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I noticed in the book "A Beautiful Mind", by Sylvia Nasar, that a recommendation letter, for PhD applications, written for John F. Nash runs as follows: This man is a genius.

Then, out of curiosity, I wonder that if such reference letters for PhD applications work in the present days?

Image taken from the Graduate Alumni Records of Princeton University:

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    I have not read this book, but: Are the documents such as that recommendation letter provided by references at the the end of the book? If not, you should doubt that some parts of the book are fiction and imaginary. May be John Nash does not write recommendations like that. – enthu Oct 9 '14 at 8:19
  • @EnthusiasticStudent: I think you are right; its source reliability should be checked. I recall that the book does not include the original letter ... – Megadeth Oct 9 '14 at 8:24
  • That seems to appear in many sources, some of them at Princeton, but all the references go back to Wikipedia, which in turn links to Nasar's book. – Davidmh Oct 9 '14 at 11:06
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    Oh, thanks, I see. I just cannot for now recall all the details. – Megadeth Oct 9 '14 at 11:10
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    If you get someone famous, like a person who has won a Nobel Prize, to write "This person is a genius." for your letter, then it'll probably be taken at face value. I doubt the average professor would be willing to consider even writing this due to the implications. – Compass Oct 9 '14 at 12:38
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Even though the event that inspired this questions may or may not have actually happened, the question is still a valid one.

I suspect it greatly depends on who wrote the recommendation. If the person writing that recommendation is a great authority in this field and is known for not giving praise easily, then such a recommendation letter might help. On the other hand, if I were to write such a letter...

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A letter that simply states "This man is a genius" is not helpful for judging the likelihood of a PhD applicant being successful since it takes a lot more than genius to succeed at a PhD and genius is not a requirement for success. Further, the skills required to become "academically famous" do not necessarily make you better at judging the abilities of others. Academically famous people many see more good students than others, but that is not enough for me to take their word at face value, I want to see evidence of why the recommender thinks the person is a genius. Finally, if the student is so good that nothing more needs to be said about, I would be worried about why an academically famous person would be unable to convince his department to accept the genius and convince the genius to attend.

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  • Are all PhD candidates geniuses then? Or, is that just one skill among many that might help one be a good PhD? – Ben Oct 9 '14 at 18:57
  • In the context of a recommendation letter, you cannot just take it as a logical statement of fact. In that context, I would read it as "you would be extremely foolish not to give this person all the support s/he needs to finish the PhD". – tripleee Oct 10 '14 at 7:09
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    @Ben I edited my answer to clarify. I don't think all successful PhD students are geniuses. Being a genius is just one factor among many that might help. Most factors are not binary and strengths in one area can be offset in others. – StrongBad Oct 10 '14 at 7:24
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    "Finally, if the student is so good that nothing more needs to be said about, I would be worried about why an academically famous person would be unable to convince his department to accept the genius and convince the genius to attend." The genius could have all sorts of reasons for wanting to study somewhere else. They might want to work with a specific person who's the world expert on the subject that interests them most, for example. – David Richerby Oct 10 '14 at 11:42
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    @DavidRicherby I agree, but also think a useful letter would include those reasons. – StrongBad Oct 10 '14 at 12:03
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In my experience, most communities of high achieving people don't openly value intelligence. Generally they dismiss it and say that hard work and luck is what's really important. And they would laugh at you if you wrote your IQ score on your resume.

If someone said "Person X is very smart" and didn't write anything else, I would see it as a backhanded compliment. Like "X is smart, but he doesn't have the traits that are actually valuable in academia."

In fact, if I don't like a professor, and someone asks me what it's like to work with them, I usually say something like "this guy is brilliant." Which is true for pretty much every professor at a good university.

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    In my experience, academics do openly value intelligence (at least as it applies to their discipline). Most conversations I have about personnel include a discussion of their mental abilities. But merely saying "Mr. X is a genius" is just not convincing enough by contemporary standards. It's a "show, don't tell situation": it would make a similarly crappy letter to write, in its entirety This woman is an excellent [academic in subject X], but obviously academics in subject X openly value excellence. (I heartily agree that intelligence is not sufficient for academic success...) – Pete L. Clark Jan 8 '15 at 5:36
  • @PeteL.Clark I'm honestly curious -- how do you and your colleagues judge the intelligence of a researcher, if not based on his accomplishments (that is, what he published, officially or not)? – Pandora Sep 18 '15 at 13:36

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