Applications in Academia 101: A Survival Guide (Part 1)

Applications in an academic context are hard. And confusing if you don’t have lots of experience. How are you supposed to know what people are looking for? This blogpost will provide you with lots of information that may be helpful and is the first part of this series. We will begin with some preliminary information and the second blogpost will go into lots of detail, explaining why all those steps are important.

This blog post is going to have four main points, and they are:

  1. If you want to write a successful application in an academic context, you need to have an excellent fit with the program, i.e. tailoring your application to the institution or program and actively showing (maybe even demonstrating) interest. (What is a motivation letter for? [Applications in Academia 101: A Survival Guide, Part 2])
  2. You have to tick all the checkboxes from the description text. (also part two)
  3. You have to understand that everybody is excellent. (Building your CV and understanding the competition [Applications in Academia 101: A Survival Guide, Part 3])
  4. So how can you stand out from the crowd? (How to stand out [Applications in Academia 101: A Survival Guide, Part 4])

These are the main things I would like you to take into account. Let me elaborate…

How to get better at academic job applications? Learn to deal with rejections and write many applications

Academic job applications are hard. I have lots of experience writing these applications. I’ve had many successful ones, but many more unsuccessful ones. It’s part of the deal. That’s the first thing that I want you to know as an introduction. These things are hard and it’s normal to fail. So if you fail once, don’t give up.

Especially in the US, it’s very common to just write tons and tons and tons of applications, and then at some point you hopefully get something. In Europe, that might be slightly different, not as extreme, but it is definitely still quite normal to fail in academia and to get rejected. I think there’s nobody who never gets rejected. So if you get rejected, essentially, you need to learn some resilience and to learn to take these rejections. It’s hard, I know. Nobody likes to get rejected. It’s a blow to the ego but you need to learn to detach the academic application process from your ego as much as possible. And I realize that’s hard especially if your livelihood depends on it.

However, I think resilience is a major factor between those people who will stay in academia in the end and those who won’t. Also, a big part of it is a lottery, let’s be real about that. And it oftentimes just isn’t fair. Still.. People who don’t deal well with criticism, rejection and failure will usually not stay in academia long because failing is a central part of academia, and you need to have some resilience for it. If you can’t get used to failing, you will be miserable in academia. And I’m not saying you need to be good at it at first. But you need to find out for yourself if you can build that resilience or not.

Of course, we’re all perfectionists, so it won’t be easy. But you have to try and view it as an opportunity to hone your skills rather than a judgment on your aptitude (think growth mindset).

My experience is informed, like I said, by my own successes and failures in academic job, travel bursary, stipend and fellowship applications. But it is also informed by the fact that I am now the stipends representative on the board of directors of the German Digital Humanities Association. Of course, I’m not writing in my role, but being in this role and being on the committee with people selecting who is going to get the stipend has shown me many things that were not obvious to me when I was applying myself.

Of course, I can’t guarantee that the following pieces of advice are going to make you successful. I came up with these tips when helping a friend apply for a travel grant. I thought we did everything right. I applied all my knowledge. She still didn’t get the grant. So no guarantees. But I do firmly believe that you can twist the odds in your favour by taking these guidelines into account. So practice them and apply a lot. The more success you have, the more you will get: every success makes your CV a little stronger and you get more data on what has worked for you in the past that can inform your future applications.

Start with easier applications to cushion up your CV initially, then work yourself up to higher goals. At some point, just going for the easy stuff will not work in your favour anymore (see Karen Kelsky’s book). But it will work in the early stages, so make sure to use it!

Standing Out in the Highly Competitive World of Academic Applications

Let’s explore some key strategies to enhance our academic applications.

1. Tick all the boxes – Tailoring and Interest:

Ensure you demonstrate an excellent fit with the program by tailoring your application. This shows you are interested and proactive, and above all, that you understand the program and how it aligns with your academic aspirations.

2. Realize that Everyone is Excellent:

In the world of academia, you will quickly realize that everyone is impressive in their own right. Top students from every educational level are applying alongside you. This realization, though potentially daunting, should serve as a motivator to elevate your applications beyond the norm. Keep in mind that factors beyond your control, such as institutional prestige and networking, play into application outcomes. But when everybody is excellent, one way to stand out is to respect tip 1) tick all the boxes and tailor your application.

3. Develop a Feedback Loop:

Rejection without explanation can be frustrating. Sadly, it happens often. However, you can still take it as an opportunity to create a feedback loop. Academic applications are a learned skill. Deliberate practice and learning from feedback, even if it comes from other sources like mentors or peers, can significantly improve your application skills. Make sure to find out who got the job or stipend in the end and scrutinize their CV to check what might have been the convincing factor.

4. Stand out from the crowd:

Despite everyone having the basics, such as good marks in their degree program, you need to distinguish yourself from others (Building your CV and understanding the competition [Applications in Academia 101: A Survival Guide, Part 3]). Tailoring your application and demonstrating a good fit can be factors that set you apart (What is a motivation letter for? [Applications in Academia 101: A Survival Guide, Part 2]).

There are specific items on your CV, especially as a very early career person, that can make you stand out, such as publishing a peer-reviewed publication early in your career. There are numerous ways to accomplish this. Try co-authoring with a mentor or look for journals that accept shorter-form content. Remember, it’s a gradual process – start small and work your way up.

5. Deliberate CV Engineering:

Consider your CV as your personal brand that needs to be meticulously engineered. Your motivation letter, CV, and letter of recommendation should work together, providing evidence to corroborate your claims. Your letter describes your motivation and fit, the CV and letter of recommendation provide evidence for your claims. Think of how your experience adds value to the institution you’re applying to. They’re looking for someone who can improve their prestige and further their goals (not yours!), so make it clear how you can contribute.

To engineer your CV deliberately (How to stand out [Applications in Academia 101: A Survival Guide, Part 4]), consider studying the CVs of successful academics in your field. Identify what sets them apart from others who have not yet reached the same heights. Then, develop a strategy to acquire those distinguishing elements. This kind of strategic planning can drastically improve your CV and your chances of success in the long run.

In Conclusion

Even with a flawless application, you may face rejection. It’s a part of the process. The key is to keep refining your approach based on the feedback you receive, constantly seeking to improve and learning to play by the secret rules.

In the next blogpost, I’m going to get into lots of detail, explaining how you can understand the above advice a bit more deeply and what concrete steps you can implement to improve over time.

I hope this helps,



Cite this blog post
Sarah Lang (2023, October 5). Applications in Academia 101: A Survival Guide (Part 1). Epigrammetry. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from

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2 Responses

  1. 31/10/2023

    […] the last post, I outlined how you can get better at academic job applications (Applications in Academia 101: A Survival Guide (Part 1)). Now I’m going to provide some more detail on what that can look like in practice. Since I […]

  2. 15/12/2023

    […] this series, I explain how you can get better at academic job applications (see the first part Applications in Academia 101: A Survival Guide (Part 1)). Now I’m going to provide some more detail on what that can look like in practice. This will be […]

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