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How to obtain and write references

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Alaina G. Levine

When I was 20, I requested a reference from someone whose pleasant manner and apparent interest in my future led me to believe that she was my ally. When I didn’t get the post, my spidey sense told me that something strange, something unrelated to my skill set, had caused my failure. It turned out that my “friend” was actually Voldemort. She had written a letter that literally said, “Alaina should not be in this position. Do not hire Alaina.”

When I discovered this fiend and her sabotage, I was both enraged and sorrowful. How could she do this to me? Why would anyone write an anti-recommendation? But as I carefully pondered this relationship, I came to the realization that, though she may have issued from one of the circles of hell, her betrayal was actually my fault, because I did not vet her properly. And that is how I first learned the power of references for good and evil, and how mindful I must be in asking people to recommend me.

Although I don’t remember them specifically, I am certain that she gave me hints of her disdain for me. As I have written before, most “zombies,” “pigs,” and “haters” will show their true colors, even in subtle ways. As a result of that experience, I developed a very keen eye for identifying—and avoiding—potential saboteurs. Because if there is one attribute that all inhuman creatures share, it is their desire to see you fail.

Now, when I ask people serve as references or to write letters of recommendation for me, I think carefully about who knows my work intimately, who has demonstrated that they are my ally in various ways, and who has openly praised my abilities. Good, solid references are those who are your advocates and supporters, and who is willing to put their reputations on the line for you. They are interested in enabling your success by telling others what they know about you and your superior abilities and that the same exemplary work that they witnessed (as supervisors or colleagues) is to be expected in this new position.

A good reference will share details of what you have done and what you can do for the new organization, and the reference writer will be candid with you about what they will say when asked. When I approach people to request recommendations, I email them first, rather than phone them, so as not to put them on the spot. It may be that a prospective recommender is supportive of my career but would prefer not to write a letter on my behalf, and this could be for reasons that have nothing to do with me. (Perhaps, for instance, this person doesn’t get along with the hiring manager of the job I seek.)

If my email is favorably received, I will next try to make an appointment for a brief phone chat concerning my request. I want to be able to ask certain questions, share details of the opportunity, and listen carefully to their responses. Most people (as opposed to Voldemorts) will tell you in some manner if they don’t want to or don’t feel they can write a glowing letter of recommendation, so the phone call allows you to listen for verbal cues. If my potential reference gives lukewarm responses or seems at all hesitant (for instance “you did a pretty good job” or “I am not that familiar with this skill set”), I probably won’t include him or her in my references.

I make this decision because a letter of recommendation that is halfhearted, unenthusiastic, or lacking in specific detail is often worse than no letter at all. To ensure that I will be presented with a reference that is useful to me and will help me achieve my goals,

  • I tell her or him about the opportunity – whether it is a job or an award –why the position is of interest to me, and why I think I would be a good fit
  • I inquire if the person would feel comfortable in serving as a reference
  • I ask plain questions, like: “what would you say about me if they asked you about my experience with X?”

And then I give the person the opportunity to think about it. If she or he does not get back to me, or if I follow up and she or he still hasn’t decided, this could be further evidence against using this reference.

How to be a good reference

I have been asked many times to serve as references for former students and colleagues, and I follow my own set of rules in deciding if I will recommend them. Of utmost importance to me is providing complete truth and recommending without reservation. If you want me to serve as a reference, I will only do so if I know you well enough to be able to provide truthful information about what a valuable asset you would be to the organization. I want to be able to say with conviction that you are talented, exceptional, and will advance the team’s mission in novel and exciting ways.

So when asked to be a reference, I will:

  • Ask myself whether I know this person and her or his accomplishments, skills, work ethic, problem-solving abilities and attitude well enough to be able to write a positive letter of recommendation?
  • Ask the candidate about the position she or he is applying for, and all goals, achievements and attributes
  • Ask the candidate about particular skills set and accomplishments that she or he wants me to highlight in the exchange with the employer or award committee.

When asked to recommend someone whom I don’t know well enough to be able to truthfully share particulars of abilities and brand (promise of value), I will reply, “I don’t think I know you well enough to provide an exceptional recommendation and I think you should find someone else.” So if someone says that to you, please heed the warning. She or he is trying to help you by not giving you a lukewarm or bad recommendation.

Not all of us have the luxury choosing references from a huge pool. If you are early in your career, only a handful of people may have been exposed to your work habits. Similarly, if you are applying for jobs while still employed, you must keep your search confidential, which means you can’t use your immediate supervisor or even your colleagues as references. This is one reason that networking is so important—networking will help you find mentors outside of your organization or team who can discretely vouch for your talents. So, as I have said ever so many times before, start networking now!

However, since you cannot travel back through time to create relationships with potential references outside your immediate work arena, I offer some things you can do in the here and now.

If you find yourself—for any reason—unable to ask your immediate supervisor for a reference, the next best thing is to ask a trusted colleague or adviser. The idea is to secure those who can discuss your abilities, even if they don’t see you utilizing and honing them on a daily basis. If they can share information about your work ethic, the way you approach problems and solve them, and your positive characteristics that are important to a productive team, then they will suffice as references. A great tip is to keep your contacts and mentors informed of your accomplishments periodically so that when you need a reference, they already know all about you. And of course, you can ask them to keep the recommendation confidential, especially as you apply for jobs outside your current organization.

For those of you in research, especially early on, like in grad school or in your postdoc, there may come a time when you find yourself with Voldemort for your PI. This is troubling indeed, and as I have noted before, you must escape. But disciplines are tiny and your subdiscipline is even more so, and thus the situation becomes complicated and tenuous: You don’t want Voldemort to serve as a reference because he could easily badmouth you, and yet, you may be tied to him already through your publication record. So when applying for academic jobs, search committees may instinctively contact Voldemort to ask his opinion of you, even without you granting your express permission to do so.

How do you handle this minefield? Don’t include Voldemort’s name on your list of references. Even though you were his postdoc, you are not obligated to list him. True, the search committee may find this unusual and may even ask you about it. But you can be proactive and address this with a statement such as the following: “Although I did work for Voldemort for a short period, my research interests changed and thus I moved labs to work with Dr. X, who can provide you with a much more detailed picture of who I am and how I will be an asset to your department.”

This dignified response is far better than risking Voldemort sullying your reputation, and far better than appearing to hide something. Furthermore, if you provide the committee with a list of three other leaders in your discipline who can attest to your character, then even if they contact He Who Must Not Be Named without your knowledge, you will have a chorus of people singing your praises. This will hopefully drown out the cacophony of Voldemort’s Parseltongue.

Serving as references and asking for recommendations are tasks that you will be doing for the rest of your career. So start early in finding allies and in being an ally yourself. If you are asked to be a reference and you won’t be able to say unequivocally that this person is awesome, then be courteous and professional enough to tell them that they should find someone else to write a recommendation.

But when your trusted colleague or boss does write you an amazing reference, be sure to acknowledge the fact that she took time out of her day to do so and send her a thank-you note. She’ll appreciate that gesture of gratitude, especially when you tell her the good news that you got the job!

Alaina G. Levine is a science and engineering writer, career consultant, and professional speaker and comedian. Networking for Nerds, her new book on networking strategies for scientists and engineers, will be published by Wiley later this year. She can be reached through her website or on Twitter at @AlainaGLevine.