Top five tips when asking for an academic reference (or any for that matter)

Having now both asked for academic references and been asked for academic references.  I thought it would be useful to share some brief insight in how to make the process as smooth as possible for both parties.  Whilst this advice is primarily intended for individuals applying to schemes or funding with prescribed deadlines in which you have to solicit reference responses yourself, it is still applicable for more conventional job applications where recruiters will separately contact your nominated referees.

  1. Give your reference enough time to actually complete a reference

The day you start an application where you need a reference, is ideally the day you inform your referee(s) of your application and the deadline or likely deadline for a reference.  Referees, much like yourself, are busy people.  Respect their time.  If you respect their time, they will respect you (and most likely comply with your request).  There is nothing worse than receiving a reference request with a days’ notice.  It can be done but you can be guaranteed that it will be done as quickly as possible, a trait that does not necessarily breed quality and may well be copied from a previous or stock reference and therefore may not adequately highlight your skills.

  1. Specify details

Your referee will most likely not be aware of the precise details of the scheme/funding/job you are applying for.  Make it easy for them.  Supply a direct web link/the job details etc.  Just like you tailor a job advert it is useful for your referee to know what you are applying for so they can best tailor their response relative to your skills necessary for the application/role.  Will you need a signed letter headed reference (fairly standard although some don’t), will this be requested from the employer/funder or do you need your referee to submit this separately.  If so, where and how?  Electronically, by snail mail?  Will you be sent a link from the recruiter/funder, if so when is this likely to be?  If not, when does your referee need to send the reference by (see point 3).

  1. Clearly specify the deadline for the receipt of your referees response to the funder/employer

If the referee is an organised person they will use a calendar (most likely digital).  Make it obvious when the deadline is.  You can even preformat and attach an .ics file which they can add to their calendar with all the necessary details reminding them of the deadline.  Highlighting a deadline also has a dual effect (if you have given the referee enough notice), it shows the referee you are serious about applying for the intended funding/job and actually highlights how organised you are.  Obviously if the opportunity was only something you discovered with a short lead time, then acknowledge this but do not make a habit of this.

  1. Give you referee your up to date CV, ideally the same used for your application

Your referee may not have spoken to you in sometime and you may have gained new skills, relevant publications etc.  Alternatively they may have spoken to you recently but are unaware of some of your valuable skills appropriate to the role/funding you are applying for.  Whilst they will not necessarily be able to comment on all of these skills, they can refer to them in your reference and link them to skills from the role you were working on with them (and presumably why you asked them to be a referee in the first place) to the role you are applying for.

  1. Request all information above in a single e-mail

E-mail in many ways is a scourge of modern communication.  Necessary but often grossly inefficient.  Get to the point and avoid e-mail ping pong at all costs.  Put all necessary information you need the referee to comply with, including information on the job/funding scheme, your up to date CV, the deadline for the reference request and what the referee needs to do to comply with the request.   Again the key is to make everything as easy as possible for the referee to help you get the position/funding you desire.  There is nothing worse than scouring fragmented e-mails for the necessary information (there are ways around this related to inputting efficient web client search parameters but ultimately don’t irritate your referee by sending information in dribbles).

Finally do not overload your referee with reference requests.  This tends to happen more with undergraduates than postgraduates or inexperienced versus more experienced staff. Whilst applying with concerted effort to one particular area can be beneficial, e.g. many reference letters may need very minor alteration.  Applying to multiple different schemes can show lack of focus and will frustrate your referee, believe me.  They will default either to approaching the situation as highlighted in tip number two.  Alternatively they will not complete the reference and give you no indication that they have not completed the reference.  Or they will inform you that you are in fact wasting their valuable time.  Both of the described scenarios have happened to myself when requesting references for scheme/job applications.  I learned greatly from this.  I advise you to avoid this if at all possible.

Have I missed anything?  Please tell me and I will look to improve this post.

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