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I heard from several sources that European recommendation letters for postdoc positions tend to be minimalist and understated, while the American ones are way more enthusiastic. I have two questions about this phenomenon:

  1. Is this cultural difference taken into account by members of postdoctoral search committees in high-ranked American universities?

The second question is more personal:

  1. I'm a European grad student aiming at a postdoc position in an American university. I'm currently gathering my recommendation letters, and I'm supposed to get one from one of the leading figures in my field. He knows my work well, and I believe he has a good opinion of me. On the other hand, being familiar with his style of expression, he will never write one of those "omg he is the best researcher ever" letters that top American universities expect to see (he won't write it even for someone who is actually the best researcher ever). So the question is: Should I use his letter in my application or am I risking that the search committee will translate the adjective "good" (which is a very significant compliment considering the letter writer) to "horrible"?

ps. For whatever it's worth, I work in pure mathematics.

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    You can bet that if you are aware of this difference, professors reading letters also are. – Kimball Sep 6 '15 at 2:34
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    I'm supposed to get one from one of the leading figures in my field -- this sounds very strange. (Note, normally I would not advise including a lukewarm letter from a big name.) – aparente001 Sep 6 '15 at 3:55
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    I've always wondered why US academics self-inflicted the pain of writing and reading such verbose recommendation letters... – Massimo Ortolano Sep 6 '15 at 6:44
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Is this cultural difference taken into account by members of postdoctoral search committees in high-ranked American universities?

Yes, certainly. If your letter writers are sufficiently well known, then there's no issue, since the letters they have written in the past will serve as calibration. (If someone shows poor judgment in their letters, then committees will start discounting the letters, but committees can and do adapt to good judgment expressed in unconventional ways.) If the committee members haven't seen many previous letters from someone, then there's more of an issue, but everyone will be aware of the phenomenon of European-style letters and will try to take that into account.

As a general rule, letters still need to offer concrete details and say something substantive. A very short letter along the lines of "This young mathematician does solid work and would make a reasonable postdoc at University X" won't help, because it offers nothing but a vague sense of approval. However, a substantive letter will be useful even if it's more understated than the U.S. norm.

I'm currently gathering my recommendation letters, and I'm supposed to get one from one of the leading figures in my field. He knows my work well, and I believe he has a good opinion of me. On the other hand, being familiar with his style of expression, he will never write one of those "omg he is the best researcher ever" letters that top American universities expect to see (he won't write it even for someone who is actually the best researcher ever).

This doesn't sound like a problematic situation to me. If you're worried, you could look into whether he has ever had a student or postdoc who subsequently got a job in the U.S. (Presumably the answer is yes, in which case his letter must not have ruined the application.)

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The answer to (1) is certainly yes. Although a "European-style letter" could conceivably hurt you, I recommend getting the letter anyway. People reading your application will be aware (at least somewhat) of the cultural differences. Indeed, see RoboKaren's answer to a related question here.

Although I have never participated in a postdoc hire myself, my understanding is that what matters most is persuading one or two people that they really want you. If they already know you and your work, they might not read your application all that carefully, and if these people are extremely enthusiastic, the rest of the hiring committee might simply go along with it.

Another potential obstacle to keep in mind is that since you are further away, American researchers might know you less well than competing American candidates. For example, American candidates might have met these researchers at multiple conferences, and/or have close relationships with their advisors.

One way of mitigating it (which is not always possible, but it's worth investigating) is by travelling to appropriate conferences where you can meet American (or other) researchers with whom you might want to work. It is especially good if you travel with your advisor, because then he/she can introduce you and get you invited to lunch/dinner with the "bigwigs".

Good luck to you!

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    I think your interpretation of how postdoc committees run is a little more casual than the real situation. If people are already interested in you, they will read your application more carefully, and they will read with a positive impression already in their heads. Attention is a scare resource in hiring (since there are so many applications), so you want to increase, not decrease it. – Ben Webster Apr 25 '16 at 15:23

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