The Truth about References

Just to explain how references work for industry jobs, in my 8 years or so helping students find jobs, I've only been asked three times for a reference. That's when the student (or recent grad) applied for a job where I don't know anyone and put me down as a reference. That's right - just three times. They're always good to have, but they are not the main ways that jobs are given. Pick them wisely in any case. A good reference probably won't help you get a job, but a bad one can definitely hurt you. When you put down your references, contact them first and check that they will give you a positive one. If you put down someone who doesn't like you, that would be disastrous. It also calls into question your judgment in selecting them in the first place. Shockingly enough, according to friends of mine hiring, this happens. Also, if you have worked at a place where someone knows someone, they may check you out through back channels. 

Just to explain how references work for industry jobs, in my 8 years or so helping students find jobs, I've only been asked three times for a reference. That's when the student (or recent grad) applied for a job where I don't know anyone and put me down as a reference. That's right - just three times. They're always good to have, but they are not the main ways that jobs are given. Pick them wisely in any case. A good reference probably won't help you get a job, but a bad one can definitely hurt you. When you put down your references, contact them first and check that they will give you a positive one. If you put down someone who doesn't like you, that would be disastrous. It also calls into question your judgment in selecting them in the first place. Shockingly enough, according to friends of mine hiring, this happens. Also, if you have worked at a place where someone knows someone, they may check you out through back channels. 

The most important reference is the informal one. Someone puts you in touch with someone at a company. That is a form of vouching that can mean everything. Sometimes, they'll do a joint email, sometimes they'll email first to check with or to tell the person, and other times they'll just say to use their name when reaching out. If it's that way, make sure to put "Referred by NAME" in the subject line of the email. All are fine. But if someone does it, make sure you follow up fast —24 hours at the most. Anything later, and you look like a flake. And then the person who referred you looks bad for referring a flake. I once referred a student who wanted to edit to a producer I know, and this woman was absolutely perfect to help in several ways. I had emailed ahead and my friend was excited to correspond. And three weeks later, I checked in with my student, and she's hadn't sent the email. And I knew it was over. She finally did and never heard back. So she burned two contacts that day because I wouldn't refer her again. And my friend? She just finished producing a major motion picture. And the student? She is still trying to break in. Would this have led to a job? Who knows. But it wouldn’t have hurt.

Truth is, you really don't get that many chances like this. Don’t waste them.