Who are they going to call??

Feb 07 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

No, not Ghostbusters (though that would be fun, no?). I'm talking about references in your job application.

The other day a lovely tweep asked my opinion on who to use as a reference.  Can it be only a MS/PhD/MD holder (tech, staff, postdoc)? What about a friend or even a classmate? My somewhat short answer was that I've only asked a non-prof once to be my referee, and that was for my current position, and some may say it was a risky move. I've only asked friends or classmates for references in positions that are/were within the department or for non school-related activities.

When I was an undergrad filling applications for summer internships, and later grad school, I only asked professors (that knew me well) to for recommendations. I once asked a tech from one of my favourite labs to be a ref, and it was for a summer internship. During grad school I only asked friends to be refs for things like volunteering positions (some required a background check and that sort of things, especially if dealing with kids) or when I worked as a nanny and tutor.

For my postdoc I asked my PhD mentor to write a letter as well as my thesis committee chair and my favourite committee member (besides my boss) who is a prof in some rather impressive stuff and has a few awesome appointments. I was sure that all of these people could provide a fair assessment of my work and interests. But my postdoc had nothing to do with my PhD (neither topic, nor technique) ... so in a way, it was a bit of a waste (because they could talk about my PhD achievements, but not about future performance).

After my postdoc, when I was applying for my current position (a staff scientist in a structural biology lab), I decided to exclude my postdoc mentor (more on this in a future post). I remember obsessing over who to ask for recommendations and sweating a bit (OK, a lot) over it. My PhD mentor was an obvious choice, this person knew my background and all the projects I was involved. PhD mentor could attest to my passion towards my former (now current) field of study. My favourite committee member was also involved (though a bit less) in my former field, and had a good grasp of my understanding and contributions to it. This left a third (and in some cases, a fourth) slot to fill. This third slot was the one that had me sweating heavily. I didn't want to make the wrong choice and ask some of my less communicative committee members for a recommendation. I didn't want to ask my postdoc boss because a) I wasn't doing anything (and when I say anything I really mean it) related to my former field in his lab, and b) though we had a courteous relationship, I wasn't sure his letter would get me the job I wanted (I should add that there was/is no bad blood here). That left me thinking that since I'd be working one-on-one with a lot of new people, and I had done that in grad school with a couple of my labbies, one of those labbies became my obvious choice. I wasn't sure how evaluating committees would take it ... but I tried it. I basically trained said labby, showed him the ropes and we collaborated on at least 3 papers. I also provided my postdoc boss's contact info if people asked. If asked why I hadn't included him on my list, I simply answered that since my PhD and postdoc projects/techniques were so different, I didn't feel he was in a position to judge my aptitude in said field. He could of course talk about skills I'd learned in his lab, but my postdoc and PhD labs were two completely different worlds.

I contacted each of my potential referees, told them about my impending job search and how badly I wanted to be back  in my fave field (without giving many details as to the how dissatisfied I was in my postdoc lab ... I really was). I got a couple of calls for interviews, and only one of them asked to speak to my postdoc boss (the place where I currently work, if you're curious).

I've tried to work really hard at my current place to shed some of the negative things I carried with me during the postdoc. I was very unhappy after my first year in the lab, and I wanted to be back in my field so bad that I've worked my tail off to prove it (I hope I have!). I've done a lot of networking, and one of the beautiful things about working as a staff member, and providing services to a wide range of users, is that I get to work one-on-one with them, and see their projects flourish. Hopefully (if needed) I've expanded my circle of (potential) referees by doing my job just right.

Now I ask you ... who do you include (or ask to be) as a reference? As you progress in your career, do you ever "shed" mentors, meaning, do you ever cross someone off the list because they're far away in the past, or because you've branched out to other areas? Have you ever purposefully excluded a mentor or person from your list? If you're a prof, who are your referees (departmental chair, other profs? your postdocs/students)? What are your thoughts on choosing referees (and ranks, if you take it into consideration)?

12 responses so far

  • Yael says:

    A postdoc that I worked with during undergrad was one of my refs for grad school. Got into all my top choices. I asked this postdoc to write an extra ref, because one of my proffessorial refs only knew me from coursework and I was wondering how strong the letter would be (yes it was strong, but not as strong as a letter that could comment on my research abilities).

    • 27andaphd says:

      Totes get you re: asking postdoc. I don't think I asked any of the postdocs I worked with as an undergrad for to be a ref; that said, I took some classes with same profs over and over. I think I would have done that too and it definitely makes a lot of sense, especially when grad schools are going to be looking not only at grades and scores, but also research and performance. Thanks for your comment!

