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I am currently a PhD student in theoretical computer science applying for postdoc positions in Europe and the US that will start next year. Apart from my advisor's, I will also include a letter of recommendation (LOR) from a professor with whom I have published several articles. The problem is that while he is an accomplished researcher in his field and let me know that he thinks highly of me, his command of the English language outside the scientific realm shows some major flaws and I have reason to expect that this will also reflect in an LOR. Now I am worried that this will affect any impression the LOR will make towards the negative.

Is this justified? How likely is it that an otherwise excellent LOR will be viewed negatively by a selection committee because of bad grammar/clumsy expressions?

Edit: A good answer for the US has been given, but I am also curious how it differs from Europe.

  • Can you be a bit more specific than "Europe" as it's quite diverse. – quid Oct 11 '16 at 17:33
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    UK, France, Germany and Italy, mostly. – Mathphys Oct 11 '16 at 17:38
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    Did you ask the professor whether he minds if you proofread the recommendation letter? Some people don't want to disclose recommendation letters to the person that they are recommending, but others don't. If the professor is fine with it, then proofreading the letter is the surest possible way to make sure that the letter is written in good English. (Like you I would worry that an excellent recommendation letter but with major English flaws will have a slight negative effect on committe members' subconsious minds.) – a3nm Oct 11 '16 at 22:11
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    France, Germany and Italy... poor english in your LOR shouldn't be a problem! – Shautieh Oct 12 '16 at 1:42
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    I may be wrong, but I think that as long as the professor is truly an accomplished researcher, it won't matter that much, simply because he will be known by people involved in the process (that is of course assuming his research is at all related to what you want to do at the postdoc position). – tomasz Oct 12 '16 at 10:23
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USA Grad Schools Answer:

Spelling and grammatical errors are ignored - especially if we know the letter writer is not a native speaker. The letters are letters, not published, peer-reviewed journal articles.

What is usually more problematic with academics who didn't come out of American systems (or who haven't been here long) is that they don't fit the genre form of American letters of recommendation - which is excessively flourished praise over several pages with minutiae of biographic details and research insights.

I have read many letters from colleagues at foreign universities that are just three sentences long. This won't work. One of my American colleagues at my previous workplace regularly wrote letters that were 5-6 pages long. I think that's excessive. Somewhere in between is the sweet spot.

If your professor has been here long enough and gone through grad admissions at an American school, they will know what it takes to get in. I wouldn't worry about the grammar and spelling, though. As long as it comes in on letterhead and/or through the portal, we assume it's genuine. And if it's too opaque, we're known to actually phone letter writers to verify the authenticity or clarify the contents of a recommendation.

  • Thank you! I forgot to add that he is NOT based in the US, and as such will probably not be familiar with grad admissions there. – Mathphys Oct 11 '16 at 17:04
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    @Mathphys To have a rough idea on how some, and possibly many, European professors approach recommendation letters, you can read this answer of mine. – Massimo Ortolano Oct 11 '16 at 17:38
  • @MassimoOrtolano Very interesting, I am surprised to hear that the content is not that important. – Mathphys Oct 11 '16 at 17:43
  • @Mathphys If you want me to expand on this, to avoid cluttering this answer, I suggest we move to chat. – Massimo Ortolano Oct 11 '16 at 17:47
  • Now I'm curious: you mean call as in phone call, or just figuratively, as in actually e-mail them? (TBH I'm not sure I would be able to even get a phone number of a given professor (that is, one that would actually work) without significant effort.) – tomasz Oct 12 '16 at 10:25
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If the recommender is more comfortable writing in his mother tongue, have his letter translated. Both versions can be submitted.

If you think it would look awkward for you to be the translator, you could prepare a draft for the translator.

  • But in many cases, the applicant is not supposed to see the letter. This will not make the suggestion impossible of course, but potentially quite tricky. – Tobias Kildetoft Oct 11 '16 at 20:10
  • @TobiasKildetoft - In that case, the translator would not get any shortcuts, and the student would have to arrange for the translator and the professor to work directly with each other. // I suppose if that gets too unwieldy, the professor could just send his letter without a translation and let the receiving university deal with it. – aparente001 Oct 11 '16 at 20:28
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I've only been moving in Europe and my impression is that the recommendation letter itself is secondary. The signature under it is what makes the real effect.

In general, a recommendation letter would not be given if it was not good (there are of course cases where negative letters are sent, but I think it's the exception). So, if the committee knows the person who gives the recommendation, that is more important than the actual content of it. It's enough that that person endorses you.

Now, if you are really close with another candidate, maybe the actual content will be checked, but it's also probable that they would contact the professor directly. Sometimes they don't even ask for a letter, rather they ask for references directly.

So, to come back to the question, if the professor is respectable, I don't think his level of english writing would affect your chances. (On the other hand, if you can proofread it, as it was suggested, it wouldn't hurt. But I don't think it matters.)

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