How to ask profs for job references

If you have paid careful heed to this advice through your academic years, you stand a good chance that an honest, unbiased reference will be complimentary about your professionalism, attention to detail, intellectual energy, ability to problem solve, set priorities and lead other students, and communicate well and with confidence in both oral and written forms. Now you are ready to approach one or more professors for a reference for employment.

Job references fit within a sequence of events from the employer’s posting of the position to the acceptance of the offer. Note these general milestones.

  1. Send cover letter and résumé (or complete an online job application).
  2. Go to interview when invited. Take complete list of references with you.
  3. At conclusion of interview, provide selected references if asked.

At no point should you send reference letters with your application or provide them in an interview unless you are explictly asked for a letter of reference.

The usual procedure is for you to send a job-specific cover letter and a résumé to the employer of interest. Some employers request (or even require) that you apply online. Rule #1 is to follow their instructions. There are many resources (unfortunately, both good and bad) on how to write résumés and cover letters. In the letter or résumé you may express your willingness to provide references, if you wish, although it could go without saying, since the employer will ask if they want them regardless of whether you offered.

If your application is attractive, you may be asked to an initial interview and even a “work sample”, where you are given a task that is representative of the basic skills of the job. 

When you attend the interview, take your list of references with you. Ensure that you have each person’s full contact information with you: phone, email, fax, and postal mail address. (In my case, you must tell companies that they are welcome to email or fax, but phone calls are not possible.) 

At the first interview, you may be told that there are other rounds of interviews to follow. You will not likely be asked for references until the last round, but have them with you and provide them if you are asked. They will tell you how many references they want, and you may be asked to write them on a form. 

If you offer references at an earlier interview, they may be accepted, but do not read too much into it. References will not be called until the appropriate stage of the process.

Although you will likely be asked only for up to three names, it is best to have in mind 5–10 potential references who have seen you in different contexts. Do not hand over this entire list. 

When you are asked for a specific number of references, play it by ear about which referees are appropriate. Unless they give you explicit or implicit cues, choose the best ones on your list who can talk about your work abilities and qualities relevant to the job. In this case, avoid asking too many questions about what references they want. They will assume it is obvious. 

They don’t want you to name three influential people who like you, or seemed impressed by you. They want three referees who can articulate an unbiased opinion about your abilities that are relevant to their position. 

Of course, you will also want to ensure that those people have an overall positive impression of you. However, your neighbour who is a supreme court judge or girlfriend’s father who is a VP of a major manufacturing company are not good references, unless you actually also worked for them. 

Although professors are reasonable referees for a new graduate, try to include someone who has seen you in paid employment or a volunteer position with significant responsibility.

Some hiring decisions are preceded by panel interviews, testing, and multiple rounds of interviews, and these steps may signify that the employer is looking for opinions about a wider range of attributes: for instance, if you are being considered for a management development program rather than a job-description-oriented position with clearly defined duties. In these situations, you can ask the employer what qualities they want references to be able to speak about, and then nominate references from your list in the best position to comment on those qualities.

Do not expect that your references will be called. In many cases, companies now call references only when they are down to one candidate (or maybe two). Companies are beginning to realize that comparing the enthusiasm of the references on multiple candidates essentially puts random strangers in control of the company’s destiny. The person calling the reference may not be the hiring manager. Many corporations use outside firms to check references, giving them a better chance to catch people at résumé fraud before they are hired.

A request for a reference is a request for name and contact information, NOT a letter. Unless you are specifically asked to include a letter of support from a reference of a particular type, there is no point asking a professor to write one. It is not appropriate to include any letters of reference with an application unless the employer has requested them. Most employers will shred these on receipt. 

Employers recognize that generic reference letters are invariably positive (since you have already seen the letters and will presumably have already thrown out any that are not). Some people send forged letters, letters that are much too old, or letters from irrelevant supporters, such as character references for business jobs. If the employer wants a reference, they will ask for it, and they will ask questions of their own choice, relevant to the specific job. They are not interested in the information that your choice of reference has documented on a one-size-fits-all basis.

The referee must honestly answer the employer’s questions. What your referee will say depends on what the employer asks. 

On a job reference, the professor will not just begin to enumerate your strengths or your weaknesses. She will probably start with asking what type of position it is and what qualities the employer is looking for, and then ask what would the employer like to know about you from the professor’s perspective. If the company only asks whether you submitted your assignments on time, and you did so without fail, then the professor might say so and no more, even if the job involves public speaking and your oral presentation skills were poor.

If you are successful in getting the job, let the professor know. Also, since the reference may have been a factor in the job offer, your comments and behaviour after you get the job should not put your respect for the professor into question, or the employer may doubt whether the reference warranted the weight they placed on it. Keep good relations with your university and the professors you used for references, because you may need to use them again if you decide to change jobs before you have accumulated many business references, or decide to go back to grad school.

Author: Kathryn Woodcock

Dr. Kathryn Woodcock is Professor at Toronto's Ryerson University, teaching, researching, and consulting in the area of human factors engineering / ergonomics particularly applied to amusement rides and attractions (https://thrilllab.blog.ryerson.ca), and to broader occupational and public safety issues of performance, error, investigation and inspection, and to disability and accessibility.