Here’s a really important topic that I don’t know much about–so I found this article on BioSpace.com, with information provided by Heidi Allison, Managing Director at Allison and Taylor, a prominent reference-checking firm, so helpful. The article provides a useful perspective on the important issue of reference checking when you’re looking for a job.
Just remember that in academia, all bets are off. Sure, rules and guidelines apply even here, but many professors don’t know them–or if they do, ignore them. Consequently, references from university profs often go far beyond the typical name, rank, and serial number, for better or for worse.
One additional caution: Beware the letter than damns you with faint praise. As an undergraduate, I got badly sick one semester and received a very bad grade in a physics class. My professor in that class despised me. I took the course again as an independent study and got an A. Triumphantly, I asked that professor for a letter of recommendation as a way of addressing that blemish on my transcript.
Bad idea. He wrote a one-sentence recommendation saying that he was sure that “I would make a fine graduate student,” or something. I got into grad school, he’s probably dead by now, and my physics career has come and gone. But I admit it: I’m still a little bitter.