What is a motivation letter for? [Applications in Academia 101: A Survival Guide, Part 2]

In 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 came up with lots of material, there will be a few more parts, providing you with all the gold nuggets I was able to collect over the last few years.

On the role of the motivation letter: How to tick all the checkboxes and tailor your application

Let’s get to the first point: tick all the checkboxes from the description and tailor your application accordingly. So when you look at an academic job ad, what you need to do is copy the whole text and then transform it into bullet points. Everything that’s some sort of information, you transform into a bullet point and then you need to make sure you check all those boxes with your application. Because each of these points was probably carefully worded to contain something that the committee is looking for. Don’t take this wording lightly or underestimate it as an additional text. Of course, some of the factors are more important, like for example the requirements, but don’t forget to take the generic intro text into account as well. That often contains lots of information that they couldn’t put into explicit requirements (maybe for legal reasons?) but it says a lot about what they’re really looking for!

Often institutions have this intro part that seems very generic, but many times hidden in this generic intro part, there is important information for tailoring your application and what the institution wants you to do for them. Because – that’s another common misunderstanding in those new to applications – it’s not about what you want or what this job would do for you. More often than not, it is about how the institution benefits from you!

So if you ignore that part, your application will be a lot less strong and less tailored to the specific institution’s needs.

You need to check all the checkboxes and then when you’re doing that, you need to make sure that you show, don’t tell. This responds to the principle of academic skepticism (see The 7 Best Tips from ‘The Professor is in’ (Book review)), like in an article when you make an argument, people expect you to provide evidence. Nobody is just gonna believe you. Yet, many times when you receive applications from people who are not very experienced in writing academic applications, they will tell you things like “I am the ideal candidate” because they were told in school that that’s how you need to write your application, but the thing is in academia, when you say “I’m the ideal candidate”, I want to know why you think that is. You need to provide me with some evidence. This is the principle of academic skepticism that Karen Kelsky also mentions in her blog posts and book The Professor Is In.

So you need to show, don’t tell. This is important generally for your application. This is also why you have multiple types of application materials.

The three/four parts of an academic application

  1. Usually, you have the letter of motivation where you respond to the job ad and tailor, so this is for your tailoring.
  2. The CV is for providing evidence. Many times the CV cannot be your full CV because once you’ve been in academia for a while, your full CV is very, very long. They will usually allow two to three pages. This means that you need to tailor. You need to select the items that best underscore you are fit for the institution and specific job ad, even if those are items that otherwise you wouldn’t consider the most important, especially if your fit to the institution isn’t actually that strong. You’re gonna drag out all the items that you can find that underscore this fit and you’re gonna talk about them in your letter of motivation.
  3. The letter of recommendation is the third part that is written by your advisor or some other person who is important and likely to have something positive to say about you. This letter writer provides evidence in terms of being an authority and essentially authenticating your claims and saying if they want you to get it or not. Here you have to be very careful, because, for example, the difference between US-American and European applications and from the German context is immense. In the German context, when there’s no criticism, people don’t take you seriously because there’s no criticism. Like what is wrong with you if there’s nothing to criticize or at least see neutrally? Too much praise would be perceived as inauthentic. In the US, on the other hand, if there is just a slight tone of criticism or even just not enough praise, that means people will assume that your advisor is not actually recommending you. For example, oftentimes academic advisors or letter writers in general will ask you to pre-formulate something for them. When you get the chance to do that, make sure you respond to all the checkboxes from the application because if one of the checkboxes is not ticked, American institutions usually will assume that it was not mentioned because you’re really bad at it. In Germanophone contexts, for example, you would usually just mention things where somebody is particularly good and that doesn’t mean that all the other things are bad, it’s just assumed that all the other things are fine as well. In the US, when you don’t mention something, that is a red flag. So just make sure that you’re aware of this and your letter writer is aware of it. Also, maybe use tools like ChatGPT or Generative AI to help you make your style more appropriate for an American letter of recommendation. People say that they have been doing this and it’s been very helpful for them.
  4. Often, you also have the project description that is supposed to be structured according to the ‘abstract triad’, hero’s narrative and show don’t tell principles like any other academic text (see Try our Article Outline Template Challenge! for more help on that). But it should also contain some tailoring to the institution: Why do you need to conduct this project at this specific institution? What would you lose by doing it somewhere else? In my case, that often means: how do I use this library’s collections? That is both good for them because they give out those fellowships so that people can work on their collections but also answers why you (ideally) couldn’t possibly conduct this project anywhere else. A plus is, if it is timely as well: Why is it necessary or especially beneficial to the scholarly discourse if this is looked at now? Tie it in with current scholarly trends, debates or connections to modern-day discourse and how your (I’m assuming it’s historical) research can contribute new insights to that. Or explain why it’s such a shame that your sources or topic have been totally neglected thus far and how that represents a missing link.

This was the first point of ticking the checkboxes and essentially making sure you demonstrate your fit with the program by tailoring your application. I guess you could also say that is essentially one big point.

For more information, stay tuned until the next part of our series 😉 –> How to stand out [Applications in Academia 101: A Survival Guide, Part 4]

Cite this blog post
Sarah Lang (2023, October 26). What is a motivation letter for? [Applications in Academia 101: A Survival Guide, Part 2]. Epigrammetry. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/og8c

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