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I'm currently applying for a Masters degree in a competitive program, and most things on my application are going well.

The problem I'm having is with securing a letter of recommendation - I have already secured two strong letters, one from a workplace manager in the field that I am applying for and another from a professor in an unrelated field. Regarding the third letter, a professor that I spoke to said that he could write a "positive, but not enthusiastically strong" recommendation.

From reading up on answers here and on other sites, it seems that in most cases I should look elsewhere for a letter. However, in my case I do not yet have a letter from a professor in the field that I am applying for. There are a few other professors in the field that I will reach out to, but assuming that they reject my request, should I take this letter?

Another option that I have is to secure a strong third letter from another manager at my workplace. Would taking a third letter from a work manager be better? I am leaning towards this being the case, but I also do not want to jeopardize my application by not having a letter from a professor directly in the field I am applying to.

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    If you have to ask, the answer is no. (Less glibly: Recommendation letters that aren't effusive are toxic. Not only are such applications competitive, but mediocre recommendation letters are often used as polite anti-recommendations.) – anomaly Oct 24 '19 at 16:16
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    Just because someone writes a letter, doesn't mean you have to include it in your application. Why not let him write the letter - then see what it says? – Alan Campbell Oct 24 '19 at 23:43
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    I've been told that there can be different approaches to letters of recommendation between European and American professors. American letters tend to be "effusive", while European letters tend to be more realistic. – Paul Price Oct 25 '19 at 0:42
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    @AlanCampbell : In most places the applicant never gets to see the letter, it is sent directly from the professor to the hiring committee. – vsz Oct 25 '19 at 4:44
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a professor that I spoke to said that he could write a "positive, but not enthusiastically strong" recommendation

This sounds like a polite way to tell you to ask somebody else.

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    +1 up vote and to expand on this idea - in a recent discussion with professors responsible for admission to graduate programs, the ubiquity of strong letters has resulted in a new interpretation where letters are a binary 'overwhelmingly positive' or 'anything but overwhelmingly positive'. Seems like the professor in this question is politely indicating that their letter would fall into the latter category... – user97709 Oct 25 '19 at 23:14
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    I don't agree completely. Sometimes (often?) they become meaningless rather than polarized. A while ago I was involved in some admissions committee, and most letters ranked students in the top 10%. Including several letters from the same person, who ranked three different students in the top 10% (in a program where there were less than 10 students). My own take is that I tend to ignore (instead of take negatively) terse letters. In strong letters I look for facts as opposed to generalizations, so I often also ignore "strong" letters. – Martin Argerami Oct 26 '19 at 14:38
  • Interesting! A very plausible alternative to polarization. – user97709 Oct 27 '19 at 3:22
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I also do not want to jeopardize my application by not having a letter from a professor directly in the field

Having a lacklustre letter from someone in the field you want to go in to is significantly worse than having an extremely positive letter from someone outside the field. A committee is likely to interpret the first letter as an expert saying that you really aren't very good. It would be smart to seek a very positive letter from elsewhere and ask your letter writer to focus on your potential to succeed etc.

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    I would say this highly depends on the type of letter (and the differences between the fields---a highly enthusiastic letter about art abilities means nothing for a math degree). The letter might be not enthusiastic because the professor thinks not very highly of the student, or because the professor just doesn't know the student that well. – Kimball Oct 25 '19 at 14:51
  • So basically your answer is to take the strong letter from a second industry person. I tend to agree. This is only a Masters program after all. Presumably the career plan is to return to industry. – A Simple Algorithm Oct 26 '19 at 21:13
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You need to understand what “positive but not enthusiastically strong” means in the context of this specific referee.

I have seen too many reference letters that are positive and enthusiastically strong but totally meaningless because they do not reveal anything about the candidate or do not provide anything but narrow context for the letter: “This student is the best student of my class and should be awarded a full scholarship” is totally unhelpful.

Having a well-written, clearly balanced letter with lots of context can be very valuable, even if it comes with caveats and especially if it comes from a specialist in the field.

It seems that, given the reservations expressed by your third referee, you might want to arrange a 15-minute conversation to discuss the situation with this person and politely ask if your referee can clarify reservations. It could be a difficult conversation, but just asking for an in-person meeting to clarify what is meant by “positive but not enthusiastically strong” letter will be immensely useful. If the referee does not agree with having such a meeting then you should consider asking another person.

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  • I strongly support this solution, especially the last paragraph. Even if the final letter doesn't come from this person, it would be useful to know what are their reservations. It might be something that you need to address generally. It might also turn out to be something trivial. – Buffy Oct 26 '19 at 15:35
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Since the professor hasn't outright declined your request (which he/she could have), you could still ask him/her to write the letter and see how positive and enthusiastic it is. If it is good and then you may still be able to use it for the application. Otherwise you can ask another person to write you a letter. In fact you could get many people to write you letters and then only pick the best ones for the application.

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  • You are implying the candidate should have access to the reference letter, which in most cases does not (or should not) happen. – ZeroTheHero Oct 26 '19 at 15:07

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