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I am completing my M.Sc thesis from a Russel group university. I am applying for the PhD in US universities. I wanted a recommendation from my supervisor, but he had set up some unrealistic expectations for me and told me he can't give me "most enthusiastic" recommendation.

Other professors whom I told the whole story suggested me to contact my internal examiner, since he is the one who has read my thesis and knows all about it. Now, when I asked him, he immediately agreed to give me. He told me that he believes I am a bright student and he realized that I have understood the topic really well, and that he realized it more during my viva. I have the intellectual capability to do a PhD.

However, he told me that he would mention that I need to improve my writing considerably over the course of the PhD. According to him, the letter will be broadly positive, but he will mention this also.

Now, I am wondering: will it be then considered a good recommendation letter or a bad recommendation letter?

42

If I got such a letter, I would interpret it positively. The comment about improving your writing actually supports the main, overall, view, since it is obviously an honest appraisal. If this person can predict success for you overall, that is likely to be heard.

Sometimes an "overly" positive letter might be discounted as a sort of boilerplate that doesn't seem honest.

It is a problem of interpretation, of course, and others might/will interpret it differently. But the most important thing is the prediction of success.

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It depends on the person who reads the letter, that is mostly, your potential advisor. Some advisors have a rather "hands-off" approach and prefer to work with students who get up to speed fairly independently - such an advisor might not want to work with you on your writing. Some advisors have more of a "hands-on" approach and like to actively work with the student to help them improve their skills (given that they see potential in the student).

The letter in this case might leave a more positive impression to "hands-on" advisors---and that's a good thing, because if your writing skills indeed need work, you will probably have a better experience with that type of advisor.

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  • 1
    Thank you so much for your answer. But while applying for US universities, I thought recommendation letter is read by the graduate committee rather than the potential supervisor.
    – user631697
    Sep 16 at 13:51
  • @user631697 Good point - I have no experience with PhD admissions in the US. I can imagine that the committee would make the selection with particular advisors in mind (that you might want to name explicitly in the application). But maybe someone with US experience can clarify. Sep 16 at 15:16
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You don't mention if English is your first language. I agree very much with Buffy's answer -- but if English isn't your first language, you might ask if the recommender can attest to having no problems communicating with you. This isn't a tremendous issue, as you've just completed a degree in an English-speaking country, which allays many concerns, but if a written communication issue is being brought up, it might be a good idea to put a fence around it so it doesn't get generalized to all communication.

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From what you have told us, you have been promised a good academic recommendation with reservations regarding your writing skills. This will be considered a good letter, with one bad aspect.

Looking at your four previous questions in this forum, I see two things. You appear to be of Indian origin. And your written English, though pretty good for a second language, is far from perfect. In academia, you are what you write. Is there a course you could take to improve your written English? You can't be the only student with this issue.

In what way were your supervisor's expectations of you 'unrealistic'?

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