References for many applications?


Hi everyone,

I'm debating whether to start a PhD journey next year, which would mean I would be applying from September/October 2020 (my fields: management/marketing). As I explore my options, I'm also a little confused as to how to manage the reference requests when submitting several applications.

On the one hand, I've read that managing references is a process that needs to be carefully managed - my plan would be to request a call with a couple of lectures/profs who know me, maybe even get a bit of advice from them to discuss my prospects/ideas and then request a reference from them.

On the other hand, I'm also planning on sending quite a few applications - if I do decide to venture on a PhD journey, I want to make it a success. I've read somewhere that sending about 10 applications was a minimum, including a few ambitious/dream universities and a few safe ones. I have identified about 15 business schools or universities I could apply to across Europe.

Now these two points don't seem to match up. My referees might be happy enough to vouch for me when they get an email inviting them to drop a reference on my first application; and they might oblige on the second one. But really three times? four? 10? 15? I've heard that some people have applied to as many as 40 PhD programs... How can one with a straight face ask a professor to email 40 times their references?

Do people then get generic, "to whom it may concern" kind of references and just send those off along with their applications?

I hope my questions make sense, and for those people who've successfully applied I'd love to hear how you managed your references in relations to multiple applications

Thank you


I can't really speak so much as an applicant (though I did a long time ago get an academic post), but I've interviewed/appointed PhDs in the past.

At my Uni, and I suspect many others, a reference is required by HR, but rarely viewed by the actual panel. It's often at Prof level or above that references really count (in some cases); usually at PhD stage unless HR flag a really bad reference ('this person is a convicted criminal who embezzled £40k from us'), it's unlikely to be a major deciding point. This means a generic 'to whom it may concern' reference is not going to have any real impact on whether you get the post when compared to a compelling, handwritten document - because it won't have been read by the decision makers at the point the decision is made.

I would always in a PhD application say references available 'on request', rather than supplying them unsolicited - because as above they're not going to be make-or-break. But it's not unusual to get a lot of reference requests as an academic, and in honesty these do indeed become copy-pastes of the original reference with slight tailoring to the post, if the applicant provides this information.

In short you shouldn't hesitate to ask a previous supervisor for a reference, but I'd be aware there's no gain from asking them to supply one before it's required by HR for rubber-stamping, as they're seldom even involved in decision-making, let alone a major factor.

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You can ask your referees to give you written references so that they don't have to duplicate it.