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Have you ever experienced feeling awkward, scrambling in the moment, to ask people to serve as your references or to write a recommendation letter for a job opportunity for which you are applying? Perhaps you can’t imagine that the people you ask would have time to help you out.

In fact, that discomfort you may feel and the time constraints you think others may have can motivate you to establish a plan to consistently cultivate individuals who can provide references and recommendations throughout your working life. You don’t have to be at the mercy of application deadlines or indulge in critical self-thinking that causes you to question whether you are worthy of an awesome reference. Instead, you can bring to this career development practice a measure of intentionality that will make it a great process for everyone.

Many people only think of asking an adviser, supervisor, mentor or other individual to be a reference or to write a letter of recommendation right before they apply for a job. A more strategic and comprehensive approach is to consistently invite people to be a part of your career team, knowing you can call upon them over time to support your candidacy for positions. At a basic conversational level, that might sound like “I expect to apply to XYZ jobs in the next six months. Would you be a reference for me?”

That question is a good start, but you should also provide some guidance. You don’t want the three people who are your references to all address the same aspects of why you are a strong candidate. A better question is “I expect to be applying to XYZ jobs in the next six months, so would you be a reference for me and include a couple of key aspects about relying on me to do A and B?” I find it helpful when a past employee who asks me to provide a reference shares what they would like me to emphasize. That context facilitates my thinking about the points that I want to convey and guides me to include content that they strategically determined would be most useful to mention.

When asking someone to be a reference or to write a letter of recommendation, you might feel as if you are burdening them by asking for their assistance. If they appear to be put-upon, it is probably a good indication that they are not the best person to invite into this supportive relationship. Look for people who affirm that they would enjoy and value supporting you in any way they can.

To further cultivate a relationship with those who refer and recommend you, periodically share updates and provide a recent version of your CV or résumé. When people are invested in your success, it isn’t bragging to let them know about any new accomplishments you’ve had or skills you’ve acquired and the like. You could say, “I have some good news to share. I received my certificate in X last month, and I thought you might enjoy hearing this” or “I just had an article published in journal Y, and it is amazing to think that I began that research with you.” Such updates will keep the people you intend to rely upon informed and connected to your career and professional development.

Not everyone has the same extent of social capital to cultivate, which often presents barriers and stressors when some people are faced with needing to identify referrers or recommenders. As an example, I was working with an international student pursuing their Ph.D., and at the end of their program, they realized that, after five years in the United States, they had only their adviser to ask to be a reference. They shared how they had never learned providing such recommendation letters was an expectation or required component of most job applications. They wondered if they could invite someone from their home country to write a letter of recommendation, but they felt it would have limited benefit because providing references was not a cultural practice there. Then they wondered if a lab partner might be someone they could ask, or if asking a co-author on one of their publications was another option.

At that moment, I realized that international Ph.D.s are a subset of the many students in marginalized and minoritized communities who don’t have the same amount of social capital as others engaged in degree programs. While asking for three references or letters of recommendation might seem commonplace to employers, it might exclude otherwise well-aligned candidates for positions. And the practice of asking individuals to support one’s application often remains buried in the hidden curriculum of graduate education.

To unveil this part of the hidden curriculum, graduate degree programs could incorporate career milestones for their students, which include learning about the importance of references, sharing pathways and mechanisms to cultivate them, and setting the goal to curate three to five references by the student’s midpoint in the program. Guiding students in this direct way enables them to optimize their success in being a competitive job candidate.

If you are going to be on the job market, here are five steps can you take to cultivate references throughout your graduate education.

  1. Consistently make note of people you think can speak to your strengths, experiences and skills, and share that you hope they can be a future referrer or recommender. Also keep them up-to-date on your education, career and professional development.
  2. If you find you are having an isolating graduate education experience, intentionally seek opportunities to get involved in or beyond the university with activities or projects that encourage you to work with others toward a common goal. As part of that, get to know people who can speak to the value you bring to projects and programs.
  3. Share with your faculty adviser or principal investigator that you know having three or more recommenders is going to be important, and ask if they can suggest ways you might cultivate those types of relationships in or beyond the department.
  4. If your timeline to graduation permits, consider engaging in a fellowship, internship or even some shorter project-based work where you are broadening your network, adding to your social capital and sharing your skills and knowledge with others who can then convey your value.
  5. If possible, take a graduate assistantship outside of your department yet within areas of the university where your skills, knowledge and training are assets. That, too, will broaden your network and deepen your social capital.

Instead of arriving at the end of your graduate education with what you wish you had, remain aware and intentional and strategically minded as you cultivate what you actually need.

Kay Kimball Gruder is associate director for graduate student and postdoc career programs and services at the University of Connecticut and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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