Applications in Academia 101: A Survival Guide (Part 4)

In 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 the last post of the series for now.

Pitch a Hero Narrative: Use the “abstract triad” to structure your proposal

What you can also do is take the “abstract triad” into account that we mentioned in our article outline template which is going to improve the argument of your articles if you stick to it.

The triad goes as follows:

  1. The first sentence is to say what the topic is and to explain why it’s relevant. So it’s about the relevance of your subject. And you have to explain it in a way that is obvious to people who are not into your subject at all, who have no detailed knowledge of it. That’s also often something that I think we get wrong, is that we assume people know as much about our own topic as we do ourselves. But often people in these committees, even people reviewing your articles, might know much less about your article. And for them, it’s not obvious why this is relevant. So you have to say it so they can know “wow, this is a relevant thing that they’re talking about”. So first, you say how important your topic is.
  2. The second point is the gap in the literature. You point out whether there’s a gap or an (urgent) problem in the existing literature. What has been overlooked or understudied so far? Why is it urgent that this gap is filled now? How will your outcomes change how we have to view the field?
  3. And the third point is you write a hero’s narrative on how you’re going to solve that problem. This also needs to go into the motivation letter.

How the different application documents complement each other

As I said before, the letter of motivation, the CV and the letter of recommendation, they all support each other. They provide evidence for each other:

  1. The letter of motivation is for the tailoring.
  2. The CV is for the evidence on your CV.
  3. The letter of recommendation is for the type of evidence that comes from the authority and prestige of your boss saying this is correct. Like “This person really is excellent!”.

So essentially you have to do all the cookie-cutter things, but then you also need to tailor and you need to find something that helps you stand out from the cookie-cutter because everybody else has a cookie-cutter CV and all of them are excellent.

How to stand out

How are you better than everybody else? It’s obviously a balance between taking risks and understatement. What you can do is focus very much on what value you add to the institution because often we’re too focused on ourselves. But really, how are you going to make the institution look better?

That’s why they, for example, hire fellows. They want to make themselves look better. So you need to be excellent. You need to have an excellent project that makes use of, for example, if it’s a library, their collections and you need to say or credibly convince them that you’re going to make an article out of it (or something else that they are going to benefit from and that they want). That is going to improve your chances massively.

Wrapping it up with Cal Newport’s “Laundry List Fallacy”

Something else that I wanted to mention is Cal Newport suggests this practice where you look at the CVs of people who were successful, who reached the goals that you want to reach, and then compare them, the ones who are successful with the, so to say, “mediocre people” who did not reach the goals you want to reach and then find out what are the distinguishing elements in the CVs.

Then you try to find out how you can get those things to improve your CV. And you may realize some of them have to do with privilege, which you have little control over. But don’t give up! You can do it!

The most interesting part of Newport’s approach, in my opinion, is that his main goal is for you to avoid the “laundry list fallacy“, i.e. thinking that just doing more is going to make you seem more impressive.

And let me tell you, I did a lot of things and often feel that it’s actually kind of hard to sell why I did that. People, rather than being impressed, tend to mistrust me and usually argue that my attention must be too scattered between all those things to accomplish anything actually worth having.

Anyway, he argues that it will have more effect to just have a few really impressive things going on. And I think Karen Kelsky would agree. Also, it seems like a more sustainable thing in terms of work-life-balance.

However, I don’t think I have the inner stability to bet my whole life on one horse. I can’t help it. I might be able to do it if academia didn’t make me feel so unsafe. But I truly feel that, if I didn’t have this inner block around it, it would be the sensible thing to do. Newport calls it “underscheduling” in one of his early books (on college success) but it comes up again in his most recent Slow Productivity (that I will likely review at some point).

Anyway, deliberately engineering your CV is a thing (see the other parts of this series). You need to be very deliberate about also creating a “publication arc” and there are many concepts like it, that I learned in continued education programs. You always look out for what people have on their CVs who are at some stage which you want to reach and then try to fill in the gaps until you’re there.

