In the process of hiring here at Ideas on Fire, we’ve seen a lot of fabulous CVs-turned-resumes, spoken with a lot of applicants’ professional references, and answered a lot of questions about how to pick references for non-academic or alternative academic jobs.
If you’re in academia, you’ve probably gotten some advice on how to pick great references who can recommend you for faculty jobs and postdocs. But what about those jobs you’re applying for beyond the tenure track? How do you go about finding great references for your postac or altac job search?
Choose references who can speak to concrete skills
Unlike faculty job ads, altac and non-academic job ads usually focus on skills (project management, marketing strategy development, grant writing) over knowledge areas (gender studies, phenomenology, race in the Americas).
If the job requires project management expertise, find a reference who has witnessed you exercising great project management, perhaps a dissertation advisor who can speak to how you designed your multi-year dissertation plan, created and met all deadlines and milestones with minimal outside nudging, created successful systems for tracking and making progress on multiple projects at once, and communicated effectively with all necessary parties.
If the job requires running a company’s social media strategy and campaigns, find a reference who can speak to your experience with this, perhaps the administrator in your department who you worked with to manage the department’s social media accounts.
Listing professors is fine—with a caveat
Many academics worry that listing professors as references for non-faculty or non-academic jobs makes them seem too student-like or like they don’t have expertise outside of academia.
If you do have non-academic references who can speak to your fit for the job, by all means list them. But it is also generally fine to list professors and academic colleagues so long as they can speak directly to the skills and qualifications you are highlighting in your application.
If the job you’re applying for is a grant writing job at a nonprofit, and your dissertation director has never read a grant you’ve written or seen you fundraise in any way, they’re not a good reference for that application, even if they think you’re amazing in other ways.
In other words, fit your references to the job.
Choose complementary references
Think of your professional references collectively.
For example, if you’re applying to a job that would have you mentoring or supervising people, try to find a reference who has supervised you (so they can speak to the way you receive mentoring and integrate it) and a reference who you have supervised or mentored (so they can speak to your mentoring/supervising technique).
The latter person might actually be a student you worked with over a significant period of time.
Titles don’t matter much
It is better to have a reference who can speak to your skills and expertise that the job requires than a reference who may have a fancy title but only has generic praise or praise for your expertise in an unrelated area.
Additionally, the academic hierarchy is largely opaque (and uninteresting) to those outside of it, so most people reading your resume won’t care about the difference between a lecturer, associate professor, and emeritus professor.
Communicate with your references
Make sure you ask your references if you can list them and let them know when they will be contacted to provide a reference.
Keep in mind that hiring timelines are much shorter in companies, some government agencies, and nonprofits than in academia—let your references know the timeline so they can prepare. If your reference is on maternity leave or off doing ethnographic fieldwork, and thus won’t be able to schedule a phone call with HR or answer an email inquiry within a few days, they’re not a good person to list for this application.
Choose references with genuine enthusiasm
Not all of your potential references will be equally excited about each job you apply for. That’s fine. Maybe they’re not very familiar with the industry or don’t have much experience with your expertise in a specific area (but may be able to speak to your expertise in another area).
List the ones that are a good fit for this particular job. You can list the others on other applications.
Good luck to all of you working on altac/postac job searches and those of you who will be in the future!