Essay on how to write good applications for jobs or grants

Application Advice
April 30, 2012

This year I have read over 740 applications for positions or money in academe – jobs, postdocs, research fellowships, grad awards, collaborative grants and more. In the course of reading applications I've noticed a few small things that are consistently seen in applications and that I feel should not be seen in applications, however modest their degree of offense might be. Since some of these are things that are not routinely covered by the many very good guides to writing applications, I thought I would share them.

1. If there is a topic, theme, organizing rubric, archival holding, or logic specified for the thing to which you are applying, say very clearly and very visibly what, precisely, you will be doing with or contributing to that topic, theme, logic, etc. It's not enough to mention the topic, theme, logic in a clause at the end of a sentence, nor to send your standard, unaltered job letter or research proposal. Don't assume that it is obvious how you will fit. If there is a series of questions in the application (How will your work contribute to existing conversations? What stage are you at? What will you do during the time period comprehended by the grant?) make sure you address every single point, even at the risk of sounding programmatic. (This last mostly for applications for grants or fellowships.) All reviewers of applications love when a proposal says "my scholarship will speak to your focus on Will Ferrell studies in the following ways: x, y, z." It may feel simplistic to you but it's a great help to reviewers who might be reading, say, 740+ applications in the course of a year. You can be fancy in other parts of the application, but be simple when saying what, exactly, you will do with the position/grant, and why.

2. On your C.V., do not list things that are presently under review (i.e., not yet accepted for publication) under the heading "Publications." You can include a separate "Under Review" subheading or category for those works; do not list them alongside things that have actually been accepted for publication. Many candidates name the journal or venue at which the piece is currently under review. I'm not a fan of this myself but will grudgingly concede that it can have its place -- for example if you feel you need to signal a specific audience for a work in progress.

3. If you've asked someone to write a recommendation for you, make sure it is someone who has read your work to some degree. I've read many letters that described someone's wonderful questions or collegiality, and then at some point in the letter was forced to say "while I have not read Terry's scholarship, I'm sure it's amazing." No matter how sparkling your encounter with that recommender might have been at a conference or on a campus, if the recommender can't speak to the actual content of your research, his/her recommendation becomes discounted and a potential irritant to your application reviewers. The exception, of course, is a teaching letter (explicitly named as such) or a letter from someone with whom you worked in an administrative capacity, speaking to those skills.

4. Avoid all general statements such as "I believe I am well-qualified for the position you describe," or "it's important to me to be part of a community," or "your topic fits me perfectly." Such statements are unnecessary -- they are a presumption for applying in the first place -- and give no information. If the position is a job in Will Ferrell Studies, for example, you can say that your work on the proliferation of box stores and chain restaurants will amplify the film "Old School" 's many references to Home Depot, Olive Garden, etc. Always use examples and give details. Instead of saying only "My students use wikis in class," describe a specific moment of wiki use, and say how that specific moment resonated with the class's broader aims, or how it influenced your own pedagogy or research. If you say in a teaching letter that you assign students a five-page paper on a single word, give an example of what one student did with the word -- what was chosen, what was surprising about the results, how they learned to use the OED, what have you.

5. If possible, specify why this project, and why now: what is the exigence for the work? Your answer should not be "because scholars have overlooked this." My colleague Claire Colebrook put this very well to our graduate students: she said that for every writer on which she worked, whether Deleuze or Milton, she asked herself: what is the problem they were trying to work out in their writing? So if your project runs the risk of seeming to be merely thematic ("the theme of 'X' in these four novels"), specify what problem your writers -- or you! -- are trying to work out. And then say what the answers will do for us.

6. When applying to archives: contact the librarian or curator in advance of your application, via e-mail or phone. If possible, make a preliminary scouting visit. Explain that you will be applying, and that you see from their online catalogs that they have X and Y collections, and might they be able to tell you about other holdings not necessarily easily located in online finding aids? or other collections within the archive that might be of interest to your topic? Then, in your official application, you can say "my correspondence with Librarian has revealed that in addition to your holdings in X, I can hope to find relevant material in Unexpected Little-Known Collection Y."

7. Some grants or fellowships will ask what you will accomplish or produce during the period in which the grant is held. Be realistic about this as well as specific. In a two-month summer fellowship you can certainly write one or maybe two chapters of a humanities book, but most of us can't write an entire book then. Nor should you aspire to produce only conference papers, say. Convey a sense of appropriate scale while still registering ambition.

I do really love reading applications for things and am ever keen to learn more about what everyone is working on. The more specific and detailed you are, the more successful you will be, and the more I will learn.



Hester Blum is associate professor of English and interim associate director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State University. Her research focuses on 19th-century American literature and oceanic studies.



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