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5 Things to Consider While Choosing References for PhD Application

As a part of your PhD application, you are expected to provide up to three academic referees. However, while focusing on other elements of the application that require direct inputs, some applicants tend to overlook references and may not be critical at choosing them. Little do you know, references for PhD application can make or break your acceptance at the university. Wonder how?

In this article, we shall discuss how references work and what are the factors to consider while choosing them for PhD application.

Why is it Important to Have References for PhD Application?

Considering that PhD is the highest degree one could get, applying for it is so competitive that universities often receive substantial number of submissions. Consequently, universities are unable to meet each applicant.

How can you stand out of the crowd and clear the first screening phase of the application process? While your academic feats and skills may get you shortlisted, it’d be delusional to think you are the only one to have excelled at your work. Furthermore, we aren’t new to people boasting on their CVs. This is where your references hold the power and can prove to be a key factor in making your PhD application successful.

A strong reference that emphasizes your skills and potential can also make up for an average or weak academic performance. Additionally, if the referee is a renowned and influential person, you are most likely to clear the first round just at the sight of their name on your reference list. However, having a strong name as your reference doesn’t mean you get the position served up on a plate.

How to Choose References for PhD Application?

While the CV comprises your academic profile, the references reinforce your personal statement, academic history, and add insights to make your application more appealing as a PhD researcher.

Let us discuss factors to consider while choosing references for PhD application.

1. Knows You Personally

An ideal referee is someone who knows you and has a lot of real-life experience of you on an academic or professional front. A professor at your university, your research partner, a colleague, etc. whose areas of interest coincide with your research topic can be considered to write a reference letter. Such people can give insights about your skills and abilities as they have known you personally.

2. Aware of Your Academic Profile

The purpose of references is to validate your academic and professional capabilities. Therefore, you must ensure that you select referees who know about your writing, analysis and research skills. These referees must also be able to provide an informed judgment on how to improve your work’s standard. While your recent professors can be a choice, it is still necessary to find earlier professors who are willing to serve as referees for your PhD application.

3. Must be Available to Write a Reference Letter

Writing an extraordinary reference letter takes time and needs proofreading before sending out to universities. Therefore, you must choose a referee who will have time to read through your academic CV and make your reference letter as best as possible. It is better to know if your shortlisted referees are available to write a reference letter. It would otherwise be rude to request your professors at the last minute. Making sure if your referee is available to write a reference letter will probably help you in yielding a good set of response.

4. Previously Served as a Referee

While a professor with strong research background is a good choice, having someone who has a lot of experience in writing reference letters can be a better idea. As like any other type of writing, reference writing is a skill. Ideally, senior academics who have mentored several PhD students may have written several reference letters. Such referees are most likely to understand the objective and requirements of a reference letter. However, this shouldn’t be an ultimate reason to discard another referee who may have written an acceptable reference letter.

5.  No Conflict of Interest

Existence of conflicting interests diminishes the chances of genuine objective of the applicant. You must avoid choosing referees who may come out having conflicting interests, such as family members, friends, etc. Although these individuals can provide an objective reference, the recruiting team may not approve of it under the suspicion of biased opinion.

How to Ask for a Reference Letter?

You can’t just knock on the door of your referee out of nowhere! Your surprise visit in your referees’ inbox may not receive a response. To avoid this, you must first contact them via email, phone call, or even in person and let them know about your plans of applying for PhD. Furthermore, discuss about your research and that you’d like if they could be your referees for PhD application. This isn’t just about etiquette; it is also about giving your enough time to your referees to do justice to the task.

Important points to remember whilst asking for a reference letter:

  1. Assist them in producing the reference letter.
  2. Value their time.
  3. Appreciate their cooperation.
  4. Be grateful to them for accepting your request.

So all the misconception of you not being responsible for the references you provide can now be rested. It’s all about the choices that has the potential of making or breaking your PhD application. What are other alternatives to look for while choosing the right reference for PhD application? Have your ever wrote an email to a referee and been disappointed for not receiving a reply? How appealing and impressive was the reference letter you came across for the first time?

Do you plan on applying for PhD and are clueless of how to choose right references for PhD application? Only thing you should think of is, whoever you choose, whatever you do— don’t overlook references for PhD application just because it does not include your direct input. You can also visit our Q&A forum for frequently asked questions related to different aspects of research writing and publishing answered by our team that comprises subject-matter experts, eminent researchers, and publication experts.


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