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“Who Can I Use as a Reference for My First Job?” 15 People You Can Ask (Answered)

Someone asked me today, “Who can I use as a reference?”

The problem? Many students and new grads don’t have a long extensive work history filled with people who could vouch for their work. So if you’re wondering who to include as professional references for your first job, this post will give you some ideas. (If you want to know how to ask them, the Muse has a good guide.)

If you’re a student or new grad, with not a lot of work history, or even if you left a job on bad terms and need to get creative, this list will help.

(We do have a guide to get more experience on your resume here, if that’s what you need.)

Remember, people only call your references once they’re pretty sure they want to hire you. So if you’ve gotten to this stage, congrats! You just need a few people to give your social capital a boost and confirm what the employer already suspects: that you’re amazing.

So here we go…

Who can I use as a reference for my first job?

Here’s a list of 15 people you can use, including former colleagues, professors, lab mates, and more!

1. Former Employer

Gotta include it, but I feel like you wouldn’t be here if this was an option. Nuff said.

2. Other Leaders from a Former Company

If you’ve worked a job, but you hated your boss or–for some reason–can’t use them, you can use anyone else in leadership at that company.

Pro Tip: If you had a bad relationship with your former boss, and you suspect that the leadership will ask your former boss their opinion, might want to skip this one. But if you had a great relationship with, say, the Senior Vice President when you worked under a director, ask them if they’d “be able to give you a good reference.” Wording it this way should make it clear that you expect them to agree only if they can.

3. Leader of an Organization You Volunteer For

If you’ve done volunteering work, a leader in that organization is fair game, whether it’s a permanent paid, or volunteer leader. Anyone who has seen you in action and can speak to your chops.

4. Academic Supervisor

Moving into the academic realm now, if you’ve done a degree under the direct supervision of a prof, they might be in a perfect place to give you a good reference–assuming you’re on good terms.

5. Other Profs Who Taught/Advised You

If you’ve been in school and either don’t have a direct supervisor or need another reference beyond them, you can ask other profs who are familiar with your work.

For those of you with an advanced degree, ie. a PhD or a master’s, there are often other “committee members” who know your work. This can be a great reference.

6. Lab Manager

If you studied in a program that had lab work involved, and someone oversaw that lab work, they’d be in a great position to evaluate your work!

7. Prof You Worked For

Some students, especially those in advanced degrees, do work for profs. The most common positions are called either Teaching Assistants or Research Assistants. These profs are in a perfect position to give you a reference, since they’ve seen you in action!

8. Other Academic Leader

If you went to a small school, you might also have known other academic leaders, probably a dean, but perhaps even a president. Heck, even a chaplain might work! At this point, they’re speaking to your character rather than your actual “job performance” as such.

9. Member of a Board of Directors

I once worked for a non-profit with board meetings once a month. I got to know the board pretty well. When it came time for a reference for my next job, I asked one of the board members if they would be my reference (they were a local business leader).

They did, and it was great!

10. Conference Organizer

If you helped organize a conference, working under someone, the leaders above you–even if volunteer–might serve as a reference.

11. Client

If you’re ever done consulting work… Heck if you were an entrepreneur and ran your own lawn-mowing business, a star client might make a great reference for a future job.

If they’re going to rave about how you always showed up on time and did a great job, it’s a great reference!

12. Clergy

If you’re a member of a faith community, especially if you’re active, clergy might serve as a reference. I’d reserve this for if you were an active, visible member of a congregation and not if you just sat there doing nothing. They should have something to say about you.

13. Respected Community Leader

If you know someone who’s a manager, business leader, or a political figure like a judge or something, they can be a good reference. I think this is especially true if they are someone (ie. a business owner) who has to hire people. They’ll be able to speak to qualities they see in you that make you hireable, even if you’ve never worked for them.

14. Coach

If you played sports, or another organized activity, a coach could be a good reference. They’ve seen you in the trenches, they know about your work ethic, and they’d definitely be able to communicate that to a potential employer.

15. Coworker

If you’ve worked a job in the past, you can use a co-worker as a reference. This wouldn’t be my first choice, obviously a coworker might come across as being less trustworthy than a previous boss, but if you’re running out of people to ask, it might work.

Try to pick the right coworker. There’s a difference between Jimmy who was on the alternative ice cream shift at the roller rink and someone who you ran a big project with for a company. The more responsibilities your coworker saw you handle, the better.


So if you’re wondering who to use as a reference, hopefully these 15 ideas get you started! Always make sure you contact references first to tell them to expect a call (I also like to make sure they’re comfortable giving a positive reference.) Tell them why you picked them.

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