Recently I finished my PhD level and I did an interview with a research group for a postdoc position. After my review, they asked me for some references to contact them.

I choose my supervisor and other visiting professors as references.

At this point, should I contact each of the professors that I added in my references list (including my supervisor) and tell them that they might be contacted soon to be asked about me?

I am asking this question as I am not good in "academic protocols". It could be yes (kind of respect as I am asking for his/her "help"), or no (it's something obvious that s/he could be asked by someone about his/her students).

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    You should ask anyone who you intend to serve as your reference if they are ok with it, before doing so. It’s not an academic thing especially; same in other situations. Commented Oct 9, 2020 at 23:00
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    Yes, let them know and probably apologize for not asking first. I doubt there will be any problem.
    – Buffy
    Commented Oct 9, 2020 at 23:44
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    Never, ever, use another's name for anything without asking first.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Oct 10, 2020 at 0:45
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    @BobBrown Not even to nominate them for a prize? I think what you mean is: Don't use their name in a way that implies they know or agree to something that they don't. This requires understanding which uses of someone's name imply such things. There are many that don't and are fine, like citing someone's work.
    – nanoman
    Commented Oct 10, 2020 at 8:17
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    Your supervisor has a moral duty to provide a reference for you — No, your supervisor has a moral duty to help you. If they believe that they cannot write you a helpful letter, they have a moral duty not to provide a letter.
    – JeffE
    Commented Oct 10, 2020 at 17:51

3 Answers 3


You should ask anyone who you intend to serve as your reference if they are OK with it, before doing so. It’s not an academic thing specifically; the same would apply in other situations.

  • Comment copied to answer, as suggested by @Buffy. Commented Oct 9, 2020 at 23:37
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    While correct, this answer doesn't answer OP's question and isn't helpful in the current situation. PLL's answer below fits better I think.
    – Mark
    Commented Oct 10, 2020 at 15:14
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    The answer can be paraphrased as "No, you need to apologise in person immediately" which is entirely adequate. Commented Oct 11, 2020 at 11:39

As gnometorule’s answer says, in general, you should ask permission in advance (for a reference, and generally for anything which is implicitly making a commitment for someone).

But the question asks about a situation where you have already given someone’s name as a reference without asking them — partly through inexperience, and partly because of being put on the spot after the interview rather than asked earlier in the application. Given that, I suggest writing to the referees as soon as possible to let them know, apologise for not asking first, and check whether they’re OK with it. The letter could look something like the following:

Dear XXXX, Following an interview for YYYY, I was asked to provide some names of possible references, and I gave your name as one possibility. I’m sorry I hadn’t asked you about this in advance, so I’d like to check now whether you are happy to act as a reference for me? If not, please let me know, and I can contact YYYY to take your name off the list.

The given situation isn’t ideal, but it’s not terrible either — it’s quite understandable how it arose, and I don’t think most referees would be particularly upset by it. Just try to avoid it happening again.

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    Thanks @PLL for your clarification.
    – Minions
    Commented Oct 10, 2020 at 11:10
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    so I’d like to check now whether you are happy to act as a reference for me? If not, please let me know, and I can contact YYYY to take your name of the list.... I don’t think most referees would be particularly upset by it. - As a professor, I might or might not be upset about this. It largely depends on how well I know student (I don't know what the OP means by "visiting professors") and our previous interactions. It also might depend on what country/system this is in.
    – Kimball
    Commented Oct 10, 2020 at 15:27
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    To tack onto Kimball's comment, I'm in a similar situation to the OP. If I put any of my supervisors down they'd almost certainly be fine with me putting their names as references without telling them before hand - we meet once or twice a week, we're on good terms, plus they know I'm looking for work. I could turn up to a meeting and tell them I put them as a reference and it would almost surely be fine. The situation for someone who kind of knows me would be completely different - that's when the approach in this answer is most appropriate
    – Bamboo
    Commented Oct 11, 2020 at 3:02
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    @kimball As described by the asker, they were put on the spot, unaware that they needed references. They probably should have provided their supervisors name, then said, "let me send you the rest via email, as their contact info has escaped my mind momentarily," which would give them time to quickly ask. But given they were put on the spot in an interview, this is a rather understandable situation, and really the only way the ref could be upset is either (1) the ref actually has a negative opinion of the asker or (2) the ref is unreasonable. Commented Oct 12, 2020 at 6:40

Absolutely tell them, but in truth if they said "please don't do that" you would remove their name - so I'm going to state it as I did originally (edited for clarification) - Absolutely ask them.

When you are faced with questions such as this throughout your life, which you will be, it's good to have a foundation or base (I dare to leave morality off of this response but it does feel natural to call it a moral base but I digress) that keeps your actions in line with who you are and who you strive to be as a human being.

In this case, you are concerned about asking for one reason or another. It appears it's not something easy for you to do and as it may never even be noticed or come up beyond this one letter there's a certain logic of "why even do something difficult if it may not matter at all".

You do it because it's the "right thing" to do and your stomach knows it. I did put "right thing" in quotes as it's often phrased as such in colloquialisms but please don't take that as a denigration, it really is the right thing to do and I'm in no way mocking that. The stomach or gut reaction to things in life is actually extremely important and not given it's place in our decision making as the quantification of such feelings isn't established and thus we incorrectly assign it a lower value than what it does in fact represent in terms of importance, use and overall big picture frameworks for building a better society and self.

You wrote this post because it is nagging you. If something is nagging you, address it. It's very simple. If what you are doing to address the nagging isn't negative, hurtful or damaging to yourself or others then the nagging must be a concern that NOT addressing it could be just those things - hurtful, negative or damaging at some point in the future.

Your concerned you may be doing something "wrong", something that goes against who you are and who you want to be in this world as a person and your writing of this post is a perfect example of that concern which isn't necessarily at the top of mind but more subconscious if you will.

Good people ask these questions and seek these answers, so my respect to you for asking and taking responses.

This may read as over assured or single minded in a way, and the single minded part can partially be supported I'm sure, but it is intended to be an open and honest response using the philosophy and method I have come to respect and try to apply in my own life - nothing more.

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