I’ve been at my current job for three years come March. It is my first job post-college, aside from a six-month internship. I am looking to leave. While the actual place of employment and coworkers are fine, I don’t enjoy what I do and dislike the city. I am looking for a new job, but I hit always hit a hurdle: references. My coworkers do not know I am looking for a new job, so I can’t use them as references. Since this is my first job, who can I ask?
Ah, the who-to-get-for-my-reference question. The easy answer here, of course, is to ask all of those professors from college and grad school who loved you well for your witty class participation/office hour banter. If you were on the quieter side, it’s simple: buy a time machine! (Pictured: two businessmen shaking hands, originally uploaded to Flickr by MyTudut.)
In all seriousness, I would say that for a junior position, the primary thing you should worry about for a reference is to find someone (preferably several someones) who can speak to the skills you’ll use for the job you’re applying for. Know also that a) interviewers only get to the references near the end of the process, so you shouldn’t need to give someone references when you’re applying (just say “Available upon request” on your resume or wherever they ask for them). B) LOTS of junior people are in your exact position re: lack of references, so it’s ok to get a bit creative with references.
Professors are great for references — at least one person must have supervised your thesis, or helped you get your internship or job. I would also say that it’s ok to go to some of your current coworkers, if certain conditions apply. First, this should be something that you only approach them about *after* you’ve had the Dream Job Interview — as in, you’re still a candidate and the interviewer wants references. Second, you should hopefully go to someone who has a mentoring relationship to you already. No one expects junior workers to stay around forever, and if you can handle this conversation it says a lot about your professionalism.
If that fails, here are some other places to turn:
a) Coworkers Who’ve Left For Greener Pastures. Come on, in three years at your job someone must have left — get in touch with them pronto. Take them to lunch, talk about how incredibly thankful you are for the opportunity, and ask their advice for about a) how to advance in your current position and b) where else you should be looking. After they’ve delivered the advice, if you worked with them *at all*, ask them to serve as a reference for you. If you worked in totally different departments, though, ask them how you should handle the reference situation — they may know the personalities in your office enough to say that “X served as a great reference for Z and Y,” or even “do not ask A, because they royally screwed B and C.”
b) Supervisors from Internships – For your six-month internship, who supervised you? Don’t feel obligated to get the “top” person at your job to refer you — anyone who was senior to you and supervised you can serve as a reference. Even if you only worked somewhere for a few weeks or months, if someone there will remember your name and be able to speak to your working skills, they’re a fit.
c) Supervisors from Other Careers – Let’s say you waited tables at Applebee’s for almost every summer. There are still people more senior to you who can speak to your skillset — your punctuality, your attention to detail, your way with the customers. For these kinds of references, I wouldn’t be afraid to do a lot of coaching — as in, tell them what skills or stories you’re hoping they remember about you, then meet with them to talk about those skills or stories and how they apply to your prospective job, and then email them again to thank them for meeting you for lunch and remind them again what skills you hope they can tell someone calling to serve as a reference.
d) Supervisors from Extracurricular Activities – Were you a junior reporter on your school paper? Ask your editor to serve as a reference. They may not have been a “work colleague” in the strict sense, but they can still speak to your skills and personality. Similarly, if you’ve been doing a lot of volunteer work in the past 3 years, ask some of the people who know you through that.
Be sure to clearly ask all of these folks if they’re willing to serve as a reference, and when they agree, feel free to send them an e-mail thanking them. If they’re a slightly distant connection, remind them what skills they’ve witnessed. You can even say something like, “I enjoyed working with you on project X, and hope that when I helped come up with the solution for problem Y that did a lot to showcase my tenacity, my creativity, and my attention to detail.” Finally, you may want to send them this article, depending on the person (and the job you’re applying for).
Readers, who served as your references in your early years? What advice do you have for Reader L?