  • tideliar says:

    I've always had a fairly linear career track, even when i veered into administration, so it was always just my previous employer/mentor.

    I've been asked to provide refs for ex-grad students after the last lab finally collapsed into a massive clusterfuck of misogynistic doom. I was happy to write for them, but I had to point out i was senior postdoc in the lab, not mentor. Not sure how it worked out for them. One i know has had little luck in finding permanent work or a place in grad school since then. I doubt that is solely due to me being a referee though...

    • 27andaphd says:

      Oh my, would definitely like to hear the story about your previous lab. And it does make sense that if there's a lot of instability in the lab, or little interaction with the PI, and one (or more) of the people in the lab knows deeply what you work on/do, then that would be my top choice too as a reference.

  • gerty-z says:

    I have always gone in a pretty linear route, so it has been easy to find people to write letters. Like you, I had some of the folks from my grad committee write for postdocs. When I went on the job search I had my grad PI (it is a red flag if you are on the academic track and your grad PI doesn't write a letter) and then some of the BSD that knew me from around Research Institute. I think that, at least for the tenure track that if you get letters from someone that everyone has heard of this is a Good Thing.

    • 27andaphd says:

      Thanks for your input Gerty! Yes, indeed, not having the grad PI there would make things look ... awkward. I wonder what happens when you change institutions. What would happen if you apply to another institution after working at your current one for X amount of years. Do you ask colleagues? Would you still ask your postdoc and/or grad PI for a recommendation?

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    Wait? Other people actually write your letters of recommendation? I ended up writing two of the last three that I sent out for a faculty position and having PIs/former committee members add letterhead and sign their names.

    I try to think of it as an exercise in adapting your writing style to fuse with someone else which is pretty handy when you're trying to pull together text for a multi-PI grant. Though one of these days I would really like to know what they actually thought of me rather than the words I put in their mouth.

    • 27andaphd says:

      For sure! I've never written a letter myself and given it someone to sign or add letterhead. I think most of my profs had pre-made letters and they'd add anything extra depending on the person (that was mostly in college). I saw all the letters of recommendation that my referees sent during this last job search and they seemed all made from scratch. Also, when I was in college and in grad school I never, ever saw a letter, so I had/have no clue of what my referees said about me (but I did get interviews and a job, so must've been good!).

      I do agree that it's a good exercise to practice your writing style and adapting it to whatever needs you have. My guess is that it all depends on how PIs, postdocs, etc were brought up and hey! whatever works as long as you get a reference, right?

      • Crystal Voodoo says:

        I suggest writing one just to get the hang of selling yourself without sounding like a pretentious a$$hat. It's also kind of fun to try and write multiple letters from "different" people with appropriate context and relationship markers. While the readers won't know the difference I consider it a point of pride to make my letters completely indistinguishable from one my PI wrote himself.

        I'd like to say that it was the culture of my lab to have you write your own LORs but mostly it was just me. My notoriously low activation energy for writing ensures that I do all the authorial heavy lifting. But as you say a reference is a reference no matter where it comes from.

        • 27andaphd says:

          It's a wonderful exercise indeed. I definitely want to practice it now! Thanks for your comments and ideas 🙂

  • G says:

    I originally asked my MSc PI, MSc convenor and BSc PI for recommendations. Unfortunately in my most recent application two of them didn't end up sending anything which is why I was asking. Has this happened to anyone before? I also feel bad asking the same three people as I've been looking for work for a long while and it must get annoying to keep getting my emails! I've also asked the PhD student in my MSc lab as we worked together all the time so she can provide information about how I work and my skills.

  • 27 and a PhD says:

    Hi G. So sorry about that. I've heard of it happening before, in fact, to someone close to me. When my boyfriend was applying to grad school he asked one of his favourite profs from his MA to write a letter. Hon had to chase that bastard down, and not even then did he say anything or apologize for not writing the letter. Hon could have missed his chance. Thankfully a more responsible prof stepped up and wrote a letter in a hurry, and he ended up getting in. I still hate his guts for the stress he put hon in.

    I guess that when our profs were in their training they probably asked a ton of their profs (sometimes the same people) over and over for recommendations, up until they were in the TT and could then ask colleagues or their chair of whoever in their new department, but that's just my guess. As to why they wouldn't send the letters, I don't know. It is true that profs are super busy, and sometimes a little (nice) reminder does the trick. Hope it doesn't happen again.