I have called a lot of references for post-doctoral candidates over the last weeks. I always go into it wanting the reference to tell me how wonderful the candidate is. You would think the alternative would be for the reference to reluctantly express some concerns about the candidate’s appropriateness for the position, or something such. But I’ve now a few times had the experience of a third answer I didn’t really expect.
This answer is effectively, “Not qualified to answer.” The reference can’t really answer my questions, either because he didn’t work so closely with the applicant, or because she worked with him several years ago, before a great deal of professional development.
I can sympathize with the situation these references are in. Imagine that a student you like but don’t know extremely well asks you to be a reference for a job application. It can be hard to say, “Well, I don’t know you so well, isn’t there anyone else you can ask?” So you agree and then kind of hope not to wind up on the phone with some guy in Germany asking for insight into the applicant. Then I call. Doh!