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)?