How to ask your supervisor or PI for a reference
Updated: Nov 17, 2022
It is clear from recent conversations that there is some apprehension around referees and references, especially for those who are perhaps applying for their first job.
These fears seem to centre around;
Many institutions have guidance for course leaders on the professional standards and expectations of those who provide references to undergraduates, and the implication is that this advice applies more generally to post-graduate students. Others are starting to provide specific advice to research groups. So, check your institutional handbooks for any policy or guidance.
1. Is it normal to ask your supervisor for a reference?
Yes; it is normal to ask your supervisor or PI for a reference. If you are a supervisor or PI you can expect to be asked, and to accept the request. There is no legal obligation (in the UK and Ireland) to provide a reference if someone asks, but in HEIs there is often a contractual obligation, and there is certainly a professional expectation to provide a reference.
It is rare for a prospective employer not to ask for reference, and they usually require that it comes from a line-manager or employer. You usually to have to provide at least 2 referees, and I recently came across the NHS asking for 4 references; 2 professional and 2 character references.
2. What is it for?
References have been around for a long time – employers wanted to check that you were of sound character i.e. honest, and weren’t about to run off with the family silver.
The fundamental purpose is of fact-checking what you have said about yourself remains. Their form and process can vary enormously depending upon what the new employer wants to know (and has a legal right to ask). Some are a short form, checking job titles and dates of employments, some are just an open request for a reference (although these seem to be becoming less common in my experience) and some ask for a lot of detail, although (according to ACAS), the amount of detail provided is up to the person who provides it, unless their employer has a policy on this.
ACAS* gives examples of the types of things that can be included in a detailed or character reference as:
· answers to questions from the employer requesting the reference
· details about your skills, ability and experience
· details about your character, strengths and weaknesses relating to your suitability for the new role
· how often you were off work
· disciplinary details
· the reason you left the job
3. My supervisor will know that I’m leaving and I don’t want them to know
The explicit default position of many employers is to request details of referees in the job application, but not to approach the referees until a job offer has been made. If this is not the case you can give details of which referee is not to be approached until an offer is made. However you will still be expected to provide details. In either case, your PI/supervisor will not know until you have been made a job offer.
4. My supervisor/PI might say bad things about me
There are some mean, vengeful people out there, but they are rare. Less rare is thoughtless or unconscious bias, and whilst they may not be deliberate in their meanness, their assessment of your performance can be, well, biased. The law requires that references are not misleading, inaccurate or discriminatory. However if it is true that your punctuality was poor, it is misleading and inaccurate of a referee to report that it was good. If the reason for your ‘poor punctuality’ was for example a consequence of a declared disability, then it is discriminatory (and misleading) to label your punctuality simply as poor. (If employers had more flexible approaches to time in the workplace and if they had better ways of asking questions to assess potential employees’ reliability then this wouldn’t be a problem. Grrrr). ACAS gives advice on what to do if you get a ‘bad’ reference.*
5. My supervisor doesn’t know me very well
It is rare for students to have just one supervisor, but a research team mostly has a single lead. If you really don’t want to refer to your PI (as your direct line manger) you may consider going one step higher up the chain of line-management, to a Head of Faculty or Group. (A cultural note: it is not normal in UK or Ireland to go straight to the top of line management tree for a referee, unless you have been specifically asked to do so; it is seen as presumptuous and even if a reference is agreed to, it might be a bit cursory). Whether you stick with your PI or go a step up the line management chain, you must consider how you ask for a reference if the person that you have been obliged to ask does not know you very well. If you have not specifically been asked for a line-manager as a referee then you do not have to name them.
6. Who will read it
Where references go is a bit of black-box. They will be read by the direct employer and kept on file. It is a need-to-know business. HR departments guard this principle rigorously and so should you if you are ever privy to the details. This is reassuring; they are not being passed around the staff room or HR, with everyone having a laugh at your expense. It is possible to request to see a reference, from the new employer, which has no right to refuse you, unless it was stipulated by the referee.
7. How do I ask for a reference?
Having said that it is normal, and expected of your supervisor/PI to provide you with a reference when approached, it is still one of those conversations that it is better to have than not. If you are on a contract then it is likely that there will be conversations in meetings/chats with your supervisor/PI about your future. The sooner you seek their agreement in principle (which I usually posit as an assumption with line management "I assume it's ok to put you as a referee. Is it ok?" and a request to anyone else "I was wondering if you would act a reference for me please.."). It is then polite to repeat the request if you know and are happy to tell your PI/supervisor about any new job application. It’s equally polite not to bombard your referees with frequent repeats of a request that they have already agreed to. There is a tacit understanding that any request for a reference will be met until a new position has been found. For more personal referees you may understand that tacit agreement to last for years. If you are not sure, then ask.
If you absolutely do not want to ask for a reference from your supervisor/PI, but have to give their details then don’t worry, you are not obliged to ask. They will just be a little surprised when your new employer asks them for one.
Other senior colleagues will also not be surprised to be asked to be a referee, as it is usual to have to provide at least two referees. Do give them some information about the kinds of role your are applying for, and the less they know you, the more background you might wish to give them.
You can ask for agreement in person, by phone, or email. The better you know someone, the more informal you can be.
8. What if they say no!
This is unlikely. In HEIs direct line-managers are usually contractually obliged. However, even within a contract, there may be reasons that someone may ask their line-manager's manager to do it instead.
On one occasion I declined to act as a referee. I felt I did not know the person well enough to provide the kind of detail that would be required by the sensitive project they were to be employed on. I’ve also had reference requests sprung upon me, which was fine when I knew the person, not fine when I didn’t know them very well; I wish they had come to me and honestly said ‘Perhaps you don’t know me very well, but here’s some information about this post that I’ve applied for and the (evidenced) skills/experience that I have for the post’ etc. If I have the information then I can do them justice.
9. What should I put in a reference?
Remember, don’t be flattered into giving a reference for someone you are not a line-manager to, or don’t know at all well. Most references are pre-prepared forms. Just remember that whatever you say must be accurate and fair.
Find out more
Whether you are a student, early career fellow or a PI who has been asked to provide a reference, always refer to your institution’s policies.
Try ACAS for a readable guide to employment-rights-and-responsibilities in Britain, and answers to many questions. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. *https://www.acas.org.uk/providing-a-job-reference . The gov.uk website is a bit sparse, but accurate https://www.gov.uk/work-reference . For Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, try the Labour Relations Agency and the Workplace Relations Commission, which perform a similar function to ACAS, but I could find no specific advice on references on either site.