Keeping referees sweet

Cupcake salvation (Photo by Fooi-ling Khoo)
Cupcake salvation (Photo by Fooi-ling Khoo)

Choosing the referees to list on a CV and job applications can be a complex business, particularly when you’re starting out.

You want a balance of voices who could credibly recommend you.

Perhaps someone who has been your academic supervisor, an examiner, a senior colleague who knows you and your work well enough, someone you’ve RA’d for?

For a non-academic job, maybe – just maybe – that first round of referees might include the boss of the fish and chip shop you worked at over the summer.

For academic jobs, there are other considerations in the mix, too: Should you have at least one international referee? One internal referee from your current position? Will it look odd if you don’t include any of your supervisors as referees? What if Professor Z on the hiring committee sees that you used Dr X and not Associate Professor Y…?

After navigating the rocky straits of choosing and securing your referees, you need to ensure that they’re on board with you for the duration of your job hunt(s).

On Twitter recently, Leanne Perry (@perrytweet) asked for advice on how to manage the guilt of asking the same people multiple times for letters of recommendation for faculty job applications. I wanted to get back to her about the question, but two people got in first!

One of the Research Whisperers, Jonathan O’Donnell (@jod999), said:

Karen Kelsky (@professorisin) responded:

So, I thought I’d blog my response, in case it’s useful for others out there. Here are my strategies for keeping referees on board and happy to advocate for me.

1. Remember common courtesy.

Even though you’re going from criteria to criteria on your job applications, and flicking out cover letters and CVs with zeal, never forget that your referees need to know when you’ve used them. There is nothing worse than being called up and being asked for a few comments about the applicant when you didn’t even know they’d applied for that position (and you’re in the dark about which job – what level? where? what’s the field?). Similarly, having used someone in an application and letting them know only after you’ve done so can erode a good professional relationship.

Further to what Karen recommends about having all the info in one place, I’d have to say the item of information that’s usually missing when people approach me to be a referee is a simple thing that can sometimes dictate whether I can say yes or no: how do they want me to ‘referee’? Am I a name on a list of three they’re including for their job-hunt CV? Do I have to get a letter to someone immediately? Will I get a call if the candidate gets to the next round? If I’m about to travel and be out of contact, a couple of those options won’t work.

2. Stay in touch.

Accompanying the courtesy of letting people know when you’re using them as your referees is letting them know what happened with the positions. If you’re going for a whole slew of them, an update every so often’s probably enough (unless you GET a job, which warrants a spontaneous and giddy email, and much effusive thanks).

If you’ve been on the market, got a job for a bit, and know you are going to be on the market again (anyone recognise that cycle…?), don’t only contact your referees when you’re using them for the job-hunt the next time. Hopefully, this advice is unnecessary because your referees are your senior colleagues and (often) mentors, and you have interactions beyond that of referee/applicant. Referees should never be mothballed and bought out just for special occasions.

3. Practice referee rotation.

If you’re applying for a big range and high number of jobs, try to rotate your referees so the same three aren’t put forward for every single application you submit. Try to tailor for the priorities of those positions. If it’s a research job, list the referees who can say the most informed (and positive!) things about your research and research leadership. If it’s a teaching and research lectureship, put forward the referees who can comment on the range of responsibilities you’re expected to cover.

For many years, one of the referees I had for the job-hunt(s) was one of my thesis examiners. She was a very senior international prof and known in the field I was applying around in. She was really, really good as a mentor. While she could comment glowingly about my thesis and subsequent research publications, it wouldn’t be credible for her to make comments about what a great colleague I was because we’d never actually worked together on a project or at the same organisation. Keep in mind who you’re asking to say what about you – it can be very clear to hiring panels when referees are ‘stretching’ too much in their comments (or being lukewarm about the candidate…).

One last thing, on the issue of not mothballing your referees:

Each job-hunt round (if they take place a few years apart), may require a refresh of your referees’ list. Often, you’ll want your most recent line-manager to be there, which may mean bumping someone off (if you’re only allowed three, which is often the case). As you move through jobs and career stages, your preferred choice of referees will also shift. As long as you’re not constantly changing (or losing) referees all the time, this referee evolution is actually a very good thing. It shows that you’re finding more strong advocates as you travel through various hallowed halls.


  1. I can’t stress enough the point about contacting people and asking them if they are willing to act as your referees. I know someone who recently had a request, out of the blue, to give a reference for someone she’d only worked with briefly some years ago, for a completely different kind of job. She had to say she wouldn’t have agreed to act as referee if she’d been asked to, and couldn’t give a reference for that person in that position. Recently I was asked to give a reference for someone whom I’d managed about four years ago, and hadn’t heard from since. It was in a similar position to the one I’d known her in, but all I could do was talk about how she performed when she worked for me. I have no idea what she’s done since, or why she had to reach so far back for a reference. I tried to be fair, but if she’d contacted me I might have been a bit more positive!


  2. Thanks for sharing that, M-H. I really don’t understand the random referee thing – it shows a profound misunderstanding of what the process of vouching for someone actually means! I too have had a phonecall out of the blue from a university department asking for my reference for X (someone for whom I had agreed to referee for a while back, but who hadn’t told me they’d used me recently for this job). Caught on the back foot is not a good space to be in to give glowing recommendations.

    I’ve also had (minor and awkward) issues with someone who approached me to be their referee but I tried to indicate that I would not be a strong referee for them, and they persisted about wanting me. They couldn’t seem to read between the lines. I had to actually say to them: “I will not be a good referee for you because I could not give you a good reference.”


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