Jan 09

Ideas for Professional References

A student recently asked about identifying individuals who could serve as a professional reference when the job seeker does not have significant experience in the career field. Here are some of our thoughts:


When it comes to references, the best practice is to use people who have seen your work (and work ethic and professionalism etc.) in action. It’s really nice if they can speak to your directly related skills and experiences, but if you are pivoting that may not be available. They’ll ideally be able to share personal stories of your successes, but at a minimum can confirm that you show up to work on time, come prepared, make productive contributions to the organization, are a pleasant individual, know your stuff, etc.

Professors and PIs work well for current students, as they can attest to your field-specific skills, initiative, preparedness, etc. Working professionals should try to think of other folks at the organization with whom you have had productive working relationships. They could be project managers from teams who relied on your support or contributions, or people at client organizations with whom you have had numerous (positive) professional interactions.

If you left a previous job or program on good terms, perhaps someone from that organization would be willing to be a reference.

Are you involved in any professional or civic associations? When I applied to my role here at ND I had been on the leadership team for our professional consortium. In addition to my direct supervisor, two of my three professional references came from other members of that leadership team, since I had worked closely with them on a number of initiatives over the recent years.

If you completed research or a capstone project with individuals at external organizations, think of someone from that experience who could potentially be a reference.

Professional references should never include family members, and there’s no need to include friends or clergy as “character” references.

Additional information about references can be found on this page of our website.

A note about formatting: Use the same format for your name and contact info at the top of your references page as you use on your resume. And proofread the formatting of each reference listing to make sure things like phone numbers and e-mail addresses are formatted consistently.

Finally: I encourage you to add LinkedIn recommendations to your profile. If someone writes 3-4 sentences about what a great job you did on a project or in their class, other employers will see you as a valuable addition to their team. Just like endorsements, the fastest way to get recommended is to recommend the work of others. While endorsed skills help you appear in employer search results, recommendations hold more value in the eye of actual readers because those people took the time to sit down and write a few sentences rather than simply pushing a button. NOTE: I want to emphasize that these are short, 3-4 sentence, recommendations, definitely not an entire letter of recommendation or anything like that. I have a number of recommendations on my profile if you want to see what they look like. If someone writes you a glowing LinkedIn recommendation with the right context, then perhaps you could ask them to also be a professional reference for you during your search.

  • The fastest way to get recommended on LinkedIn is to write recommendations for other people. Often they will want to reciprocate.
Have you found other successful references from other sources? Please share in the comments.
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