Brady Krien is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature and an MLIS student at the University of Iowa where he works in the Grad Success office. You can find him on Twitter at @BradyKrien and at his website.
It’s application season for many graduate students. Whether it’s for summer funding, for internal fellowships, or for award nominations, the spring semester is often filled with request for various application materials, each with their own challenges. Some will allow only a paragraph to sum up the totality of your research agenda while others will require highly polished C.V.s and teaching statements. But at least one thing is true for applications of all types: writing them is hard. They require presenting oneself in the best possible light, bragging in the humblest way possible, and distilling all of the complexity of one’s teaching or research or even oneself into a tidy package.
Despite these challenges, or rather because of them, writing and submitting applications is also an opportunity for intensive professional development. While winning grant money or putting the award on a C.V. is certainly valuable, the very process of completing the application is often an important form of professional practice. It requires very high level thinking about teaching, research, or career goals. It demands careful reflection and metacognition. Most applications, in other words, require the applicant to think through some aspect of their educational career in a methodical way. This is an essential component of all professional development. To help maximize the effectiveness of your application, I’ve put together some tips for making the most of the process and helping to develop both applicant and application.
Tell Your Story
The most frequent piece of advice that I give to students is that they need to tell a story. Many of the applications that I see start out, quite naturally, with what I call “bullet point writing.” Regardless of whether or not actual bullet points are used, this type of writing involves a lot of lists. The attempt to include everything that could possibly be relevant in the small space granted by the application naturally leads most authors to provide very little detail about a lot of elements. This is generally the wrong approach as it involves a lot of “telling” and very little “showing,” leading to a less memorable application.
What is far better is to provide a narrower, but more detail-rich application. Always be sure to respond to all of the prompts, but focus more on fewer things. For instance, in a teaching statement, an accounting of all the various types of assignments and activities that you incorporate in class will be much less compelling than more detailed examples of a few really effective assignments or activities. No one who has ever been in front of a classroom can reasonably expect someone to fully explain their approach to teaching in one or two pages. It’s simply not possible. Instead, provide concrete examples of the things that you do in the classroom, including how students respond to them. This is far more effective, memorable, and believable and it will also prepare you to eventually answer interview questions about your teaching or research in a really compelling manner.
A big part of the process of telling your story is prioritizing. If you’re writing a research statement, or a dissertation abstract, there will never be enough room to cover all of the elements that you find interesting or intriguing and attempting to capture them all will only lead to confusion and chaos within your application. Instead, you have to condense your application down to the most important or essential elements. This is hard, especially for larger projects, and I find that one of the easiest ways to do this is to write or talk your way through it. Chat with a friend outside of your field and explain your project to them. Ask them to repeat back to you what the most important points are. Freewrite about your project, free associating for 20 or 30 minutes about what your project does and why it’s important and go back through and highlight the stuff that is most valuable. Keep refining until you have a paragraph or even a sentence. This brief statement is incredibly useful in everything from applying to conferences or 3MT competitions to making decisions about what direction to take your project, your teaching, or your career. As simple as it seems, knowing what is most important to you can help to provide guidance when challenges or opportunities arise.
Know Your Purpose
In academia, it’s often very easy to ignore the motivation behind our work. Our training tends to focus on what we are doing and how we are doing it, but very rarely do we connect them back to a larger purpose. We operate within disciplines populated by other scholars or teachers who often share an unspoken understanding of why the work is important, at least in the broad strokes. This means that we very rarely have to explain to others (save for family gatherings) why our work has value. We don’t often, in other words, talk about the stakes of our work, why it matters to our discipline, to society, even to ourselves. If you are writing for an audience outside of your immediate field, it is essential that your implicit understanding of why your work is important is made as explicit as possible.
This is the question that I find myself asking graduate students I work with on applications quite frequently: why does your work matter? What, if any, are the broader implications? Who is likely to benefit from this work? How did you first get interested in this field or this question? It’s unlikely that many applications will ask these directly or that it would even be a good idea to include your answers in any given application, but understanding what drives your research or your teaching or your career goals and being able to communicate that effectively to someone outside of your field and articulating that for yourself and your audience will make your application much, much stronger. It will also serve you well as you start to make career decisions and go on the job market. It will streamline deciding what to apply for and where to apply and it will likely serve as a the basis for building connections with others in your discipline, whether you meet them at a conference or in a job interview. And yes, it will likely make that eternally frustrating conversation at Thanksgiving just a little bit easier.
What advice for those who are tackling applications this spring? Feel free to share in the comments below or with us on Twitter.