What do reference recipients want to hear?

Unless the employer is hiring people into a training program, they will be selecting people ready to get work done.

In graduate school, faculty supervisors are looking for the ideal graduate student who creates “negative work”: someone who carries some of the research unit’s workload and does not add more to replace it: they don’t require the supervisor to repeatedly explain to the student how to do things that should be either self-learned or already learned in undergraduate coursework.

A person who creates work for others in the process of doing their own—needing constant attention, explanation of criteria, clarification of methods, feedback—will not beat a candidate who has proven that she is ready to work independently. This is the sort of thing references can tell them because references have seen how you perform in similar situations.

Grad supervisors are there to mentor their trainees, but repeatedly needing to boost their confidence or remind them to complete tasks, counsel their personal problems, or edit their thesis creates work for the professor and does not move the research along. The issue is not just that they create work but the type of work they create is not the type of work the professor wants to do. She has not been through graduate school and written countless grant applications to establish a career as a researcher in order to be a student’s life coach while the student has the pleasure of doing the research itself. The graduate school admissions committee will be testing in a variety of obvious and not-so-obvious ways whether the candidate is going to be “positive work” or “negative work” for the faculty supervisors.

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.