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I'm about to finish my undergraduate degree in mathematics in France, and expect to be close to the top of my class in a top university here. Next academic year, I will be studying for a master's at UPMC (Pierre and Marie Curie University). I intend to apply for PhD programmes in the US or the UK.

Since I will be only a few months into my master's program when I apply, I expect that some of my letters will be from my undergraduate professors. The head of the math department and a professor I've had for over a year said they would write letters for me, but neither one of them have published anything in the past decade.

How much value is given by the admission program to a letter of recommendation written by a teacher at a foreign university?

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    There is a lot of text here for what I think is the question of: how much value is given by the admission program to a letter of recommendation written by a teacher at a foreign university – StrongBad Apr 22 '16 at 15:20
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    @TomChurch Yes, I am asking about Ph.D programs, once I graduate from UPMC. But I am aiming for a fall 2017 admission so I have to send my applications in at the beginning of my master's degree. – Charlotte Nguyen Apr 22 '16 at 16:01
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    I edited to remove a lot of material which I don't think added anything to the question (and just made it less likely that people would read it). But please feel free to edit it back if you think I've made a mess. You can get to the edit history by clicking the "edited X time ago" link above my avatar (or the avatar of whoever edited the post most recently). By the way, you didn't state which country you want to do your PhD in -- that could make a difference. – David Richerby Apr 22 '16 at 16:09
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    This question now poses a well-defined question "How much value is given by the admission program to a letter of recommendation written by a teacher at a foreign university?" However, it seems to me that this question is not what the OP really wants to know; the OP wants to know "How should I deal with the fact that my French professors may not know how to write strong letters for US programs, and that they may not be in a position write the strongest letters for me?" – Tom Church Apr 22 '16 at 17:00
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    @TomChurch My question initially was whether admission boards would give any relevance to a recommendation letter written by a foreign professor that they probably don't know, as most of my teachers don't publish anymore (or at least not in the field I am interested in). But after reading the post suggested by Massimo Ortolano a couple of comments, I think I have a better idea of how foreign application are viewed! – Charlotte Nguyen Apr 22 '16 at 22:15
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The letter being from a foreign university will not itself be a big problem. I think there's always some difficulty switching systems. The most important qualification which might not be obvious (I treat a general high profile and knowing you well as obvious) is that they should be able to convince the reader that they have a good sense that they know what it takes for a student to succeed in the program they are applying to. On average, professors in France are less familiar with US or UK graduate programs than US or UK professors are, so they have a bit less authority on that topic. That's not a huge problem if the letter is otherwise good, though.

I'm actually much more concerned by you saying that they haven't published in a decade. If they really are unknown to the admissions committees that is not good. You might actually ask them if there are any places in the US or UK where they know people well, and where previous students they've written letters for have gone. You don't have to go to those places (though it's worth thinking about), but if the answer really is that there aren't any, that's a big red flag, and you might think a bit harder about the professors at UPMC (which does have a pretty high international profile).

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How much value is given by the admission program to a letter of recommendation written by a teacher at a foreign university?

A priori, the same value given to other letters. The value will only change if for some reason the letter is less helpful (e.g., has little information to contribute, or doesn't know how to write a useful letter---I would not be too worried about the latter in your case, but it is a common problem for letters from academically undeveloped countries).

I'm less concerned than Ben Webster about some of your letter writers not being research active. Many people who go to math grad school in the US come from liberal arts schools or schools where many faculty are not research active. This doesn't mean they can't evaluate your preparation, intellectual abilities, motivation, enthusiasm, work ethic, etc. It is true that coming from lesser known schools (within or without of the US or UK) can make it harder to get in top grad schools.

  • Perhaps I'm wrong and focused too much on that detail; everybody reads things differently. I think it would be much more useful to know if they have sent students to the US previously, but that's not information I have. – Ben Webster Apr 26 '16 at 0:27
  • However, I think a committee member in the US is much more willing to assume that a faculty member they've never heard of at a school they've never heard of in the US has some basic conception of a Ph.D. program in the US is like and what skills it requires, as compared to a similar person in France. So research activity isn't most important thing, but it's a valuable proxy for being personally known. – Ben Webster Apr 26 '16 at 0:29
  • I just had a look at some of the letters for foreign graduate applicants; several went out of their way to mention the recommender's experience in the US, I would guess because of the issue I mentioned. – Ben Webster Apr 26 '16 at 0:38
  • @BenWebster I agree that coming from an unknown school in a foreign country may be more challenging from an unknown school from the US, but the OP says they are coming out of a top university in France, which I think would lend the letter writers credibility. But maybe we just look for different things in letters, and my expectations may be lower than yours. – Kimball Apr 26 '16 at 1:27
  • I suspect it's also a matter of what we read between the lines of a description that's missing a lot of important information. Based on what the OP has said can imagine that she is a situation where the letters the she gets are not very helpful, and can also imagine that actually they will be fine, just depending on the letter writing skills and experience of the professors in question and many other details; quite likely we just imagined the situation differently when we summoned the mental picture. That's why I suggested asking them about times they've done this in the past. – Ben Webster Apr 26 '16 at 3:19

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