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Give me a good reference
  1. D Taylor
  1. Correspondence to: D Taylor Institute of Child Health, London WC1N 3EH, UK;

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It is the duty of the referee to be honest, regardless of whether the candidate will see the reference or not

A young and rather inexperienced ophthalmologist was asked to provide a hospital, where he had applied for a 40 month registrar/senior registrar training post, with two references, one confidential and another open. As luck would have it, an administrative slip-up led to the open reference, which was glowing, being used as the definitive, confidential, reference that contributed to the appointment of the unlikely candidate. He was shocked to read the returned reference that was the confidential one, which was by the same author as the open one: it began “I cannot in all honesty say that Mr X is the most enthusiastic trainee that I have had, but...” and went downhill from there. The incident shows how luck is important in a career, and how little attention is usually paid to open references. It emphasises the value of different types of references and with the changes in human resources management in recent years it should suggest to us that we might do well to better understand the uses of references today.

Ophthalmology is a bit special where career assessment and references are concerned because it is where doctors need a combination of surgical and medical skills that is not seen to the same extent elsewhere. It is also very difficult for a potential employer at interview to judge whether or not a trainee is potentially a good surgeon, or …

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  • Any views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of any institution at which the author works.

  • Series editor: David Taylor