November 15, 2021

How to Use Professors as Professional References

By B&SC Career Services Team

As you start your career, you will notice that a list of professional references is typically required when submitting a job application or starting the interview process. A professional reference is a recommendation from someone who can speak to your work ethic and confirm that you are qualified for the position you applied for. Many students may have limited job experience and wonder if there are other people besides former employers or colleagues to list as references. For instance, is a professor a professional reference? And if so, what are some tips for using them as a reference?

Is a Professor a Professional Reference?

Yes, professors are considered professional references! The key is choosing professors who have watched you act in a productive capacity where you proved your skills and qualifications for employment. Besides professors, recent college graduates might also tap coaches, mentors, or advisers from their activities as a reference if they have limited job experience. It is important to note that while human resources staff understand your limited experience, they won’t excuse you from the requirement of having great references.

Tips for Using Professors as References

Here’s how to set the right conditions to make sure potential employers get high quality feedback from your professors.

Pick the right professor(s) – Hopefully, you have built a rapport with at least a few of your professors. Have you had one-on-one discussions with any of them? Which of them could vouch for your character, abilities and potential? Sophia L. Marshall, Cross-Cultural Career Coach and Speaker, suggests selecting two: one who taught a general course and one who taught a specialty course because they can both speak to different things for the job you are applying for.

Ask permission – This serves several purposes. First, he or she won’t be caught off guard when the employer calls. And, it will guarantee you have the professor’s preferred and accurate contact information. It also gives the professor the chance to decline being contacted. In a 2012, a Careerbuilder survey of nearly 2,500 hiring managers and 4,000 workers, 62 percent of the employers who contacted a reference said the reference didn’t have anything good to say about the candidate.

Prep them for success – Even if you have a great rapport, the professor (and anyone who serves as a reference) will appreciate getting information that helps them provide quality feedback. Tell them what you are applying for, provide a copy of your resume and point out a few key points for discussion.

“For example, for the professor who taught the general course you could say: ‘please highlight my leadership skills as I was the team lead on the recent (project name) project’,” Marshall said. “The key here is to talk about a general soft skill that you developed as a part of his/her class.” Your request with a professor of a specialized course would have a different focus.”

Ask that professor to highlight your knowledge in a few skills with correlations between what you studied and what the company is looking for,” she said. “It’s good to be specific here, like a programming language, server knowledge or other type of technical skill.”

And when you choose a reference, choose wisely. What this person says about you can directly impact your being selected for a position. According to the survey, 69 percent of the respondents have changed their minds about a candidate after speaking with a reference. Of those, 47 percent had a less favorable opinion about the candidate while 23 percent had a more favorable one. So, the lesson here is that you can use professors as references.

And, although you can never be absolutely sure what they will say about you, you can set the conditions for a favorable outcome by making sure they are prepared and willing to be called.

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