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One of my math professors (in a U.S. university) retired this semester. He was one person that I had planned on asking to write my letters of recommendation this coming fall semester, when I send out PhD applications in math / applied math.

He is very old and he seems anti-social and seems to not communicate with our math department very much. I am just basing this on some stuff that he says, which scares me, e.g., "tell them (our math dept.) that I said this..."

So, I wonder whether anyone external to our own math department would even know who he is - or whether admissions committees even value his opinions about grad students, at this point in his career.

Would it be best to find someone else to replace him as one of my letter writers? Someone who is younger and currently active in research? I do have replacements in mind, but I am somewhat attached to this particular professor, since I feel that I got my start in rigorous mathematics with him.

Edit: To add a bit more context, he is a full professor and has served on admissions / doctoral committees at our department numerous times. So, he's very much qualified, of course. My main concern is that perhaps he no longer communicates actively with people internal and external to our department, but that is only my best guess.

Thanks,

marked as duplicate by Brian Borchers, scaaahu, Mad Jack, user3209815, Brian Tompsett - 汤莱恩 May 24 '16 at 7:17

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  • This question is really impossible to answer from the information you've provided and without information about other possible recommenders that you might have. – Brian Borchers May 24 '16 at 3:27
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So, I wonder whether anyone external to our own math department would even know who he is - or whether admissions committees even value his opinions about grad students, at this point in his career.

First, it's not necessary or even expected that admissions committees will know (of) all or even any of your letter writers. Second, you will be getting several letters, so they do not all need to come from "research active" professors. Third, there's no reason to undervalue someone's opinion because they've retired.

Yes, it's a plus if you can get letters from people who are well known, but the most important thing is to get letters from people who know you best, so I don't see a serious concern from what you've told us. (Though now that he's retired, it's possible he is harder to contact or less inclined to write letters.)

  • Hi Professor Martin, thanks for your answer. I struggle with this thought: especially in a math program, those professors that know me best will also know my weaknesses best. Do professors "calibrate" their opinions, based on the choice of schools that I am applying to? Thanks, @Kimball. – User001 May 25 '16 at 0:25
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    @User001 Well, the most accurate evaluation of your talents and preparation should get you in the most appropriate school for you. You don't want to end up in a program you'd sink in. Anyway, I don't think there is too much "calibration" going on---typically one writes a general letter which goes out to a variety of schools, and committees place this in context. If you're worried whether your professors approve of your choice of grad schools, you can have a discussion and see if they have any suggestions. – Kimball May 25 '16 at 1:12
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Your letter writer will be judged based on reputation (Ignoring the unlikely possibility they have a negative reputation). The faculty with the best reputation will

  1. Travel frequently
  2. Be an active researcher
  3. Be older

The letter content is more important. A letter from a famous scientist is no good if they do not say anything of substance about the applicant.

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