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I am a finishing PhD student in Mathematical Physics in a very good and prestigious EU University. I have excellent publishing record, including a single authored technical paper, have been awarded international fellowships and awards and have given invited talks in places like UCLA, Berkeley, Stanford, Rutgers.

My referees except for my supervisor are world known, matching the top of the top. My supervisor is very mild, not very expressive and relatively young but excellent scientist and known in his field of expertise.

Nevertheless for a long time I got no postdoc offers although I applied to nearly 60 places. At some point I applied for three places informally without having to provide my supervisors letter and I got 3/3 offers (plus one more I had to decline for technical reasons).

This got me really worried. One of the people who offered me job told me that the letter of my supervisor was not bad at all but it was not written in a "strong language" that would convince somebody to hire me. He told me he has seen "much stronger letters" especially from supervisors from Italy, Spain, USA and Russia.

In these 3 successful offers I had in two cases I had known from before the principal investigators and I had given talks at their departments. They both were more than happy to offer me directly a job.

Isn't it weird that my supervisor did not have any role in these successes and as a matter of fact isn't it plausible that his letter is simply not well written (I am his first PhD student) and this was the reason I did not get offers from all those initial places? Not even our collaborator gave me a job offer or at least shortlisted me.

I just want some opinions and also maybe to let this note exist here for other people who might get frustrated.

closed as unclear what you're asking by FuzzyLeapfrog, Brian Tompsett - 汤莱恩, Tommi Brander, JeffE, Flyto Mar 6 at 15:24

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    Did you see the letter that your supervisor wrote? If yes you can probably answer your own question. In any case I don't think a single reference letter matters that much, especially if you have an excellent track record. – Erwan Mar 5 at 18:47
  • I have not see the letter but everybody else told me the opposite. Since you cannot really trust a finishing PhD student the advisors letter is what really matters. – Marion Mar 5 at 19:14
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    What is the actual question here? – Tommi Brander Mar 6 at 6:12
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    The next time someone tells you that your advisor's letter was "mild", you might gently suggest that they communicate this opinion directly to your advisor. Writing effective recommendation letters is a skill like any other—it has to be learned. – JeffE Mar 6 at 9:23
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It is possible that your supervisor just gets misinterpreted. S/he might be trying to say that you are the best of the best, but writes it in such a way that it is easy to misinterpret.

Suppose, for example, that you got a letter that said "Marion knows more about Calculus than anyone else in the world." How would you interpret that?

(If you aren't a mathematician, "Calculus" can be interpreted as just a first university course. Thus, it reads like "Damning with faint praise")

This happened and resulted in a lot of pain. It isn't a hypothetical example. The example is close to the actual quote.

Suppose you later learn that the writer, not a native English speaker, is a foremost authority on mathematical analysis and one of the best mathematicians in his country and the world and is a direct mathematical descendant of Landau (Weierstraß, Gauss, etc.) and by "Calculus" he really means "Real Analysis and the Theory of Functions". It was just a language and interpretation issue that the candidate didn't learn about for years.

This was only revealed when a colleague of the writer happened to see a copy of the letters sent and gave an better interpretation. But, by then, it was too late.

I would suggest this, which would have made the above case moot. Try to arrange that someone trusted by both you and your advisor can review the letter and give feedback. Best would be one of his/her colleagues. You don't need to know the results of their discussions, but if you are in a similar situation, you will probably get better letters and your advisor will learn to write better letters.

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[edited following OP's comment]

It might not be the reason, but it looks to me like you had a "quantity over quality" approach in your applications. It might depend on the domain, but I find it hard to believe that each of these 60 positions you applied for really fits your profile; and I doubt it's humanly possible to carefully adapt each application to the project for so many cases.

Postdoc jobs are very specialized, it's important to target the ones which really fit your interests and skills, and to make this visible in your application. For example it's often a good idea to contact the PI to ask questions, make them aware (and convinced) of your interest and discuss the details of the project.

Nevertheless it's true that there is something to investigate about all these refusals, especially in contrast to the acceptances you received. I'd suggest that you simply ask the PIs who refused you what was the problem with your application. Some of them probably won't reply or give you a standard answer, but it's worth trying: their feedback might answer your doubts about this letter, or might point to another issue that you were not aware of.

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It sounds as though you may have run into a (parts of) Europe vs US cultural difficulty, as noted here and here.

The author of the the second link says it better than I could:

American letters of recommendation, like American tenure file external review letters, must be entirely and energetically and overtly positive (but without degenerating into gushing or encomium). “Objective” and “realistic” are not qualities of this genre of writing. As a department head, I had more than one tenure case almost derailed by European external review letters that very reasonably provided a “strengths and weaknesses” assessment of the candidate. In the U.S. context, there can be no mention of weaknesses.

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  1. Yes it is "weird".

  2. You sound like a hot runner. Please feel good about yourself.

  3. Make it happen for yourself. Please. At the end of the day, you need to leave this advisor, far far behind in the dust. Go get an offer on your own. Adapt, overcome. You are good enough to do it!

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