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When recruiting a student or post-doc to join my group, I trim down the list of applicants to a few names (3–5) by looking at CV's, research/teaching statements, existing publications, etc. Then, I will write to the mentors/professors/teachers/PhD advisors they listed in their list of references. I will also write to people who would be obvious choice as a reference, but aren't listed (fresh PhD who doesn't list his advisor, e.g.).

But what do I ask these people? My “standard” email would be something like:

A former PhD student in your research group, Dr XXX, is applying for a position in my group. I wonder if you can give me a frank and confidential appraisal of his abilities and working style. How efficient is he, how quickly does he get things done? Is he able to communicate clearly, both in writing and orally, at a level you would expect from an good researcher? Does he interact well with other scientists, and work in a team?

At least one senior professor whom I sent such an email replied with a rather negative tone, saying “Dr. XXX is a good scientist. I don't want to comment on your other questions.” So, I am wondering: am I asking something I shouldn't? Or not in the right manner? What should you ask of applicants' references?

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    if you can give me a frank and confidential appraisal ... is probably one of the reasons. Sort of implying that he was not going to give you a frank one if you did not say so. "If you would give me a confidential appraisal ..." might sound better. – scaaahu Sep 2 '13 at 10:08
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    If I got a response like that, I might interpret it as suggesting that although XXX is a good scientist, he may not have these other skills (efficiency, clear communication, teamwork). However, it's far from clear. – Anonymous Mathematician Sep 2 '13 at 13:59
  • How can one possibly be a good scientist without efficiency, clear communication, and ability for teamwork? – gerrit Sep 2 '13 at 14:13
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    @gerrit: It depends on what you mean by a "good scientist". These other skills may be valuable for an academic career, but it's certainly possible to make important scientific discoveries without them. I'd argue that anyone who makes important scientific discoveries is a good scientist, regardless of what other failings they have. – Anonymous Mathematician Sep 2 '13 at 15:10
  • An alternative interpretation to @AnonymousMathematician is that the professor didn't work closely enough with him to give an accurate representation, and doesn't want to give you bad information. – Izkata Sep 2 '13 at 17:42
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This may well depend on the country. In the US, being the litigious society that it is, there have been some people going after (legally and non-legally) people who give negative references. The candidate can have a stronger case if you are contacting someone they didn't approve. Now, there is freedom of speech and many, many other issues but simply put, some people in the US are scared to give candid assessments unless the assessment is positive.

So, I would tend to take the response you received as an implied negative but I would also have to keep an open mind that the referee simply did not want to answer and it might not reflect at all on the candidate.

As for the questions you ask, they seem quite standard and I don't believe anyone would be taken by surprise by them. However, they might not answer out of fear.

On a side note, when it comes to reference checking, you need to be sure you are getting are response from the proper person. Emails get hacked, fake accounts get created. I personally prefer doing my reference checking over the phone. This may also come across as a casual conversation without written evidence, making the referee more comfortable in being candid.

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    +1 for using the phone. You're more likely to get the information you want in terms of pauses, emphasis, and general responsiveness that cannot be judged in an email reply. – Peter K. Sep 2 '13 at 11:56
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I can not see anything wrong with your questions at all. The professor who responded was probably pressed for time and felt that the quick summary would suffice (or they were having a bad day).

A couple of suggestions that I found were helpful when I was recruiting (albeit for a very different field) are:

  • Write the questions so that they are a yes/no response.

  • Set up a form where the response could just be selected.

Both of the above could have a box for optional additional comments.

This may help when they are pressed for time.

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