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I am an undergraduate interested in applying for graduate school in a physical sciences program. I have a good relationship with a few of my professors (it's a very small department). I would like to ask if they would be willing to write a letter of recommendation for my application.

There is one professor who I respect greatly and who has told me in the past that he would be willing to write a glowing letter. He has a great academic reputation; he publishes the most out of all the professors in the small department and in (what I have heard) are top journals in his field.

The trouble is that he has a poor non-academic reputation. For instance, a quick Google of his name will yield a page full of news articles regarding his troubles with the law. These are the top results from the search.

Would a poor public reputation like this have a negative impact on the effectiveness of the reference? In theory, I know it shouldn't. Yet I am aware that real life hardly ever works as 'in theory'.

EDIT: the "troubles with the law" involve an impaired driving conviction. For context, this is in North America.

  • "Would a poor public reputation like this reflect negatively on my application as a student?" Probably not. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 2 '16 at 23:35
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To me, the key question seems to be whether the type of misbehavior is something that is likely to be seen as impinging on their judgement as an academic.

For example, if the person was known to have been prosecuted for fraud in a company they ran, that would be quite likely to affect perception of their honesty and judgement in recommendation letters. In the example you give, however, I think that an impaired driving conviction is likely to be viewed as a form of misbehavior largely orthogonal to conduct and judgement as an academic, and therefore not likely to be any problem for you.

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I can't say I have ever checked up on an applicant's recommender in quite a few years of reading applications.

I suppose if this person is a byword within the profession for poor behavior or thoughtlessness, that could be a strike against you. That the apparent issue is with mind-altering substances does set off some faint alarms in the back of my head; it might be worth checking (quietly) with others in the field to see if this person has a poor reputation (e.g. at conferences).

But on the whole, I don't think this is likely to cause you a problem.

  • 1
    "I can't say I have ever checked up on an applicant's recommender in quite a few years of reading applications." This strikes me as very odd and unfair. What if you don't know the recommender? Do you just not care? Could it be some random guy? What if they were a Nobel laureate you simply hadn't heard of before? – user41631 Mar 3 '16 at 1:48
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    I don't care, that's correct. What's important is the applicant's qualities, not their recommender's. Anything else is a popularity lottery, which seems eminently pointless as well as pointlessly biased. – D.Salo Mar 3 '16 at 13:13

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