The Reference Game

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?

Choosing references

  • 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

16 thoughts on “The Reference Game

  1. Question regarding the point you make about overwhelmingly positive American letter-writers. I have heard that European letters are not nearly so positive; is this something that search committees take into account when reading letters? Or is getting a letter from a European colleague / supervisor potentially ‘dangerous’ in this regard, even if they are the best person to recommend you for position or skill X?

    • Great question! I have not been on any search committees with applicants with European letter writers so I don’t have any firsthand knowledge – I would imagine committees are somewhat aware of the discrepancy, but hopefully other TSW readers can speak to their experiences

  2. In my experience people are well aware that Europeans tend to be more honest, and thus less overwhelmingly enthusiastic. People are also generally aware that women’s letters are weaker for the same qualifications; but I suppose this could be because I’m always sure to mention these things!

    • “People are also generally aware that women’s letters are weaker for the same qualifications; but I suppose this could be because I’m always sure to mention these things!”

      I’m not sure I understand this sentence — can you clarify? Are you saying that in general, letters from women are “more honest” (like from Europeans) than those from men? And/or are you saying that letters from women tend not to be regarded as highly by committees (and therefore weaker)? And what “things” are you always sure to mention?

      • I was referring to exactly what the paper cited in the post is discussing about people writing different letters for men and women. I always mention that that has been shown to be the case, and that Europeans tend to write weaker letters when I’m on a search committee because although we can’t remove our own biases, if we identify them we can at least try to watch for them.

  3. Two comments. First I have found the people writing letters of recommendation are usually happy to send me a copy. If they are saying nice things about you, they won’t be embarrassed to share a copy.

    Second it is critical to be sure that the person will say good things. When I was applying for graduate school, I needed to submit the actual letters as part of a packet to the admissions office. I had one reference who I was a a little worreied about, so I steamed open the letter he sent to take a look. Thank goodness I did because it turned out that apparently he didn’t like me as much as I thought. I discarded his letter and got someone else (who gave me my own copy) to write a reference. It was a great lesson for me to make sure of my references and it may have made the difference in my career because I was accepted to the program.

    • Opening a confidential letter without the letter writer’s permission is highly unethical. I am concerned that you think it was a “great lesson.”

      • I understand your point. For me, the lesson was to put extra thought into who will write a good reference and not assume that all former employers can or will. In my defense, the letter was sent to me to include in my application packet. I didn’t intercept the mail or provide a false address.

    • As a letter writer I wouldn’t be comfortable sharing my letters with my mentees, but not because they aren’t positive letters or because I am ’embarrassed’. Letting my mentees read my letters might set up a longer term expectation that I am not to be trusted as a letter writer (because I feel the need to be positive).

    • I have always had a copy of the letter. I have always chosen people I have an honest relationship with, and sometimes they have even asked me what skills they should emphasise (which emphasises drmellivora’s point that it is a good idea to mention this to the letter-writer). Nearly always, we have had a discussion about the new position and my fit for it. Some of these letters have been amazing and made me very proud, and even if I didn’t get the position they have buoyed my spirits amazingly. Sometimes it is as if I were reading a reference for someone else and I have thought “Gee, i would employ this person!”

  4. Now I’m on the other side of the game – writing reference letters. How do I write a good one? How do I address “honest” points without coming across as negative?

    • This is a really good questions and I am thinking a lot about it myself. I try hard to avoid ‘gender norms’. I think one key is to be honest with yourself and the person you are writing a letter for if you think the positives don’t far outweigh the negatives. Better not to write a letter at all than struggle with honesty vs positivity. This is an important topic and I hope we cover it here at TSW in the future.

      • I agree if you don’t think the person is a good fit for the job, you should decline the request for a reference. However, as a referee-writer, I would always emphasise their strengths, particularly those that are a good fit for the new job (it won’t ever be ALL the skills required in the job app). I think we Aussies fit the European model, because if there are some ‘not-so-strong’ attributes, but those necessary for the job, then I might say something like “this person learns new skills quickly, and will be a valuable addition to the team after initial instruction”. but if the ‘less-than-competent’ things are not directly relevant to the new job, I wouldn’t mention them at all.

        I would always discuss this with the person requesting the reference, as my referees always discussed these things with me. I would go through the check-list of required skills and tick off those that we can discuss positively in the letter and talk about the above considerations if necessary (or decide just to not comment on some things). If the he/she isn’t comfortable, then we can shake hands and they can find another referee.

    • One thing I particularly enjoy about my position is seeing my students develop over the years and successfully move on to the next stage of their lives. This makes for excellent background information for writing letters.

      I’ve written over 100 letters for students: summer internships, graduate/professional programs, scholarships, postdoc positions, and teaching positions. The conditions for me writing a letter are (1) it would be a strong, positive letter; (2) I can automatically think of 2-3 strong qualities for that student; (3) the selection committee would consider my input applicable (i.e. upper-div courses or many years of knowing the student for a grad school recommendation); (4) and I have no more than 8-9 requests in the queue. For (1) and (2), otherwise it takes too long to write it, and I’m not going to waste my or the committee’s time copying/pasting points from a CV. For (3), I want the student to submit their strongest application possible. And for (4), I’ve learned the hard way that the time needed to put these letters together adds up; there’s a seasonal aspect to letter requests.

      I include the context of knowing the student and for how long, address the specific qualities with supporting evidence drawn from *my* interactions with them, and include some connections to the specific position. I’m vouching for the student, providing context to their record, and often including information about characteristics the students don’t recognize in themselves.

      Are the “honest” points how you perceive the student or weaknesses from the perspective of the search/selection committee? I’m always very clear with students regarding contexts for which I’ll write a letter of recommendation–industry job yes, grad school application no.

      I’ve known students that struggled academically, but have shown a dogged commitment to understanding the material rather than cheating. That’s a hard-working and ethical candidate. Interactions with other students in office hours can give insight into their ability to work with others. I’ve noticed that students have developed leadership and organization skills through their descriptions of their work in clubs or with jobs, even though they may not hold a leadership/manager title. I can give insight into academic and intellectual ability when poor test-taking performance interferes with course grades. Even how a student interacts via email can speak to their communication skills (ie. timely notice of things, attention to grammar and spelling, professional demeanor, etc.)

      Each of these by themselves might not seem like much, but various components together–especially supported over time of knowing the student–can give the committee insight into the candidate not available via a cover letter and CV.

  5. In the UK letters are less important, partly because the candidate can get a copy of the letter by a freedom of information request and partly because a reference letter is known not to be a reliable source of information. At best it tells you whether the writer wants to support the candidate.

  6. What do you do when you are a recent PhD graduate and a position requires a letter from your academic advisor who fits all of the categories that make them a toxic advisor?

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