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Careers Café

Finding referees if the pickings are slim

Liz Koblyk lets grad students know who to approach for reference letters when you're not sure. You might be surprised at who is willing to be one of your referees.


When you’ve had positive employment or university experiences, asking for references letters can be a great ego boost. When your experiences have been less positive, so is the experience of securing good references. If you find yourself applying for a job or academic program with few positive references under your belt, here are a few tips.

Test your assumptions about potential referees. I’ve met with clients who assumed past supervisors would only provide negative references, and who were pleasantly surprised by the references — and resulting job offers — that they received. So, don’t immediately rush to replace key referees with your B list. Instead, start with the people whose knowledge of your work and relevance as a referee could make the biggest impact on your application. Ask them whether they feel comfortable providing you with a very positive reference. In fact, ask that question of referees whom you assume will give positive references — applicants have been surprised by unexpected negative references, too.

Keep in mind that the job or program you’re applying for may determine who is willing to provide a positive reference. Even potential referees who have expressed concerns about your performance in one arena aren’t necessarily oblivious to your strengths. Ask your potential referees which strengths they feel best equipped to attest to. What concerns would they have about your fit with the particular opportunity you’re applying for now? Regardless of your past experience with your referees, they need to be able to see the fit between the strengths of yours that they’re familiar with and the opportunity you currently want.

Expand the strengths that your referees are aware of. Your referees need more than information about the job or program you’re applying for; they also need up-to-date information about why they can recommend you. Are there new materials or information you can provide to your potential referees that demonstrate your skills and show how you’ve developed in areas where they may have felt you were weak?

Cultivate referees for the future. As unpleasant as it is to find out that a potential referee would be a weak one, that person may have shone a light on an area that you can improve on for the future.

You can also seek out other opportunities to gain new referees. It takes time to cultivate a set of referees who have witnessed your abilities, but you can start that process now to make future requests easier. Are there experiences you could gain that would bring you into contact with new colleagues, supervisors, partners or customers?

As your career grows, so does your pool of potential referees. By addressing any concerns you’re aware of that are relevant to your next career step, you both develop an answer to that dreaded “describe your greatest weakness” interview question and increase the number of people who can vouch for your strengths.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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