References are arguably the most important element of your job application. While the CV and cover letter provide an opportunity for you to outline your strengths and experience, references allow senior doctors who have worked alongside you to evaluate your performance against key selection criteria. A strong reference could be your key to progressing though to the interview stage.
Most resident and registrar roles require at least three written references which are usually completed online. The referee form typically covers the domains of clinical competency, verbal and written communication skills, and personal and professional conduct. Referees are asked to provide a numeric score (often between 1 to 5) to reflect your performance in each domain. Anecdotally, referees tend to score candidates quite highly resulting in a narrow range of cumulative scores between candidates. Because of this, it is recommended that you encourage your referees to provide comments in the allocated section under each domain. This provides an opportunity for your referee to advocate on your behalf and provide comments which may convince the selection panel to allocate you one of the highly sought-after interview slots.
Choosing the right referee
There are several important factors to consider when selecting the most appropriate referees. Firstly, you should select consultants who have spent enough time with you that they can provide a strong and complete reference. They should be someone who you believe thinks highly of your personal and professional attributes, and clinical skills. This can be difficult to gauge, especially as junior doctors may only work with the same consultant on a few occasions. Make note of positive feedback you receive during your rotations, and of strong connections you form within critical care departments. The friendliest consultant is not necessarily the most suitable referee. Referees should be current – ideally someone you have worked alongside within the last 12 months. Be sure to review the referee requirements outlined in the job application – many of these will request at least one referee be your current clinical supervisor.
When applying for resident level positions, it is advantageous although not compulsory to obtain a reference from a consultant anaesthetist. If you have not yet spent time within the anaesthetics department, consider using referees from other critical care rotations you may have completed. When applying for registrar level positions, consultant anaesthetists should make up the majority, if not all your referees. This will not be an obstacle for most applicants, as 3 to 6 months experience in anaesthesia is a pre-requisite for applying to the anaesthetic training scheme in many states in Australia.
The referees you select should be specific for the health service you are applying to. If you are applying to your current health service, the most appropriate referee is not necessarily the head of department or a supervisor of training, rather someone who you believe will advocate for you strongly. For applications to external health services, consider using at least one consultant who works regularly at both health services. It is not uncommon for selection panels to seek informal verbal insight about external applicants in addition to the formal referee report. Conversely, if your referee is motivated and believes you are a particularly strong candidate, they may approach the selection team to vouch for you in person.
How to approach referees
You should start thinking about potential referees early. At the end of your rotations, supervising consultants may offer to provide a reference in the future. This is typically a positive sign and an indication that you have impressed them. Often however, you will need to seek out referees yourself.
Approaching prospective referees can be a nerve-wracking experience. One way to reduce these nerves is to first gauge a consultant’s opinion of your performance by regularly asking for feedback. If you are unsure about how to go about asking for a reference, consider using something similar to this:
“Hi Dr X, I have really enjoyed spending time with you in theatre over the last few weeks. As you may be aware, job applications for the resident roles are coming up soon, and I am hoping to secure one of the anaesthetic resident positions. Based on your observations of my performance within the department, would you be willing to provide a strong reference to support my application?”
Chances are the consultant will feel flattered and will happily oblige. However, do not be disheartened if your request is declined. Most consultants who decline to be a referee do so because they either do not believe they have adequately observed your skills to provide a complete reference, or they do not believe that they could provide a strong reference. In these situations, it is in your best interest to find alternate options.
Submitting your references
Once you have secured your referees, inform them of the positions you are applying for, when to expect the referee forms, and the dates that these are due. Kindly ask that they inform you once the form is submitted so that you can keep track of all your applications. It is common to ask referees to provide a reference for multiple applications which can be time intensive. Be sure to thank your referees for their time and keep them up to date with the outcome of your applications. It is a nice idea to keep in touch with your referees after the application process, especially as you may wish to use them again for future applications.
Tips for success
- Be familiar with the referee requirements of the positions you are applying for.
- Think about potential referees early and approach them well in advance.
- If possible, use at least one referee who is known to the health service you are applying to.
- Select referees you believe will provide a strong reference on your behalf. This is not necessarily the friendliest consultant or the head of department.
- Registrars can provide useful insight into their experience using referees at your hospital.
- During your anaesthetic rotation, ask if you can be allocated increased theatre time with your intended referees to increase your exposure to them.
- Familiarise yourself with the referee form and the criteria you will be scored against. Work to improve in areas that you may be deficient in.
- Most referee forms have a section for teaching and research. Discuss your experience in these domains with your referee so they can score in these areas. Provide your referees with a copy of your CV to facilitate them scoring the referee form.
- Encourage your referees to complete the comments section on the referee form.
- Ensure your references are submitted well in advance of the due date and that you have confirmation from the health service that they have been received.
Strong referees are vital to your success in obtaining an interview for critical care roles. To optimise your chance of success, familiarise yourself with the referee requirements of the prospective position, seek out referees early and submit them in advance. A strong referee who believes in your potential is an extremally valuable person to have by your side.