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Recommendation from volunteer supervisor vs. professor


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I will be applying for admission into a Master's program for archaeology that accepts only two letters of reference, and am having some trouble deciding whom I should ask for the second letter.

I am more than ten years out of university and have been working full time as a project manager in the design field since then. My current supervisor has already written a very positive letter or recommendation that outlines my experience and strengths, and how they would be beneficial to studying archaeology. For the second letter, I am trying to acquire a reference from an accredited person in the field of archaeology or anthropology because, aside from a minor in anthropology, I have very little background in those areas. The professor who would be my advisor, should I be accepted into my first-choice graduate school, has indicated that a reference from one of my undergraduate professors would be preferable, particularly because his department has ties with my alma mater.

However I doubt that my anthropology professors will remember me after such a long time, although I received high marks in their courses. I am leaning toward asking the director of excavations at the archaeological site I volunteered at this past spring. The director holds a Ph.D. in archaeology, and gives lectures at universities and archaeological societies in the area. He knew me by name, and thanks to the restricted size of the volunteer groups, was able to observe all of us closely. Before I left, he enthusiastically agreed to write a letter for me should I ever need one, so I know I would receive a good reference from him. The downside of this alternative is that I worked there for only two weeks, and not as a professional or academic, which may reduce the significance of the letter. I will be returning as a volunteer to the same site for another two weeks next spring.

Any feedback would be much appreciated.

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I would check in with the professors from your undergrad. Maybe none of them do remember you, but maybe they do. If you are in the area of your undergrad, I would offer to come see the professor(s) at the school because it is easier to remember a face & name than a name by itself. Did you write papers for any of the classes? If you have some sort of substantial work, that will likely refresh their memory even more. If you can, doing as your POI wants by getting the recommendation from your undergrad is the way to go. In most cases (though I don't know how it works at the particular school you are applying to), convincing the POI that he wants you is more than half the battle. I would not disregard his suggestion unless absolutely necessary. You don't want to come off as thinking you know better than him.

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I agree with LJK. Try re-connect with your former Anthro professor(s). Tell them what you accomplished since you graduated and how much this reference means for you. Surely, at least one of them will be helpful.

Having said that, I think you are in a good position. Even if obtaining a reference from your undergraduate institution doesn't work out (try though), a reference from the professor who knows you through your work also sounds like a very good option.

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