POTENTIAL HEALTHCARE employers want to learn all they can about you before they hire you. As a new or recent graduate, you're likely to be asked for references and recommendations from your nurse educators. This article describes how to ask for and use faculty references for nursing employment.
Are you thinking about your first professional nursing position? If so, you'll probably be asked to provide job references and recommendations from current and former nurse educators. References really do matter—don't underestimate the importance of choosing the person who'll be describing your nursing skills and past successes.1
Employers are keenly interested in learning more about you from the instructors who monitored and supported you throughout your nursing education. Nurse educators, especially faculty who supervised you during clinical courses, are sought after by employers and recruiters because new graduates often have limited professional nursing experience.
Employers respect professors’ opinions, as nurse leaders, about your professional qualifications, reliability, dependability, and potential for success. They've watched you and worked with you as you've demonstrated skills in teamwork, critical thinking, caring, communication, cultural competence, and evidence-based practice. Importantly, your educators know first-hand how you've managed hard work, adversity, and criticism as well as difficult learning situations. Future employers want to know how well you handle new and complicated information, your level of dedication, how you relate to others, and your standards for high-quality care.
Where to begin?
Begin your employment search the first day (and every day) of nursing school. Nursing education is considered a precursor to professional employment and how you handle your role as a nursing student is important in two ways.
First, you'll want to be a dedicated student by learning all you can, and developing all related skills, for each topic and subject covered in the curriculum. For students and graduates new to professional nursing, faculty-generated references substitute as employer and job skill references. Instructors are very familiar with your knowledge, ability to meet deadlines, and work ethic.
Be sure to pay attention to lectures and readings, participate in class and group discussions (live and online), and complete all assignments in a careful and timely way. Routinely ask well-considered questions and share insights with faculty and peers. Respect all aspects of the learning environment for yourself and your classmates. Potential employers often request college transcripts, so show your nursing qualities by demonstrating good grades in theory and clinical courses.
Second, respecting the learning environment includes developing a professional relationship with each professor as your current teacher and future colleague. That's right—your instructors will someday be peers and colleagues! Showing yourself to be a careful, well-prepared, honest, hardworking student will go a long way toward the positive impression you wish to make on your instructors. This impression is exactly what you hope is documented within an employment reference.
Deciding which professor(s) to ask
When deciding which of your nurse educators should write a job reference for you, consider the teachers who know you and your nursing abilities the best. Faculty with first-hand knowledge of your clinical practice skills are ideal, as are those with whom you've worked well, had good rapport, and earned good grades.2 For example, if you've held office in your student association and the club advisor was also your clinical instructor, that reference would include your integrity, reliability, and leadership as a class officer as well as clinical abilities. Good choices would also include instructors who are well known and respected.
As you consider the information needs of your future employer, choose an instructor who knows your strengths and weaknesses, potentially agrees you can do the job for which you're applying, and has first-hand knowledge of your extracurricular projects and activities. Employers want and need specific examples of your ability to critically think, learn, and problem-solve, so contemplate who's witnessed these demonstrated skills. In the current job market, a mere listing of completed courses and grades isn't enough to seal the deal.3,4
How to ask for a reference
Always get advance permission from each person you'd like to use as a reference. Don't forward anyone's name without asking first. Then keep your references fully informed. Tell them each time you've given their name as well as any progress you've made in securing a position.5
Give your instructor as much advance notice as possible, and speak directly to her or him during a pre-arranged appointment. As you professionally and personally speak with potential references (no gifts, no fake flattery), share with them your background, goals, and unique qualifications for the position.
Verify all titles, spellings, and contact information; one good idea is to ask for a business card and then verify the accuracy of the printed information. Share the job description and ask specifically if your instructor is willing to support you for the position (this is one key reason for you to seek permission ahead of time). If you sense a neutral or negative response, graciously ask for their rationale and then consider an additional or different nurse educator.2,4
What to include in your request
Faculty time is precious and the more you can anticipate what they'll need, the more respect you'll demonstrate and the better they'll be able to support your job search. In addition to plenty of advance notice, provide your nurse educators with the following:
- how long they've known you and in what capacity
- projects you've completed and papers you've written
- current, carefully written résumé that lists specific accomplishments and honors
- unofficial transcripts
- extracurricular activities during which your abilities have been demonstrated
- job description of the position you seek along with your short- and long-term career objectives
- specific information about to whom and where to send the reference letter and deadlines (if any) for reference completion; usually, personally addressed and individualized letters are preferable to a generic “To whom it may concern” memo.5
- addressed and stamped envelope into which the reference letter is mailed to avoid any possibility of a misaddressed letter and to streamline the reference-writing process
- a signed consent for release of information. Many educational institutions have a specific form to use. If not, write out a statement of consent that you sign and date in ink. Faculty can't release any information about you without your permission. Because employers often contact references by phone, be sure to include a statement that gives your instructor permission to speak as well as write about you.
Provide your professor with any specific focus or talking points you wish to be used. For example, if you're applying for a nursing position with a geriatric specialty, remind your instructor of the community health project you completed on fall prevention and the 8-week leadership rotation you completed working for a long-term-care facility. Don't leave this important task for your teacher to somehow figure out.
Feedback and follow-up
Because good reference letters take time to write, be sure to write a brief but sincere thank-you note to your instructors. Write a note thanking them for agreeing to be a reference for you, and then, once the reference letter has been written and sent, thank them again for completing this important task. If it's been several weeks and you haven't heard anything from your instructor about the reference, feel free to follow up with him or her.
Keep a record of each person agreeing to provide you with a job reference. Document these on a reference page that begins with your name and contact information and includes the names, titles, and contact information for each reference person. This document will be shared, upon request, with employers and included in your employment port-folio.5
Once you obtain employment, keep in close contact with your professors. At least twice a year contact them, let them know how and what you're doing, and stay grateful for their help and mentorship. It takes just a few moments to write to your instructors and these contacts will make it easier for you to ask them again to be a reference. Who knows, maybe you'll need another reference if graduate school is in your future!