Careers intelligence: how to write a reference

Robert MacIntosh offers some tips on dealing with the deluge of student reference requests – and on how to get a decent one yourself

August 8, 2019
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Hiring is fraught with difficulty. Is the candidate overclaiming about their achievements? How would you know if you were about to recruit a serial plagiarist with a poor work ethic? The stock response seems to be the ritual of taking up references. As academics, we get asked to provide a reference with startling regularity by our students. But how do you write references properly and responsibly?

Remember data protection considerations
First and foremost, think about your readership. Your reference will sit alongside someone’s medical records and their digital footprint as something they might demand to see at some point, especially if it is held on file. Indeed, some employers point this out in the context of their reference request.

Understandably, this has influenced the nature of the references we provide, at least in written form. Sticking to the facts is a safe bet, if you can find them. For current or former students, the university records system can help with dates and exam outcomes.

However, the answer to the question “in which decile would you place the candidate’s problem-solving capacity?” is less likely to be found in the depths of your registry system.

A simple tip is make your agreement to act as a referee conditional on the candidate’s providing a copy of the CV that they used when applying. This both speeds things up and allows you to cross-check what individuals say about themselves.

Who is asking?
For students, a reference request could be from a prospective employer; but equally, it could be from the admissions team at another university. Whoever is asking for your opinion is seeking some reassurance as to the character of the person they’re planning to hire or matriculate. If there are formal records of dismissal, plagiarism or other misdemeanours, then an honest, factual reference to that effect will help their prospective employer reach an informed decision.

In most cases, however, there is nothing much of note to say unless you happen to know the student reasonably well. For those you do know well enough to have an opinion, you might be reticent about committing to paper your privately held view that you’re not that impressed with the candidate’s ability to craft an argument. Employers are attuned to this and will be reading between the lines to notice both what is said and what is not said.

Give permission to nag
At key points in the academic cycle, you may be asked for references by many students at the same time. Be open with the person requesting the reference by giving them permission to nag you if you are in danger of missing their deadline. There’s a difference between pressure of work meaning you haven’t found the time yet and simply not knowing that a genuine reference request is caught somewhere in a phishing net.

Give the student the responsibility for checking whether the reference request has been sent yet. If you really don’t think you’ll have the time, decline early and politely – but before doing so, put yourself in their shoes.

Think ahead
Consider the time commitment in producing references on an industrial scale for all your personal tutees, or if you’re the current incumbent of the final-year coordinator role. The realisation that at some previous point you were asking for the same indulgence should incline you towards a generous disposition.

But be pragmatic, too. There are things you can do to make the process more efficient. Tailoring a general reference that you already have is much quicker than starting from scratch each time. Reference requests sometimes contain the slightly bizarre need to incorporate a university stamp or seal. Perhaps your faculty office has one, or maybe the registry? Figure this out ahead of time, too.

And finally…
Amid your selfless generosity, think about your own next career move. Who are you planning to ask for a reference, and how are you keeping them abreast of the key milestones, achievements and storylines in your CV?

If you’re asking your current employer, a whole new problem opens up where they might be trying to keep you or might hope to encourage your departure. If you’re asking former colleagues, prospective referees will have the same sense of foreboding as you if they feel they’re being asked by someone they can only vaguely remember.

Keep in touch, offer updates on publications, awards and the like. Do so when you’re not looking for a job, so that when you finally ask for a reference your referee will be more inclined to say “yes”. When you ask, give them a copy of your CV to avoid receiving a tellingly factual and minimalistic reference.

Robert MacIntosh is head of Heriot-Watt University’s School of Social Sciences, where he is professor of strategic management. He blogs about higher education career and PhD issues at www.thePhDBlog.com.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: How to provide help without going under

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