Employers have always wanted to know about prospective employees’ technical skills, but an individual’s creativity, resilience, and determination are just as important. Who better to attest to these traits than colleagues? Here are some ways you can build your cadre of professional references.
Grow them. If the first time you think about references is when you need one for a potential job, it’s already too late. Throughout your career, you need to be thinking about how others perceive you, how you can help them, and how you can be a person that others want to help.
One of the (few) benefits of forced isolation during this pandemic is that you have time for introspection. You have probably found yourself reevaluating your priorities and reflecting on your career choices. You may fondly remember some of the people who have influenced you but whom you have not kept in touch with. Let them know what they did and how it helped you get to where you are today.
Diversify them. You will need references from different aspects of your life: current or former supervisors, coworkers, and direct reports. You will want to have some people with whom you have worked closely in the same organization and others with whom you’ve collaborated outside your organization. The larger your network, the easier it is to find someone to speak to the skills you need in the new position.
Ask them. When you ask people to serve as references, give them as much notice as possible, and provide a time frame for their replies. Let them know if they should expect a phone call, provide a written document, or answer questions on a website. Make it easy for them to say no, so that only those who truly want to help you will say yes.
Help them. Make it as easy as possible for them. Let them know what type of position you are applying for by providing the job description, your résumé, and other information so they can be specific about your qualifications. Remind them of what you did together and how, specifically, you contributed to success. Especially in academic circles, it is not uncommon to write a first draft of the content yourself and send it to a reference to edit and submit.
Remind them. When people agree to help you, ask them if they want reminders and, if so, when. If you know they have not yet submitted the recommendations, you can nudge them just before the deadline. Offer to help or to find someone else if they can no longer help you.
Thank them. Whether they end up helping you or not, make sure to sincerely thank them for considering your request, and let them know how your application turned out. If appropriate, let them know how you paid their kindness forward by helping someone else.
Remember, providing a good reference takes a significant amount of time, work, and insight into the other person. You need to invest time in building those professional relationships so others will have the tools they need to help you when the time comes.
Get involved in the discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first issue of every month in C&EN. Send your comments and ideas for topics for future columns to email@example.com.