Letters of Recommendation vs. References

Likely, you have had a faculty member write a letter of recommendation for you. We use letters of recommendation to get into academic programs, apply for grants and scholarships, or apply for stipends and awards. The letter writer assesses your qualities, characteristics, and capabilities to perform with regard to the anticipated work.  Their primary purpose is to introduce you and evaluate, or vouch for, your skills, abilities, and character. Generally you can use the same recommendation letter for all of your graduate school applications or fellowships. The letters are submitted with your application. There is no need to ask the writer to address the letters individually since you likely will apply for several graduate program or fellowships simultaneously.

In industry, once you are being seriously considered for a job, your potential employer will ask you for references. These will be people that they will call and speak to on the phone as opposed to reading a general recommendation letter. The questions they ask will evaluate how well you would do in the specific position and also reflect industry priorities such as your ability to work in a team. Your reference will not only comment on your strengths and weaknesses, but also on the level of your skills and expertise, your character, work ethic, flexibility, communication, and possibly your leadership potential. You need to make sure you choose people who can provide those insights.

Choosing the Right Person

When selecting someone to be a reference for you, be sure you choose people who:

1. Will be available, or will reply promptly, when contacted. If you know your professor is hard to reach, procrastinates, or is slow to return calls, you may want to consider using another professor as a reference.

2. Can comment on your qualifications and suitability for the position. People who can speak to your skills as they relate to the position might also include more senior postdocs, collaborators, or colleagues. They also will be able to provide insights into your ability to communicate, establish and achieve goals, and work with others.

3. Will say nice things about you. Is your professor highly critical when speaking of others? Does he or she rarely have nice things to say about current or former lab members? Does he or she speak negatively of others who have transitioned into industry? If so, they probably won’t be a good reference for you since your potential employer is unfamiliar with the reference’s personality or biases.

Before you list them or share their contact information, ask potential references if they would be willing to say good things about you if called as a reference. If you sense ANY reluctance, don’t press the matter. It may mean that, for whatever their reasons, they are not comfortable giving you a positive review. That will not benefit, and could harm, your candidacy. If your P.I. does not know that you are looking to move on, or is opposed to moving into industry (Yes, some of that still exists!), find another faculty or committee member who will speak confidentially on your behalf. They might also corroborate why you are not using your P.I. as a reference.

Industry references will want to know about more than your scientific and technical abilities because priorities in industry are different than those in academia or nonprofit research institutions. To learn more about those priorities and what to anticipate, see our website www.scientificresumes.com. While you are there, consider getting the files to create a very industry-friendly scientific resume that will be more powerful and effective than a C.V. or resume template.

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