When you’re preparing to interview for new positions, you need to submit a number of items to the organizations where you’re hoping to be hired. Of course, depending on the position for which you’re applying, different institutions will ask for different types of documentation. However, most will require a list of professional references who can speak about the nature and quality of your work. Given the influence that these individuals may have on interviewers’ perception of your experience and character, it follows that you should take great care in developing your list.

In their book Creating Career Success: A Flexible Plan for the World of Work, authors Francine Fabricant, Jennifer Miller, and Debra J. Stark offer several suggestions for developing a network of contacts and colleagues who can serve as your professional references. We’ve summarized them below:

  • Cultivate professional relationships. In order for people to speak about your work ethic, habits, skills, and talents, they must know enough about you to feel confident and comfortable as they speak about you to potential employers.  Whether through internships, volunteer positions, hallway conversations in your office or department, continuing-education courses, or conferences… use any opportunity you have to connect with others within your professional sphere, and spend enough time with them that they’re aware of you, your interests, and your abilities. (And be sure to get to know theirs, too!) Stay in contact on a regular basis, whether in person, by e-mail or phone, or through professionally oriented social-media channels such as LinkedIn. (Need some guidance on that last point? Read Ron Nash’s tips for using LinkedIn as an educator.)
  • Make the effort. Remember: it takes time to develop solid relationships with others, especially in a work setting. Extend the effort to get to know those around you, and identify opportunities to network with others in your chosen field. If you don’t make connections right away, don’t give up; instead, persistently and politely reach out to others with whom you sense a kinship or common interests. On the other hand, don’t try to force a relationship or badger someone into a professional relationship; this can, unfortunately, turn them off.
  • Maintain a positive connection with those who manage or supervise you. Of course this is important if you hope to build a sterling reputation in your current employment situation. However, having the respect and trust of your current supervisor can also have an impact on your career’s future health. He or she will be more likely to speak highly of you to others, and may consider you for a role in his or her own future position. What’s more, these individuals can also serve as mentors: either directly, offering you guidance on specific matters related to your career, or indirectly, as models of professional skills, attitudes, and behaviors.
  • Identify areas in which you need to grow. Take note of the skills and experiences you still need in order to find your ideal role. (For example: if you’re an instructor hoping to work as a librarian, your institution will likely require a Masters of Library Science; or, if you’re hoping to teach a particular course, you may need a certification or fulfill other qualifications in order to do so.) Your professional references will likely be willing to provide you with advice about the steps you should take and set you in the right direction. Furthermore, as you train and learn, you may also meet other like-minded people with whom you can develop a professional relationship. (Fabricant et al., 40)


Additional tips for preparing your list of professional references

Fabricant, Miller, and Stark also provide a brief reminder of the best way to prepare your list of references when you’re conducting a job search:

  • Before you begin preparing your list, contact your references and confirm that they are available and prepared to receive inquiries about you and your professional abilities. (You won’t want any of them to be caught off-guard by a call from your potential employers!)
  • When you speak with your references, you may want to describe the types of positions for which you’re applying, so that they are aware of your current professional interests and desired career direction.
  • Now you’re ready to begin typing up your list! As you do so, ensure that you’ve included up-to-date contact information for your references.
  • When the interviewing process is complete, be sure to send each of your references a thank-you note. In most cases, an e-mail will suffice; however, most people do appreciate a handwritten note on attractive stationery, as it lends a personal touch to the communication. (Fabricant et. al., 192)

Reference: Fabricant, Francine, Jennifer Miller, and Debra J. Stark. 2014. Creating Career Success: A Flexible Plan for the World of WorkBoston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.


What recommendations would you make to others who are building their lists of professional references? Share your suggestions in the comments.