Persuasion: Making Job Applications as an Early-Career Academic

      Firstly, apologies for the extended gap between posts on The Scribe Unbound. I can hardly believe that it has been two months since I made my last posting, but it has. The reason for the lapse was the end of my ‘Discipline Hopping Internship’ in February, which heralded a rush to get loose ends tied up, move out of my flat and, of course, apply for further funding. In truth, I have been putting together job application material casually since the end of 2014. Like every academic in a short term post, I was constantly updating my C.V. and applying for appropriate new posts – and it can seem like a thankless task. This has been especially pronounced for me because my internship was only a year long. I was thinking of my next job almost as soon as I was appointed. As the end of my year with C2D2 approached, I was preparing to leave by filling in leavers’ forms and even beginning to clear my desk.

      Then I discovered that C2D2 had been awarded extended funding from the Wellcome Trust and would be appointing a group of new postdoctoral fellows. To say that my heart leapt at this news is an understatement – the opportunity to continue my newly-developed project was exciting. However, the prospect of making an application for this post was also daunting. I was painfully aware that, as a humanities scholar working on a medical humanities project, I would be competing against talented scholars from all kinds of scientific fields of research. At the same time, I was confident of the value of my project and my internship had given me an unrivalled opportunity to develop the necessary interdisciplinary skills and networks. Importantly, my mentors, whom I hoped would continue to supervise my ongoing work, were supportive and encouraged me to apply.

      To cut a long story short, I was awarded one of the positions, and begin my new fellowship this week. My project is entitled, ‘Neurodegenerative Disorders and the Handwriting of Medieval Scribes: Using the Past to Inform the Future’. Though it will build upon the foundations of my internship ‘pilot project’, it has a new emphasis on the transferable outcomes – ie. how the study of medieval people with disorders can inform our understanding of modern neurological conditions. I will be blogging about the project actively over the upcoming two years.

     My efforts in making job applications, for this fellowship and the short academic posts that I have held previously, have been supported by the advice and support of a range of academic friends – both senior academics and peers. I thought that it would be good to share some of this wisdom, as well as some of the experience that I have gained myself, as I have made my way through the application process. I should note that everyone is different, of course, and my efforts have not always been successful. I have not always found it easy to judge when I’ve answered an interview question competently or put in a good application form. However, I have now had sufficient feedback to feel able to share what I have learned. I hope that you find these tips helpful…

First stages: The application form


      When the ads have filtered through to my inbox, I have often been pleasantly surprised by a long lead-up to the application deadline. However, I’ve learned that an excellent application will often consume all of that time – and so, it is important to give yourself time. