Choosing References for Non-Academic Jobs

by | Jul 22, 2016

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 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? Here’s help.

Choose references who can speak to concrete skills

Unlike faculty job ads, altac (alternative academic) and non-academic job ads usually focus on skills (like project management, marketing strategy development, or grant writing) over knowledge areas (like gender studies, phenomenology, or race in the Americas).

If the job requires project management expertise, find a reference who has witnessed you exercising great project management skills—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 simultaneous projects, and communicated effectively with all stakeholders.

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-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; they should each contribute something different and complementary to your application.

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 for you or can’t speak to your fit for non-academic jobs.

For example, your film studies professor who raves about your ability to explain Deleuzian film theory to undergraduates doesn’t have much to contribute to your application for a hedge fund job unless that job involves translating difficult concepts for diverse audiences in some way.

Additionally, remember that the academic hierarchy is largely opaque (and uninteresting) to those outside of it, so most people reading your resume won’t know or care about the difference between a lecturer, associate professor, and emeritus professor. In other words, a reference’s title cannot substitute for their substantive and relevant assessment of your fit for a job.

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. If there is something specific you want them to highlight, tell them that and explain why. Give them whatever resources they need (the job ad, your cover letter, a list of highlights, etc.) to make you shine.

Keep in mind that the hiring timelines for non-academic jobs are much shorter than for academic ones. The entire hiring process from application to human resources (HR) paperwork can sometimes be done within a few weeks (much nicer than the year-long agony of the academic job market!). 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 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 you’re applying in 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 non-academic job applications and those of you who will be in the future!

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Cathy Hannabach is the founder and CEO of Ideas on Fire as well as the host of the Imagine Otherwise podcast.

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