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I'm applying for a PhD program which lists "Two references" in their required documents. The general university online application portal lets me submit details of more than two referees though.

I really want to provide three references for this course. Technically I do have two technical referees in the system already, but while quite ok, I expect their references to be a bit flat and generic - given we worked together not that much, two years ago and in a different field. I know academic references have priority over professional ones. However, my technical project manager in my job (software), I know would write me an absolutely smashing reference (because I saw their annual review feedback of me). The PhD is in robotics so software experience is not irrelevant.

Is it acceptable for me to add this one more referee to the application, even though the program requires only two?

UPDATE: I've emailed the program people and they've replied that 3 references would be very much ok, especially if I think it will paint a clearer picture of me as a candidate!

  • I don't see the harm in a third reference, especially if it's highlighting a separate, non-redundant skill/feature of your application, though others might disagree. I'd carefully scan the directions for cues like "at least" which suggest a third reference is totally fine, or "no more than" which would suggest it's not. If you have some time before the application deadline, it would also be reasonable to ask the program staff (not the department head) if a third reference is a problem. They could warn you if Professor X hates it when applications come with too many references. – Bryan Krause Jan 18 '17 at 23:01
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It's usually best to carefully read the application's supporting materials (FAQ, 'help' section, explanation pages, etc.), as some programs I've seen explicitly say "please do not send more than 2 [or usually 3 in the US]". Some programs require 2, but allow 3 (I've seen fellowships accept up to 5, but not a PhD program that does that).

However, I mainly answered to suggest you carefully consider how you pick your two "guaranteed" reference letters. If you are going into a program that is friendly towards industry practitioners, and your job and experience is relevant, and if your industry writer would be in a position to talk about relevant aspects of your application (technical skills desirable to the program, work ethic, reliability, etc), then it is possible that such a letter is actually better than a bland academic one by itself. This varies heavily by field, but if the program explicitly says something about how to professional references are OK (often with a stipulation that at least 1 be from an academic), then I think there's a case for you to go with one academic and one professional letter. Then you can put the 3rd in, if the system allows it, as your additional academic reference.

This can be very field and program specific, so I'd advise you to try to get some more guidance from someone closer your target program to give you there advice. But some fields - especially in applied areas of computer science, like many robotics programs, software engineering, etc - are far more appreciative of certain kind of professional reference letters than others.

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However, my technical project manager in my job (software), I know would write me an absolutely smashing reference (because I saw their annual review feedback of me).

You should be really careful about interpreting this. In industry annual reviews are for internal purposes. They reflect on both the person being reviewed and the reviewer. Many companies forbid employees from writing references and hand reference requests off to HR who produce a boiler plate reference stating the dates the employee worked at the company and that there were no disciplinary problems. Employees who are not forbidden to write references still only write bland (aka awful) letters.

In the US, it should be fine to submit more than the minimum required references if the system allows you to. In some countries, it might be problematic and the admissions committee might randomly select the required number of references and ignore the others.

  • My company doesn't forbid employees from writing references for other employees in this context. In fact, I ended up getting my manager's blessing for the PhD programme and an explicit permission for me to set off and find people who would write me one. – SaladButt Jan 18 '17 at 23:17

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