I know many mathematicians, some very good, some not so good. I know very few if any who weren’t excellent students. Many of the better ones were better than excellent students – of the perfect score on every exam sort – too.

Getting good grades is not the best indicator of potential to do mathematical research, but poor academic performance is rarely seen in those who later succeed in mathematical research. The few contrary stories are mostly exaggerated to make the point that some people with real talent react badly to the constraints placed on them by traditional school work. Most future mathematical researchers exhibit broad intellectual curiousity and strong academic performance throughout their development.

]]>I know tons of people who are excellent mathematicians who would never have done well in graded classes in graduate school. Based on what I’ve seen of my friend’s experiences in areas like physics the gap there is even larger, especially in experimental subjects. You simply can’t evaluate the skills you care about in someone who you’ll hire to build instruments and run experiments in your lab based on their course grades.

I see the problems you mention but I just don’t see an alternative in many disciplines where the extent of the individual’s ability you care about isn’t well captured

in grades or their thesis. Also the repeated interactions and personal knowledge minimizes many of those problems.

Also, at least in my area of mathematical logic, there are rarely more than 2 or 3 people who are even capable of understanding your work at any particular school greatly limiting who you can ask for letters if you want an academic job.

On the other hand for jobs in industry I tend to agree.

]]>Moreover, for many kinds of academic work in grad school it’s very hard to get the necessary information otherwise. There are a range of different degrees to which the applicant may have contributed to their thesis from simply taking an idea their advisor suggested and doing the grunt work to coming up with all the great ideas and directing it with only minimal guidance needed.

]]>Thornton, R. J. (2003). The lexicon of intentionally ambiguous recommendations. Napersville, IL: Sourcebooks (https://www.amazon.com/Lexicon-Intentionally-Ambiguous-Recommendations-L-I/dp/1402201397) ]]>

A letter of recommendation comes down to answering this question: can you find someone who doesn’t hate you?

Turns out it’s not that hard for the vast majority of people.

]]>