Choosing References for a PhD Application |
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Choosing References for a PhD Application

Written by Ben Taylor

As part of your application for doctoral study you may be asked to provide up to three academic referees.

The references they provide can make or break your PhD application and are essential to giving you the best chance of being successful. You should therefore think carefully about who your referees will be.

This page explains how reference letters for PhD applications work, with advice on choosing referees and requesting references from them.

What do referees do?

Applying for doctoral study can be competitive and universities often receive a substantial number of submissions. As a result, they are not able to meet every applicant in person.

References give an impression of you as a potential PhD researcher whilst both reinforcing your personal statement and academic history, and adding more.

A PhD reference letter should:

  • Provide a personal and expert opinion on your suitability to undertake postgraduate study
  • Evidence and confirm your qualifications, skills and abilities
  • Show who you are as a researcher: what your interests are, where your strengths lie, and what your goals are
  • Offer knowledgeable and experienced insight into how you and your research project would fit within the university and its research culture

The information provided by your referees could also help corroborate other aspects of your application, or inform some of the questions at your interview.

The importance of PhD references

It can be tempting to overlook references as you focus on the parts of a PhD application that require more direct input from you, but to do so would be a mistake.

References are as important to your PhD application as your personal statement, research proposal and academic history.

They can not only strengthen your application by supporting the information you provide but they can also make up for any potential weaknesses in your academic profile.

Who should you choose as your PhD referee?

Choosing the right referees for you and your project is an important part of the application process. Referees that you might consider are:

  • Your Masters supervisor - they will have a good idea of you as a person, your research interests, and your skills and abilities
  • Other members of academic staff who have taught you and read and marked your work
  • Academic staff from your department or university who you may not know well personally but whose work fits with your research interests
  • Your personal tutor (if separate from the people above)
  • An employer can be a valuable referee if you’re looking to research in an area that is similar to your employment

Academics usually have strong networks within their fields. This means there is a good chance that your referee will be known to your potential supervisor (and vice versa).

Selecting a referee who works in your subject area can therefore be a good way of signalling that your research has a place within a specific field.

When choosing referees you should think about who can offer a knowledgeable and personal understanding of your goals, interests, and abilities as a researcher.

A reference is as much (if not more) about why and how you research as it is about what you research.

The other ingredients of a successful PhD application

Your referees are important, but so are other elements of your PhD application. Our guides cover personal statements, research proposals, eligibility criteria and more.

How should you ask for a reference letter?

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.

Find a PhD

This article was written for FindAPhD by Sabine Grimshaw. At the time of writing, Sabine was completing her PhD at the University of Leeds & the Imperial War Museum. Click here to search our database of PhDs.

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Last Updated: 29 January 2021