Don’t leave your referee with a surprise reference request in their inbox. Make contact with them (by email, phone, or in person) before submitting your application and let them know that you would like to put them down as a referee.
Most academics will empathise with someone looking to pursue their interests through postgraduate study and will be willing to write a reference.
However, busy schedules inevitably mean missed or forgotten emails or a lack of hours in the day to write your reference at short notice. This isn’t just about etiquette; it is also about giving your referees enough time to do you justice.
Assisting your referees
There are a few things you can do to make life easier for your referees - and help them produce a better reference for you.
Even if you know your referees well, you should arrange to meet with them in person. This will allow you to discuss why you want to pursue your research to doctorate level and what your goals are.
This will give them a good sense of your motivations for studying for a PhD and you may also find it helpful to articulate to another academic your reasons for pursuing a doctorate.
Likewise, if using an employer as a referee is appropriate for your study, talk to them about why you want to transition from employment to postgraduate research. This can be particularly valuable if an employer isn't immediately familiar with your academic subject or the details of PhD study.
If you are approaching academic staff who may not know you or your research very well, help them to write you a strong reference by offering them a sample of some your best written work and your personal statement.
The value of your references
Above all else, don't underestimate the importance of references to the rest of your PhD application.
Whoever you choose - and however you approach them - your references will help to demonstrate to a selection panel that you have the skills, tenacity, and knowledge to pursue your research through PhD study.
Think carefully and choose the right referees for you and your project, give them plenty of time and help them to write you the best possible reference by providing a clear picture of yourself as a researcher.