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My background:

  • Final year computer science undergraduate in the UK.
  • Spent one year working in a scientific facility developing software for scientists. My colleagues had previous academic experience (PhDs in math or physics).
  • Researched for 3 months under professor N within my university.
  • My dissertation begins in February, so cannot use my supervisor from that.

I want to pursue a PhD, and am at the stage of applying for programmes. However, each programme requires "two academic references", and am unable to come up with a second one (professor N being the first) that would provide the best application.

Giving many of you read references, and recruit PhD students, which of the following references would you prefer receiving:

  1. A senior software developer where I previously worked (he has a PhD in physics), but I feel this is not "academic".
  2. My personal tutor (a professor who helps with any personal or professional problems), whom I have not seen in a few months, but have used for references before (to get the aforementioned job).
  3. Professor B who has taught me over the past three months, but whom I am not close with (on a personal or professional level).

I know my question is a bit specific, so perhaps to generalise:

Q. Is it acceptable to have industrial references when applying for PhD positions, or should I instead use university professors as reference? Even if they may result in a generic reference letter.

Q. How can I speak with professor B to avoid him writing a generic reference letter about me?

  • Is the PhD you are applying for related in any way to what you did in the facility? – Davidmh Dec 9 '14 at 17:08
  • @Davidmh -- No, other than software development, which was my role. This would be applicable in the PhD case as I would be developing software to test/experiment ideas. – J Lem Dec 9 '14 at 17:31
  • "personal tutor" apparently you are in the UK; Americans might not know what this means. – Anonymous Physicist Dec 10 '14 at 4:36
  • @AnonymousPhysicist -- Thanks. I have updated the question to reflect this. – J Lem Dec 10 '14 at 13:55
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Industrial references are fine when your colleagues have good academic credentials. It may suggest that you will be good at finding applications for research.

Generic references are not fine in academia: unlike industry, academics generally aren't interested in verifying that you have held the posts your CV says you have held, and they do mark down candidates whose references are less than stellar. It is well worth asking a referee what they will say about you.

The easiest way to avoid referees writing something generic about you is to tell them what you have been doing, ideally in writing, when you ask for the reference. Referees generally appreciate this kind of help when writing references, which is a quite significant drain on the time of many academics.

  • 2
    I would say that having both academic and industrial references should make a strong point about one's versatility. – Davidmh Dec 9 '14 at 17:04

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