You will still fail

In conclusion, even if you do all this right, you will still fail. However, just knowing these things and taking them into account, or at least as much as you can, will help. Because obviously, we have to write lots of applications, but we also have lots of other responsibilities.

Let’s be honest. You don’t always have time to tailor your application perfectly. It is a very labor-intensive process, you can spend whole fellowships just applying for the next fellowship, and I’ve known many colleagues who did just that. To a certain degree, I did that myself.

Sometimes, in the end, you don’t actually have that much to show for it, which is why they should have much longer-term jobs in academia, so you can focus on actually doing the research instead of applying for the next thing, promising to do exciting research rather than actually doing it.

But still, these are some things to do, some pointers of what to take into account, I guess, if you’ve never thought about academic job applications before and you’re completely lost, this series should have lots of helpful information for you, I hope 😉

Demonstrate genuine interest by tailoring your application & show don’t tell

You can stand out by showing interest. If you can show genuine interest in the program or institution you are applying to, this can be a major bonus. This is because you might be up against applicants who have stellar qualifications, but who may be sending generic applications to several institutions, and it’s clear they aren’t particularly interested in the one you’re applying to.

Remember that those selecting candidates also want people who are excited about their program, about their institution, who will contribute to the community, and who will likely stay for the long haul. Therefore, you need to show your interest. This can be as simple as mentioning specific projects, people, or aspects of the program that you’re excited about in your cover letter. You could even go a step further and reach out to people there to ask questions about the program or to get more information. This not only shows your interest but can also give you valuable insider information that can further help you tailor your application.

It’s also important to show not tell. If you say “I’m so interested in X”, that’s nice. But it’s better if you can demonstrate it by saying “I have already published on X or given a number of talks.” What’s the evidence you can provide? Think of it that way and write your letter accordingly.

Failed proposals are part of the learning process: Make sure to mine the rejection for as much information as possible

Finally, the last point is understanding that each application is a learning process, even when you face rejection. It’s not just about the success, but also about the failure. Rejection is part and parcel of academic life and a huge part of the application process. Learn to see each rejection as an opportunity to improve and refine your application skills. Try to get feedback whenever possible, even though it can be hard in academia where feedback is rarely given. If there’s no formal feedback, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for it. I always ask if there are reviews. Maybe there aren’t or you don’t get an answer (which is not right, if you ask me but that’s how it is). But you might get really helpful feedback, too. If you have trouble understanding the review, say that you’re early career and it would really help you to understand how you can improve. No guarantees that you’ll get a (useful) response at all. But you might. It’s still worth asking. Alternatively, seek feedback from mentors or colleagues whom you can discuss your issue with in more detail. They might have some insight that you don’t yet have.

Most importantly, remember that resilience is key. Persistence and the ability to bounce back from rejection are common traits of those who eventually land academic positions (except for the privileged people who seem to just get everything they apply for… I think they exist). In academia, failure is not the end. And it’s unavoidable for all except a privileged few. Instead, take it as a stepping stone to eventual success. (But, of course, there is also a time and place for leaving academia if it doesn’t work for you.)

In conclusion

In conclusion, if you want to write a successful application in an academic context, you need to tailor your application and show fit with the program, tick all the checkboxes, understand that everyone else is also excellent and find ways to stand out, show genuine interest in the program or institution, and learn from each application, even the unsuccessful ones. Don’t forget that resilience and persistence are key in your journey.

As I’ve noted before, I speak from my experience and the lessons I’ve learned through my successes and failures in applying for academic jobs, travel bursaries, stipends, and fellowships. I hope that my insights can help you navigate your own journey in academia and help you land that dream academic job or award.

So these are my most important points. I hope this helps you.

There’s much more still to say but I will end it here.

Best of luck,


Cite this blog post
Sarah Lang (2023, December 14). Applications in Academia 101: A Survival Guide (Part 4). Epigrammetry. Retrieved April 25, 2024, from

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