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April 3, 2012 12:16 PM   Subscribe

Quick reference etiquette question: Is it weird to use a professor as a reference for a job unrelated to academic studies? What is the best way to ask them?

I am job searching and short on references and wondering if it is OK to use a college professor as a reference, even though my studies (undergraduate history & philosophy) have very little in common with the jobs I am applying for (secretarial/admin assistant). I am very well liked by most of my professors and know several of them fairly well from taking multiple classes with them. I know they could say that I am intelligent, hard-working, driven etc. but a good understanding of existentialism or medieval warfare seems a little distant, to say the least, from showing how I would be good at answering phones and using MS Office.

I already have two references from previous jobs but I feel that I need a third reference since most applications seem to ask for three. Can I use a professor? Is it weird or insulting to ask them? If not a professor, who is a good person to use?

If I do use a professor, what is the most polite way to ask them? Via email or stopping by their office to ask in person? How do I phrase it in a polite manner?

posted by vanitas to Work & Money (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
As a matter of etiquette, it is appropriate to use just about anyone as a reference as long as they agree to it. Whether it will be meaningful to your prospective employer is a different question, but personal qualities such as work ethic, conscientiousness, and intelligence are obviously of interest to many employers.

The most polite way of asking depends on your relationship with them, but the default rule would be to ask in person. If you have extensive and regular e-mail correspondence with them, or if they are not readily available in person, you could try e-mail.

It helps people that you ask to be references if they have some idea what to say to potential employers, so when you ask, you can explain that you're hoping the professor can vouch for your work ethic, writing ability, or whatever other quality you expect will be the basis of their recommendation.

You can say some version of, "I'm applying for [type of job], and I'd like to ask you to be a reference that could speak to [qualities]. May I please use you as a reference? Thank you."
posted by MoonOrb at 12:25 PM on April 3, 2012

Nope, not weird at all. As a prof, either e-mail or asking personally is fine, but the most important thing for me was getting enough notice to write a reference. Sure fire way of annoying a professor is asking for a reference and then telling them that you need it in a few days... I also ask for a CV and at least a short paragraph on why you're applying for the job, so it might be worthwhile thinking about this as well.
posted by Scottie_Bob at 12:30 PM on April 3, 2012

I've had many, many professors act as references for me, both after college and after grad school. Asking in person is best, but if not logistically feasible email is fine. I always gave them a copy of my resume, a copy of the job description, and a "cover letter" blurb on why I wanted the job/why I was a good fit that they could use as talking points.
posted by athenasbanquet at 12:37 PM on April 3, 2012

I have definitely been interviewed (and hired, if I recall correctly) by jobs where I included a professor as a reference. I would probably stick to work references now that I have more post-college job experience, but it worked for me when I was pretty fresh out of college.
posted by mlle valentine at 12:38 PM on April 3, 2012

It is not at all weird. Being specific about what you'd like them to talk about (creativity, focus, organization, determination) is a huge help.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:41 PM on April 3, 2012

A professor is like a manager, in a way. If you have had significant, positive, and recent interaction with them, then it sounds like a fine source for a professional reference.

I think you should meet with them in person (as others mentioned), explain that you are applying for jobs, and seeking a reference from them. In order to continue the conversation or wrap it up as appropriate, be prepared for a whole range of responses: yes, I'll think about it, no, I'm not allowed to do that, I don't do that for my students, etc.
posted by germdisco at 5:37 PM on April 3, 2012

Agreeing it's not weird at all. In my experience, part of the job of professoring is giving references. The amount of time that has passed since you actively interacted personally with them will probably dictate what feels most comfortable as far as asking--if it's been a while, email can work--just acknowledge that it's been a while, describe what it is you've been doing/want to do, include a recent resume and/or a copy of your cover letter/application letter, and even suggest some language that they can use for your reference. You can do this within your email by saying something like "I am applying for job X and although it's been years since I was your student, I am hoping that you'll be able to comment on my ability to complete assignments on time and provide thoughtful input to class discussions; for this position, it may be helpful for you to note my ability to interact easily with my classmates of diverse backgrounds" or some similar relevant and specific wording that they can essentially copy and paste.
posted by gubenuj at 8:50 PM on April 3, 2012

Thanks for your responses. Including a copy of the cover letter or job description complicates things, though - I'm applying for many jobs and the cover letter varies per job. Am I supposed to wait until I have an interview to ask for the reference, then?
posted by vanitas at 8:22 AM on April 4, 2012

There is no need to submit references until you are asked for them. Sometimes that is when applying, sometimes after an interview, sometimes not at all.

The best thing you can do is give your references a call as a heads up, letting them know the kinds of things you may be applying for and what in particular you'd like them to say about you. You might even remind them of a situation when you did something that corresponds with a positive trait you would like to emphasize.

It's fine to use a professor as a reference - consider him/her a character reference among your other professional references. About a year ago, someone who was in a student organization with me back in college used me as a reference (a peer, not even a prof). Guess what: he got the job.
posted by jander03 at 10:36 PM on April 4, 2012

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