Building your CV and understanding the competition [Applications in Academia 101: A Survival Guide, Part 3]

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.

All the applicants are excellent candidates. Now what does that mean for you?

The second point answers why the first point (Tick all the checkboxes and tailor, see Applications in Academia 101: A Survival Guide (Part 2)) exists. Why is it necessary?

Because everybody is great. Usually, almost all the candidates have stellar CVs in academic applications. And that is something that I didn’t realize so much when I was younger that this – and my lack of awareness and answer to this fact – may have been part of the reasons I was rejected. It took me ages to figure this out because often when you get rejections in academia, you don’t get explanations on why it didn’t work. I think I never truly realized this until I was part of an applications committee myself and had to make some hard choices between way too many candidates for the number of stipends we had.

In the grander scheme of things, applicants’ CVs are more similar than one might think

These candidates, while different of course, ultimately had virtually the same CVs at similar levels of qualification. Pretty much everybody was a good student and had some more or less important academic supporting them. At some point in their careers, almost everybody had some first publications and grants. Everybody was excellent somehow. But not beyond what everybody else on that level had achieved. What really distinguished them were mostly the topics they worked on (that is why tailoring is so essential – institutions will usually pick the person who is a better fit thematically when they are faced with too many virtually similar applications, so never underestimate the importance of the motivation letter like I did for a long time!).

And then, there are a few people who are (maybe even just slightly) below the level of everybody through some (potentially even minute) factor. The (even slightly) sub-par applications get thrown out immediately because you need to make some choices and it’s hard enough between the ones who are on par with the other candidates and generally a good fit. The tailoring part is thus especially important if you’re suspecting you may be something of an underdog compared to other applications. Having a really good fit (thanks to careful tailoring) can keep you in the loop for the second round at least. You don’t want your application to get disqualified before getting into that second round!

You may still fail and get rejected. That doesn’t mean you (as a person) are a failure! Remember that you need to learn dealing with rejections (see Applications in Academia 101: A Survival Guide (Part 1)). Don’t take it as a judgement on your self. However, you need to make sure to get some sort of feedback loop going so you can improve your skill of applying and maybe also your CV overall if the issue is that you’re somehow lagging behind (or, let’s face it, just need to do more to make up for your lack of ivy league connection…).

Academic applications and CV engineering is a learned and learnable skill. It took me lots of work and deliberate practice to learn this skill. And even now, I’m obviously not perfect and obviously not getting all the jobs and stipends that I want.

But I never realized is that you need to think about it this way: In school, there is always someone who is top of the class. And then at uni, there is someone who is top of the class. And then the people who are all top of their classes go on to PhD programs, and then they are top of their classes there. And then, when you apply for a job or a fellowship or a bursary, all the people who are essentially top of all of their classes that they have ever been in, they all apply for the same job. So everybody is excellent.

If you are subpar in a small way, you may already be out

Like for example, everybody is from an Ivy League and you’re not. And Ivy League institutions just have a lot of prestige, as unfair as that is, that’s what it is. Because if you have 30 applications and 20 of them are extremely excellent and all on the same level, and then there are 10 of them who are subpar, and that doesn’t mean that you’re bad or unsuccessful or you did things wrong. That might just be that you’ve had it harder starting out, for example, when you’re in the US and you’re from a state school that just has less prestige.

Even if you always were in the top of your class, you’re very excellent, but you just have lesser chances than people from Ivy Leagues who frankly, they give themselves awards. Whose alumni then have this fancy award from Harvard that Harvard is just handing out to its own students to make them even more prestigious and excellent than they already are. Lots of people realize that doesn’t mean anything. However, even it they do, everybody is influenced psychologically by these performances of excellence.

That’s how academia works. Sadly. It’s not fair, but you need to know that these things will be part of your application successes and failures.

How can one out-compete somebody with a natural advantage?

Well, it’s not going to be easy. You need to accept it and take it in the least personally as possible. And think about what productive steps you can take to turn the odds in your favour. Don’t spend too much time worrying about the unfair parts you don’t have control over. Think about how you might out-compete somebody with a natural advantage. I know it’s not fair but that’s how you have to think.

