Writing a great reference, a guide for supervisors and PIs

By Katrina Gardner, Careers Manager for PGRs and Research Staff at the University of Glasgow. Katrina works closely with the Researcher Development Team to offer careers workshops and one-to-one consultations for researchers, as well as guidance for supervisors and PIs seeking to support their researchers.

A mechanical sign reading 'for hire' in while lettering on a red background

PIs and supervisors are asked regularly to write references for research staff and PGRs who are applying for their next job role. Unpicking and fulfilling what is required in the reference can undoubtably be stressful for you when you already have many competing demands on your time. And the responsibility of this task may also weigh heavily on you, in that your contribution could help or hinder their application, and future career trajectory. Recruiters will vary in terms of how much importance is placed on the reference statement. For some this may provide them with a useful additional perspective on the applicant’s skills and experience, but for others it may simply be used as a checkpoint to confirm the applicant’s claims.

So, however experienced you are in this activity, it is useful to consider if there are strategies you can adopt to make this as effortless as possible for you, whilst at the same time helping them achieve speedy success in their job hunt. Below, are some reference writing ideas to help you avoid the most common pitfalls:

Be specific, and relevant

Many recruiters will be very clear in what they want you to write, from expecting you to answer some yes or no questions, to asking for your views on all the essential areas of experience required for the role. However, if no clear guidelines are provided by the recruiter, then it would be useful for you to discuss the job requirements with the applicant, to understand what the job specifies as the key duties and the skills required to carry them out.

You can also ask the applicant what specific points they would like you to address. They could even suggest examples they would like you to use to highlight specific areas or complement what is in their CV and cover letter. Do feel like this can be a collaborative effort, and don’t risk writing an irrelevant reference, or one which clashes with how the applicant has presented themselves.

Something we can all tend to fall foul of, is our inclination to write someone a reference for the job they already have. Especially so if the kind of job they are applying for is unfamiliar to us. We know in detail what they already do, and why that’s important, and so of course we want to start there. What we can helpfully do in support of applicants is show how what they are doing now, translates to the new position’s requirements – these, are laid out, in language you can emulate, in the job description. In the academic profession, we consciously learned the right language to describe our achievements, and this language has to be reframed for a non-academic audience. For example:

  • Instead of: They published X peer-reviewed articles (which means very little to people outwith academia)
  • Try: They have a documented ability to interpret their findings and create a compelling evidence base to back up their argument. They are motivated to complete a project cycle by communicating evidence for success, to specialist audiences.

Observed fact, or speculation?

You don’t necessarily need to write a detailed or lengthy document. What is key is that it is accurate, and you have clearly indicated when you are giving factual information, and when you are giving your opinions. The applicant is legally entitled to see what you have written so don’t include anything negative, that speculates about the applicant, or that makes assumptions about them, as you could be held accountable for this. If you don’t feel able to recommend someone, it’s always best to decline, rather than writing a negative letter.

Avoid ‘raising doubt’ unless it’s strictly necessary. Instead try to use neutral language, sticking to the observed facts. If you do continue to worry about the impact of your contribution to this application, it may help to bear in mind that the recruitment decision is based mainly on the applicant’s own ability to promote their suitability for the role at application and interview stage.

Explicitly offer support, across a range of career pathways

Many of you will already know that researchers can feel anxiety about asking you to undertake a reference writing task on their behalf. In my one-to-one careers consultations with researchers, I am regularly asked for advice on requesting references. A common scenario is that Research Staff and PGRs applying for professional jobs outside of academic careers feel worried about how to tell their supervisor or PI as they are concerned their career choice will be disapproved of.

Even some researchers looking to stay in academia but applying to another post can be worried that their boss may react badly when they ask for a reference. Some researchers also worry that a less than perfect working relationship may mean that they receive a less than positive reference. Such assumptions can act as barriers and mean that the researchers will delay asking for a reference for as long as possible which could mean you have shorter timescales for the task. Therefore, it really is in everyone’s interests that positive and explicit conversations about career progression take place perhaps in one of your regular catchups, or at annual review and that this includes stating a willingness to provide references for all applications.

Watch out for (gender) stereotypes

Gender bias can manifest in the language of reference letters, specifically in the language we choose to describe the praiseworthy qualities of different genders. Women applicants are more likely to be described using communal adjectives, such as ‘friendly’ ‘helpful’ or ‘compassionate’ (Khan et al, 2021), with more descriptions of ‘power’ and ‘drive’ in letters about men (Filippou et al, 2019).

References for women are also more likely to contain grindstone phrases like ‘hardworking’ that describe effort not ability, and letters of reference for woman are also twice as likely to raise doubt. Men applicants are more likely to be described for their achievements and by agentic adjectives, such as ‘leader’ or ‘exceptional’ (Madera, 2009). A number of studies have also noted that reference letters for women applicants have more frequent mentions of the applicant’s personal life and/or physical appearance, information irrelevant to the job (Trix & Psenka, 2003).

Of course, the need to examine our references for assumptions and biases will also apply to further protected characteristics, and if in doubt, get a second opinion from a colleague, an EDI specialist, or careers specialist.

What shouldn’t be raised in a reference

As above, do leave out your assumptions, speculations, and anything you may have extrapolated from the available data. Note also that someone’s personal life and circumstances, and what you think about them, are not relevant to the reference and shouldn’t be included. And finally, be careful not to disclose anything that breaks confidentiality. An applicant’s leave of absence, pregnancy, disability, mental health, record of sick leave or bereavement leave for example. As always, if you are unsure, simply check with the applicant.

I hope the ideas above help you in your reference writing.

One response to “Writing a great reference, a guide for supervisors and PIs”

  1. […] Encouragement from you also to engage in career planning for not just academic career progression but for exploration of other professions can be critically important. PGRs will be reassured by knowing that you are fully supportive of their career progression plans not just in academia but also into other careers. See here, for a related post on how to write a great reference for your PGRs and postdocs. […]

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