Writing a reference


Whether you’re applying for a job or renting a house, it seems that just about everyone nowadays asks for references. Employer references, landlord references, character references… In normal jobs you ask your employer or your line manager for a reference, and he writes one: or maybe if he’s very busy and important the company writes one. Not so in academia.

Over here (and I admit that I have nothing to compare this to outside of this department, but my PI seems to think this is completely normal) if you want a reference, you write it yourself and then ask for a signature.

I’m sorry, what?

And I thought updating my CV was bad…

This wouldn’t be so bad if what I needed right now were a traditional reference. As far as I’m concerned, if I were applying for a postdoc and wanting a reference from my PI then it would essentially be my CV in prose form with a few nice words inserted by my mother, because I can’t bear to write positive things about myself unless they’re strictly quantifiable. (E.g. I can tell you that my current 10k PB is 46:12, but I couldn’t call myself a good runner. I can tell you that I won the runner up prize in a Young Researchers conference recently, but I wouldn’t describe myself as a good public speaker).

The baking biologist has worked in my lab for just over two years, over which time she has developed a firm grasp of traditional genetics. She is highly experienced in various methods of DNA and RNA extraction and clean up and is very familiar with techniques such as PCR, cloning, qPCR and Northern blots. She has more recently begun to explore protein work, and can confidently run Western blots. She maintains a strong familiarity with the literature and produced an excellent literature review for her end of year review.

That I can do. However, that is not what I need.

I have applied for a four day course that was pretty much designed for me. Except there are only 10 spaces, and therefore I have to jump through a million hoops. Application form, 700 word personal statement, two references and a letter of recommendation from my Head of Department, who barely knows me, isn’t a molecular biologist and has very little to say on the subject.

Firstly, what on earth is a letter of recommendation from your head of department even supposed to say? Yes, it does appear that this course is relevant to her research and she hasn’t done anything embarrassingly disastrous yet, so the department still kinda likes her. And given how little she knows about me, my research project, or the area that the course is based in, there’s only so many words I can put in her mouth. Aspect V of the course is particularly relevent to Part W of her PhD and would open collaboration opportunities in fields X through Z. 

Nightmare. Absolute nightmare.

And if I’m doing it, presumably so is everyone else. So what’s even the point?! 

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2 responses to “Writing a reference

  1. This also happens in my lab. You need the PI to write you some guff about how amazing you/you project are so you can get a travel grant/funding/a place on a course? You write it. Admittedly my PI usually takes the time to add some nice stuff in about me, but he expects/needs me to anticipate what the application reviewers want to see in successful applicants. I’m not always good at guessing this!

    • It gets better…

      They asked for two referees and this HoD thing, which I assumed was a formality. Wrote it for her, sent it to her, told them that she would sent it separately but here was my form, personal statement and CV with names of two referees.

      They’ve just emailed back to ask for copies of my references from those two referees. I now have 2 and a half hours to write TWO MORE references, that don’t look identical to the first one, and get them sent. The form asks for contact details of references. At no point does it say they have to be supplied in advance.

      This is RIDICULOUS.

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