There is just prestige inherent in things. It’s not always just the institution. There are many factors, maybe whom your boss knows and so on. There are many aspects completely beyond your control. And when you fail because of those reasons (which, most likely, is going to happen to you), that sucks.

Maybe you can find ways to add to your CV in a way that will mitigate this fact where you’re thought to be “lacking” in some way, even though that’s not your fault and mostly beyond your contrl. You still have to find something to make up for it in some way.

Anyway, we have learned that mostly everybody has the good basics. That’s already important to know because often people think they show the basics like, for example, they are in this doctoral program. They’ve always had good marks in their degree program. But you have to imagine: every one of the applicants is like that. If you’re to distinguish yourselves from the others and stand out, you need to have something more.

On the one hand, that is a good fit and ticking the checkboxes. Having a good fit for the program and the tailoring can be one of those factors that distinguishes you. And sometimes if you are the underdog with a better fit, that might work even better than just prestige. Or somebody who obviously submitted a very generic application and didn’t care about the institution. Thus, being able to show effort and motivation can go a long way, too, even if effort alone likely will not do much.

I once got a competitive stipend because I had published early on

So, for example, I once got a job. Everybody was very excellent, there were 80 applicants per available post and I was one of the two people getting it. So there were 160 applications in total. Two people got it. I was one of them.

At the time, thankfully, I learned why that was: because many times in academic job applications, it’s really to tell what distinguishes top candidates from less suitable ones.

And of course, if you’re using deliberate practice, as you might remember from my blog post on the book Peak by Anders Eriksson, you need to have feedback on what went wrong because otherwise how can you improve? I think that’s why people don’t usually actively work on improving in these skills: Lack of feedback on what worked and what didn’t.

Back then I learned that what distinguished me was that I had published a peer-reviewed publication very early on (even before applying for a doctoral programme). So if you are still very early career and you are planning to stay in academia, I recommend that you try to publish a peer-reviewed publication early on. Of course, that was what worked for me and might not work for every other case. But having publications is never wrong in academia, so you might as well go for it.

There are many ways of doing this, even as “short-form content”. For example, if you work as a student assistant at some institute, maybe you can be on the paper with your boss, for example. But make sure that happens early on. Or if you write a publication on your own, like a single-authored one, many times there are journals that allow short-form content, for example, reports or something like that. These might still be peer-reviewed articles, but they’re usually easier to get.

Also btw, if you want to give a talk and there’s the option of the long and the short paper, usually in the short paper, you can get away with a less good paper and still get accepted. The long paper version is usually much more competitive.

How to level up your CV: One step leads to another

As Karen Kelsky says, to improve your CV, you should try to level up. Imagine it like a staircase. You start with a small grant that gives you the cred to be able to apply for a slightly bigger grant and so on. While you don’t have anything to begin with, you’re not going to be successful with something big. That’s why you try leveling up with things that are relatively feasible for you at the level you currently are.

My approach, while that may not be the easiest, is to screen CVs of people who are a little bit ahead of me (in career stage), so essentially at the next level and check what I need to have to get closer to that “next level” rather than comparing myself to the level of people I’m currently at. A CV usually only shows items that are already published and not what they currently have “in the pipeline” and thus, what types of items you should start preparing so that you will have a top-notch CV in some years’ time when you need it. You need to get ahead of the curve, ideally anticipating the good next steps and getting them done before your peers.

Remember to start submitting articles early as it takes quite some time to get them published. Not taking into account that your first articles are more likely to include rejections and substantial revisions, I calculate 1-2 years until a journal article is out and 2-3 years for proceedings in the Humanities.

If you want to have a leg up for doctoral applications, you need to get lucky with a quick publication process (like I did, I also had great support from colleagues with my first journal article as they happened to be the editors of the journal special issue and had an interest for everything to get published quickly), you need to start during your Master’s degree ideally or right after, making your thesis into a (short) article.

Best of luck and stay tuned for the next post!

Cite this blog post
Sarah Lang (2023, November 16). Building your CV and understanding the competition [Applications in Academia 101: A Survival Guide, Part 3]. Epigrammetry. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from

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