to earn some. I love teaching, but am fully aware of the realities of the academic job market, so that’s a pipe dream.

Do you need a doctorate to do what you want to do? Doesn’t sound like it. A one year certificate program in data analysis, or a two year Master’s degree in statistics where your focus is on social trends seems like a much better fit, no? And less time?

I’m not sure a doctorate gets you what you’re looking for.

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I guess I’m also into the journey, as well as the destination? I’d like to learn as much as possible.

Appreciate and respect that. But you could be working in your desired field in a year or two, vs. the MUCH longer way around the mountain with a doctorate…

Take a look at some of the big foundations which work in educational innovation/improved access/DEI; a couple of think tanks doing criminal justice reform, sentencing disparities/holistic defense, organizations like TFA, Kipp, Baltimore Corps which have their own metric gathering/analysis teams. If virtually everyone has a doctorate- then continue on the path you’re on. But if many/most have a different path, you may want to consider that.

I think folks at the World Bank, UN, who do this kind of work are PhD’s. But there’s a whole world of actual reformers who fund, manage, launch, create disruptive social sector organizations and I suspect they are not dominated by PhD’s. And the analytical/research work- seems like a quickie program would teach you what you need to know to pivot.

If your interests extend into public health- some great, not too long programs in that field!

If you have time, say, 20 hours a week, to volunteer, then perhaps identify the research groups at your local universities whose research work interest you, and send in your CV/resume. If you get to know them, then a letter of recommendation might be possible after a few months of work.

@blossom & @juillet are right on the money.

Is a PhD the most useful credential for the work you want to do? Is “Sociology” the field?

Have you looked at the goals of any PhD programs? a big part of the PhD application process is the fit between your goals and their program. Check out the research areas that programs and staff are currently interested in.

Don’t start a PhD unless you have a really clear reason for doing one and know that you like research!

fwiw, like you I worked between UG & MA and MA & PhD. I found it very do-able, but one of the reasons was that I knew exactly what I wanted from each degree.

How about keeping your job and going part time. I agree with studying Sociology and Education in a School of Education. Recommendations from colleagues and supervisors will work fine in this context and many won’t request a writing sample other than a sop. The caveat is that the easier it is to get into the program the less likely you are to get funding. So, you might have to pay.

A school of education also will have lots of non-traditional and part time students.