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I have a LOR from my previous employer and I want to use it for the MSc application I'm preparing. However, there is a certain sentence in this LOR that even though I understand its meaning (based on facts I know of course), I don't know if it will be good for my application.

"Major characteristics of his job were the clean, well commented code and the smart, yet often unorthodox solutions."

How bad can it be for my application?

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Some other questions you may want to ask (if they haven't been asked already): "How are industry recommendations viewed in academic applications?" "Will my recommendation letter be taken seriously if it's not kept secret from me?" In many parts of academia it is considered bad form for applicants to know what their letters say, since this discourages complete honesty on the part of the letter writers. – Chris White Mar 23 at 17:46
@ChrisWhite I think it is bad form for students no to waive their rights to see the letter, but lots of letter writers show their letters to students. – StrongBad Mar 23 at 18:50
While I see nothing wrong with the phrase, it would be better if the LOR provided examples. – StrongBad Mar 23 at 18:59
That phrase would not stop me from interviewing you, but I would ask you about it during. (Private sector, not academia) It tells me that you're very capable, but perhaps still a bit inexperienced and will need a bit of mentoring until your work is industry standard. It also tells me that you're a creative thinker though. That can be much more valuable in the long run than having someone who does "industry standard" work. Like I said, I'd ask you about it at the interview. – RubberDuck Mar 24 at 8:13
"Smart and unorthodox" sounds like "We didn't get what he was doing at all but the code worked exceedingly well so we didn't care.". – Traubenfuchs Mar 24 at 9:07
up vote 23 down vote accepted

If I were reading this statement, I'd take it as quite positive.

  • Clean, well-commented code is a very good thing, especially in a young programmer
  • Smart solutions are good
  • Unorthodox could be good or bad, but going into an academic context it's probably more good than bad.
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Qualifying 'smart' with 'yet' makes me feel that letter-writer meant to bring across something negative after (when would you qualify smart with yet if the qualification is positive?), but they might have been too clever for their own good as I don't know what it might be. – gnometorule Mar 23 at 16:46
That's exactly the reason why I worried about that statement. I know what he means by stating that, because of some particular facts. However a third person may interpret it in some other way. – Arkoudinos Mar 24 at 0:20

"Major characteristics of his job were the clean, well commented code and the smart, yet often unorthodox solutions."

I don't see any way in which one could reasonably interpret this statement negatively. If the solutions were smart, then by itself obviously that's a good thing, whether or not they were orthodox. And if they were both smart and unorthodox, that's even better, because:

  1. the fact that they were unorthodox shows that you came up with them independently rather than just regurgitate some smart but unoriginal idea that everyone is taught in freshman year;

  2. the fact that they were unorthodox and smart means you are not only creative and think independently, but your independent thinking actually leads you to smart solutions that haven't been thought about by (many) others. What's not to like about someone who has such characteristics?! I think only in some crazy place like North Korea would this be considered a bad thing.

Finally, the use of the word "yet" can be either a subtle logical error on the part of the writer, or a reference to the (probably correct, IMO) fact that if a solution is unorthodox, statistically speaking it is likely to be less smart than an orthodox solution, since if the unorthodox solution were superior then there would be room for someone to popularize the unorthodox solution so that it would eventually become orthodox. In other words, a situation in which there is a smart yet unorthodox solution is a kind of "market failure", or an opportunity for "methodological arbitrage", and hence somewhat rare. With that said, such situations clearly exist, and any person who has the ability to discover and exploit them is in my opinion worthy of high praise.

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I like (+1), but your longer analysis in the last paragraph fits, to my ears; the statement "unorthodox, but smart." "Smart, but unorthodox" to me is either a logical fallacy (as you say it might be), or an attempt that fails to communicate a negative. – gnometorule Mar 23 at 18:20
@gnometorule "this man is a genius" can also be a failed attempt to communicate a negative. I.e., if you are willing to assume that the writer's intent is different from what they actually wrote, then anything becomes possible. So I think it would be foolish to try to infer something negative here. We cannot know for sure what the writer meant, and possibly there is a microscopic logical inconsistency of a kind that one finds in every text above a certain length, but so what? The most logical thing to do is to interpret the words of substance "smart" and "unorthodox" and just ignore the "yet". – Dan Romik Mar 23 at 18:28
Thanks for the sensible, yet well-written reply! – gnometorule Mar 23 at 18:40
"Smart, yet unreadable."/"Intelligent, yet useless" - the OP is right to be ambiguous about the statement. It would be more positive if it were something like "Clean, yet efficient"/"smart yet practical"/"unorthodox yet portable" - in other words, if the second term is charged with more positive meaning. In academia, however, "unorthodox" (as jakebeal says) can be viewed positively and so it's probably less of an issue than when applying to industry. – Captain Emacs Mar 23 at 23:53
@DanRomik Yes, your interpretation is perfectly possible, but the ambiguity is essential part of the formulation and we do not know whether intentionally or not. Without more context which the OP does (understandably) not provide, it's reading entrails what the writer might have had in mind and what effect that may have on the reader. If the reference is generally good, the sentence may be interpreted as positive. If the reference is a mixed bag (and that means it contains a couple of so-so-ish statements), I would treat it with scepticism if I were the OP. – Captain Emacs Mar 24 at 0:40

I know I'm going against the grain, but I wouldn't hire you and I think the one who wrote the sentence was trying to warn future employers without writing down something obviously negative and actionable.

I interpret the sentence, especially the ‘unorthodox’ bit, as saying that you don't play well with others, don't really function in a team, and don't always deliver what was asked of you or what the situation demanded.

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You seem to forget you are on Academia SE, not Industry (Workplace) SE. – scaaahu Mar 24 at 3:25
-1. Regardless of whether you're from academia or industry, just the fact that you already know you wouldn't hire the OP based on such insubstantial information deserves an immediate downvote. Even on the off-chance that your ultra-snap judgment happens to be correct, that would be by pure luck, since the only reasonable way to reach such a conclusion would be by reading the rest of the LOR. – Dan Romik Mar 24 at 6:27

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