Advice on choosing a referee

Peer review is a fundamental part of our assessment process, and yet nominating suitable referees seems to be one of the things that applicants struggle with most. Jean Cater, Assistant Director at the Leverhulme Trust, explains why references are so important and how applicants can avoid some of the most common mistakes.

Peer review is fundamental to our assessment process.

Our Trust Board and assessment panels rely on references to understand how experts in the field view a proposal and so help them to determine which applications make the most compelling case for funding. This is why the referees’ comments are so important, and why applicants need to choose their nominated referees with care. A bad reference – and that usually means lacking in detail rather than hostile – can scupper an otherwise strong application.

What do we look for in a reference?

References need to give a detailed appraisal of the merit of the proposed research, and a reasoned judgement about the applicant’s suitability to undertake the work. What’s essential is that they provide detail and context: it’s this richness that allows our Trust Board and assessment panels to form a view about whether an application is worth supporting. Less helpful are those references that just give a general statement of support or a character reference for the applicant – they don’t tell assessors much, and don’t add weight to the case for support.

One of our most common questions from applicants is “do referees need to comment on me as well as my project?”

The answer is—ideally—yes. While we don’t need a character reference, we do need to know about the suitability of applicants to undertake the research they are proposing. So although your referees don’t necessarily need to know you personally, they should be familiar enough with your work to be able to comment on your track record, and to make a judgement on whether you have the requisite skills and experience to tackle the research outlined in your application.

Think tactically about who to name as a referee

It can be tempting to rely on the same circle of tried-and-trusted referees – but you can add weight to your application by choosing referees whose expertise and experience allows them to comment on your proposal in a way that assessors will find particularly authoritative. For example, a reference from someone with expertise in your chosen field might be more convincing than one from someone whose research interests are less closely connected to your own. Similarly, an application for interdisciplinary work can be enhanced by references from researchers working in more than one of the disciplines it covers. The key thing is to think carefully about your choice of referees, and the impression they will make in the assessment process.

Are your referees still familiar with your subject area?

We see lots of references where the referee begins by explaining that they no longer work in the applicant’s field, so can’t offer an informed comment on the proposed research. Even if otherwise supportive, these ‘can’t-comment’ references will almost always weaken an application. Our advice is to double-check with referees before nominating them – are they still active in your field? Are they confident that they can still comment on the detail of your proposal?

What happens if we can’t secure a statement from a referee that you’ve nominated?  

In these cases – and they’re all too frequent – we go back to the applicant to ask them to name a replacement referee. The trouble is that by this stage in the assessment process, we’re often working to a tight timescale, which means that applicants might only have a couple of weeks to find a replacement referee who is willing and able to write a reference in time. That added time pressure can mean applicants have to resort to referees who are not so well-placed to write a strong reference and who don’t have time to write a thoughtful reference. Our advice? Check that your referees are willing and available before submitting an application.

Thinking about who to nominate? Six tips for applicants.

  1. Do ask your referees before nominating them—it sounds obvious, but lots of applicants don’t ask their referees before naming them on the application form.
  2. Consider naming referees from overseas, if that’s appropriate for your application. As long as they are familiar with your work and your research plans, there’s no reason not to name referees from outside the UK.
  3. Can colleagues offer advice on who can be relied upon to write a prompt and considered reference – and who is more likely to rush something out at the last minute?
  4. Check that your referees will be available during the assessment process. Most schemes offer guidance on when we expect to take up references – will your referees be available in that time period?
  5. Choose referees who you know will have the time to do a good job: a rushed reference is rarely a strong one.
  6. Ensure that referees know what’s required of them. We regularly receive references that are little more than a character reference for the applicant and a general statement of support – not detailed enough to be of use in the assessment process.

Details of all the funding schemes offered by the Trust are available on the funding section of our website. Some schemes have specific requirements on your choice of referees – so please check guidance notes before beginning an application.