Now that it’s job application season, it’s a good time to talk about references. References are an important part of any job packet, although searches may vary regarding when and how they will ask for your reference information. Unfortunately, even if you are the best candidate for the job, a bad or less-than-great reference can reduce your chances of making it to the next stage of the interview. Search committees notice letters that are too ‘honest’… it’s true that by and large letters of recommendation in the US are filled with glowing praise, so any negative comments really stand out (even though we all know none of us are perfect). Similarly, reference letters that are exceptionally short are a black mark. Does that letter writer not have enough to say? Do they not know a candidate that well?
In contrast, an excellent reference can solidify a positive impression the search committee has about a potential candidate, and can sometimes clear up any lingering concerns. For example, in a couple of the searches I have been on we expected candidates to have certain skills. Sometimes (not always – don’t get me started on that!) the candidate would address the required skills in their application. Even when they did, and particularly when they didn’t, we often wanted an outside evaluation of those skills. Phone conversations with references were very useful for asking for clarification and evidence. So how do you choose a ‘good’ referrer, and get the type of reference you want?
- Choose people, whenever possible, that have known you for a while. A few months is not really a sufficient amount of time for someone to know your strengths and weaknesses. An exception would be if only a recent colleague can speak to a specific strength, job, or product that is relevant to the position you are applying for.
- Related to the previous point, choose a set of people that can speak to a variety of the strengths needed for the position. If the job requires you to be able to do two very different things, make sure your references are sufficient to cover all of your bases. Similarly, don’t select all of your references from one time in your career, particularly if you are out of grad school.
- To the extent possible, choose letter writers that are both men and women. You want to show that you can work with people of both gender – and gender of letter writers (and your gender) can affect the style and quality of the letter1.
- Choose people who will be able to be contacted during the time of the search. This should be obvious, but if your major professor is going to be out of town for the two weeks the search is on, they aren’t a good reference! Many search committees contact letter writers to get phone references for the top candidates.
Ensuring the best letter/phone recommendations possible
- Ask your letter writers personally! Nobody likes to get an automated request for a letter from University of Whatever without some advance warning. If you are applying to a lot of jobs, send the letter addresses and due dates in one email.
- Ask your references if they are able to provide a positive recommendation. If you’ve had some problems in that position definitely acknowledge them. “I know that we haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, but I really respect your opinion/expertise. Would you feel comfortable providing me with a strong/positive reference and/or letter of recommendation?”
- Provide your references with sufficient information about both the position and you. Send them the job announcement and a link to the company/department page. Send them your most recent CV, and in your email even consider mentioning why you think the position is a good fit. Your job is to make it as little of a burden as possible for your letter writers!
- Discuss with your references what you want them to talk about. For example, “I led a large summer crew of researchers so perhaps you could mention my leadership abilities.”
- If the letter writer needs to submit something online or in the mail, send them a reminder letter a week before the letter is due.
- Order your references in the order you want them called, not alphabetically – some search committees choose the top 2/3 or 2/4.
When a reference goes south
Knowing why and how some references aren’t that strong can be helpful in knowing who to ask.
- The letter writer/reference just didn’t know you well enough, which can make you look unsuited for the position
- The letter writer is habitually late or delinquent with references. Even the best reference in the world isn’t going to help you if it never gets there
- The letter writer/reference writes short, succinct letters or is a terrible communicator. Reference letters that are too short don’t bode well for a candidate! On a related note, even if they are a great writer, if they are unable to put two sentences together during a phone conversation they won’t be a great reference if it comes down to phone referrals.
- Your reference doesn’t think you are a good fit for the position, either because
- They don’t like the type of job it is (this can happen with teaching vs research)
- They don’t like you (the problems you had with them were too large to overcome for a positive reference)
- They like you or your work too much (are trying to keep you working for them).
So how can you tell if your references aren’t strong? It can be challenging. You might get to the ‘requesting letters’ stage multiple times and then not get to the next stage – this might be a clue something is up. In that case it might be worth contacting search committee chairs and asking for particulars of why you weren’t invited. It’s not ethical for people to share the contents of those letters of recommendation, but they may give you a clue such as “One/some of your letter writers didn’t think you were a good fit for the position”. Less ethically, you could apply for a job where you know somebody on the search committee and have them look at the letters for you to give you more information. Some inside knowledge could clue you into letters or references that are too short/abrupt or outright bad. Amongst my friends and colleagues the most common way for people to discover they have a bad reference from earlier in their career is from a current mentor – I know of at least three people who have been told “You may not want to ask X to serve as a reference in the future”.
If you can pinpoint who isn’t acting as the strongest reference then your best bet is to take them off the list, permanently. This can leave holes in your career for which you don’t have letters – but that’s better than a bad/short one.
Cultivating references early on
There’s no reason not to be proactive in cultivating references early on during your career. At the undergraduate level, if you do an independent research project or an internship, your boss or advisor will be a great reference. Since you typically need 2-3 references, try to get to know at least a few of your professors well. Try to take a few classes from the same person, speak up and be engaged in class, and go to their lab meetings and office hours. You don’t want to ask a professor who couldn’t pick you out of a crowd for a letter of recommendation
Typically, graduate students ask their major professor and one or more committee members or coauthors. Be wary of asking a ‘big name’ just because you can – they might not be a great letter writer/reference for you (or anyone!). Lastly, if you think you might want to move on from academia, try to cultivate a relationship with someone who has the job you might want. A reference from outside of academia (industry, government, journalism) will be able to speak more directly to the skills that type of job requires than an academic.
1Trix, F. and C. Psenka. 2003. Exploring the color of glass: Letters of recommendation for female and male medical faculty. Discourse and Society 14(2): 191-220