I’ve had conversations recently with colleagues who are in the reference-check phase for candidates they would like to hire, and in some cases the references are not helping those candidates. Getting good references can be a challenge, and as a job candidate you need to think carefully about who will be the best advocate for you. Future employers have high hopes that your references will say good things about you so they can feel confident they are hiring the best person for the job. But your candidacy can be sidelined if your references raise red flags. And this can happen in both academic and non-academic job searches. So before you ask someone to be a reference for you, here are some things to consider to make sure you get an excellent endorsement when it’s time.
Begin nurturing your references early. The better and longer someone knows you, the more information they will have to share with future employers. Finding mentors is a good way to begin building relationships that can result in excellent referrals. You should probably have multiple mentors, since no one person can guide you in all the ways you will need. If you aspire to an academic career I’d suggest seeking mentors at different types of universities, since each type has different expectations for faculty and different criteria for what makes someone an excellent candidate. If you are exploring options outside faculty roles, then seek out people in positions you aspire to and ask them to be your mentor. They will then be able to speak to the actions you should be taking to prepare for this type of position.
One way to find additional mentors is to join professional associations so you can meet a wide range of people in your field. Ask your adviser about the academic professional associations you should join, and as you meet people in non-academic positions of interest, ask them what organizations to join. When you join non-academic professional associations you’ll have names and contact information available to you. Many of those organizations also have events where you can learn about the profession and met more people. As you work with your mentors they will get to know you on a deeper level and will be able to give a more rich description of who you are.
Once you have your contacts you need to develop and nurture your relationships and keep your contacts up to date on what you are doing. Someone you haven’t spoken to in a while may not be the best reference, since they don’t know who you are now. Keep in touch with your potential references to keep them up to date on your progress. Think of ways you can reach out to them every few months. Perhaps you can forward an article of interest, meet them for coffee or seek them out at events you both attend. If you are mindful when building your relationships with your mentors it will be easier for you to maintain them because you’ll have a clear goal — learning what you need to know about entering their profession.
Ask your references before using them if they are willing and able to give you a strong endorsement. I‘ve worked with some graduate students who want to work at teaching-focused colleges who have an adviser/principal investigator who is unsupportive of that choice. In this case, their adviser/PI may not be the best reference and could possibly negatively impact their chances of getting the job. The same thing can happen when you look for non-academic jobs. Some advisers are supportive and others aren’t. But even if your adviser/PI is supportive of non-academic careers, you probably want to have some references who are not academics. What your adviser/PI knows about you is limited to how s/he sees you when in the lab and as an academic, but you need someone who can assure future employers that you can be effective outside an academic environment.
Seek diversity in your reference list. Find references who can speak to different aspects of who you are. For example, if you want to be at a teaching-focused institution, it would be very helpful to have a reference who has seen you teach and interact with students. You may also want to have early, middle and late-career professionals who can speak to your strengths. Early-career people may be better at talking about what you’d be like as a peer, while mid-career people may be able to talk more about your potential for supervisory and upper management roles. It would be good to have people who can speak to both who you are now and your future potential.
Choose your references carefully for each position. When you are building your professional relationships, listen carefully to what these people say about you so you can identify which of your qualities they most admire. You want to have a good idea of what they’ll say about you when they get the call or when they write the letter. If you sought diversity in your reference list, you’ll have a wide variety of people to choose from so you can use the best reference for the position you want.
Prepare your references effectively. Writing a letter of recommendation or giving a reference over the phone is challenging. You can help your references by giving them some information about what you’d like them to say. Send them the job announcement and the supporting documents you will use (your C.V./résumé and cover letter) so they can see how you are presenting yourself. You want to make sure that what they say doesn’t contradict what you are saying about yourself. I’ve seen recommendation letters that make broad and vague statements about a candidate; this gives the impression that, at best, the writer doesn't know the candidate well, and at worst they aren't really endorsing the candidate.
When you are applying for academic positions, your letters of reference are part of your application packet. After you spend the time and effort to put together a strong packet, it would be unfortunate if those letters called into question your qualifications or didn’t make the strongest statement about what an excellent contribution you’d make to the department. Since potential employers will see these letters before they choose the short list of candidates, a bad letter might result in not making that short list.
When you are applying to non-academic positions, the reference check usually happens after the interview and before the offer. At the time your future employer is checking references, they really want to hire you. But if your references are weak or unsupportive you may never get the offer -- and you may not even discover it was a poor reference that cost you the position. As I mentioned earlier, some of my colleagues went in a different direction after checking their favored candidate’s references.
Most employers rely on references to determine which candidate to hire, so you really want to make sure your references are giving you the strongest possible endorsement. The best way to do that is to start cultivating your references long before you need them.