At every point in your career, whether you are conducting a job search or not, you should have three references ready and waiting for submission to potential employers. This discipline will require you to keep in touch with previous supervisors and mentors on a regular basis. Keeping references “primed” on your behalf is a top career development strategy.
As a student coming out of a Bachelor or Master program, making the effort to develop a relationship with one of your professors in your major area of study will pay off in the credibility that reference will have with hiring managers at your first job. Get to know the professor through office hour question and answer sessions or even through pursuing paid or unpaid research opportunities. Being able to offer a hiring authority a reference beyond unrelated summer-employment supervisors or personal friends will have great impact.
Leaving your first job is one of the hardest transitions in terms of providing good references. Of three references, at least one should be a former supervisor. Using your current manager is almost never a viable option. Perhaps a supervisor has been promoted and moved into another group. If your relationship is strong enough, and, remember, you are constantly working towards that goal, they might be willing to give you a reference and maintain your confidentiality. Perhaps a supervisor has left and you’ve done such a good job keeping in touch, they can offer a reference. Internal or external clients are also perceived as better “quality” references than peers or subordinates.
As you move on through your career, nurture your relationships with managers and clients. If you no longer work in the same company, contact them every six months and inquire how their career/company/personal life is going, and offer some information about your successes and even the failures you have learned from. Linkedin is a good professional way to reach out to them, but the phone or even coffee or lunch will cement the relationship even further.
Always call your reference before giving their name and contact information to a potential employer. Ask them directly if they are willing to provide you with a GOOD reference. If you note any hesitation in their response to that question, do not use them as a reference, or, at a minimum, ask them what their concerns are about recommending you. Ask if you can email them your resume or provide any information to them about career choices and changes you’ve made.
Remember to thank them after they have given the reference.
Finally, put together a reference page. List their names (with information on how to pronounce if appropriate), their current title and company, their phone number and whether it is work or cell, and what your relationship is with them. Clarity in reference presentation is representative of clarity in your career path and your work.