I was looking through some old emails this week, and came across some correspondence with my PhD supervisor. Our emails are infrequent but very friendly; I like to keep him updated on my career progress - although he sometimes seems more interested in my (non-existent) sailing progress - and he in turn likes to pass on any news from his lab and department. So when I applied for my current job, back in academia after a stint in industry, I definitely wanted to include a reference from him, thinking that a professor's opinion would hold more sway than that of a marketing manager. The fact that the marketing manager didn't know I was applying for new jobs was, of course, completely incidental...
It is just common sense and good manners to email your prospective references, asking their permission to be listed as such in every new job application. However, in order to obtain an optimal reference you will need to provide some more detailed information. This is especially true when applying for an "alternative" position, as most academics will not be familiar with the job and its requirements.
So what did I do? After establishing that my PhD supervisor was happy to provide a reference, I sent him the following documents:
- A Word document containing the job advert, including the full job description (don't count on the link staying active, copy and paste is your friend!)
- My application CV
- My application cover letter
My other reference was from my postdoc supervisor, who works in the same building as my current boss. She was the one who convinced me to apply for the job (the timing was not optimal - I ended up interviewing 3 days before my wedding - but she basically told me I'd be an idiot not to apply anyway), and she delivered her reference letter in person, about two hours after I told her I'd applied, and without being asked by anyone in my new department. I'm sure her actions played a pivotal role in my successful application, but those circumstances are pretty unusual and I think the focused letter of reference from my PhD supervisor was also an important factor.
Oh, and always let your reference providers know the outcome of every job application. Again, it's good manners, and hopefully it will also help the PI to perfect the art of writing reference letters for non-academic positions!