How to find references if you don’t have relevant work experience


Question: I’ve never had a “real” job before, but I now have an interview and don’t know who I should use as references. Please help!

References are an important part of your job search. Many (if not most) employers want to be able to speak with people who have supervised your work in the past.

While it would be great to have references from a past job that was related to the type of work you want to do now, there are several other places you can look for potential references. Usually, it is advised that you have three professional references ready (you may be asked for only one or two, but usually not more than three).

If you have not had a career-related job before, try looking at your past involvement with these other activities to find your three references:

Non-career-related past jobs

Even though the work you were doing may not have been very related to the career you are now trying to pursue, supervisors from any past jobs are potentially very useful references.

Volunteer roles

You may not have been paid, but you still had a job to do. Think back to any volunteer work you have done. Was there someone who oversaw your work? Who did you report to? Might they be able to provide a strong reference?

Sports teams

If you have been involved in a sports team, might one of your coaches be able to speak about your leadership and teamwork skills?

Student clubs

Have you been active in one or more student organizations or a student government? If yes, was there a professor or a university staff member who was also involved, perhaps as a club advisor or support person? If there weren’t any faculty or staff members involved, might there have been a student who you reported to, or who otherwise acted in a supervisory-type capacity?

Thesis work or major research project

Have you done a thesis or other sort of major project or paper? If so, you may have worked closely with a professor or senior graduate student who could act as a reference.


Often, students say that classes are so large it is not always easy to get to know your professors that well. But if you have been able to interact more closely with your professors, might you ask one to be a reference for you?

If you are not able to find some who was a supervisor, or was in some way overseeing the work that you did, you can also choose to use a co-worker or co-volunteer as a reference. Usually, these are not as preferred by employers as supervisors, but may be acceptable.

With a little reflection on the range of activities you’ve been involved with over the past few years, there are several options for finding people who will be able to act as references for you.

Click here to check out more of Cathy’s answers to pressing career questions from students and new grads just like you.

About the author

Cathy Keates is a career counsellor and trainer who has worked with university students and graduates for the past decade, helping them to strategically create careers they will love. She has worked as a career counsellor at Queen's University and was the associate director of the career centre at York University. Convinced that we can all create lives based on authenticity and integrity, she is the author of the new job search book Not for Sale! and shares her thoughts about finding work without losing yourself on her blog, Transform Your Job Search.