How references for non-academic jobs are different

Posted on February 22, 2010 by

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a piece on ensuring the quality of your reference letters when you’re applying for academic positions. This week I’d like to address the issue of asking for references when you are applying outside academe. This can be a difficult process for both you and your referees – particularly if neither of you have much or any experience in the non-academic workforce.

Unlike academe, non-academic job references are usually given over the phone. Typically, the applicant will be asked to provide at least two references, usually after the first, or in some cases second, interview. Here are a few tips that can help you select and prepare your referees so they can provide the strongest support possible.

  • Do your research – Make sure you research the organization to which you are applying – their mandate, priorities and reputation. Also, make sure you thoroughly read the posting for which you are applying in terms of the job functions and how these converge with the qualifications required. This will help you identify who can best speak on your behalf.
  • Select your referees strategically – The strongest referees can speak specifically and positively about how well-suited you are for a given position. While your committee members may be most familiar with your recent research activities, you will need to decide whether they can adequately discuss other capabilities you have that may be relevant. If not, it would be prudent to cull appropriate referees from outside academe to help round out your list of references. If that’s not realistic, consider asking a faculty member or university administrator who can speak about your non-research activities. Here are a few questions to keep in mind as you select your referees:
    • How supportive is this person of my decision to leave academe?
    • Is this person knowledgeable about the position/field/organization to which I am applying?
    • Can this person be easily understood on the telephone?
    • Will this person be readily available to do phone interviews?
  • Support your referees during the process – This point is the same for non-academic job searches as for academic ones. Ensure you provide your referees with the details of the position as well as copies of your CV or resumé. It can be helpful to write down specific aspects of your research activities, knowledge or skills that are most closely related to each position. It is also courteous to keep your referees updated on your progress.

Recognizing the differences between academic and non-academic recruitment processes will help you not only identify who would be best able to describe your strengths to a prospective employer, but ensure they have the information and support they need to do so.


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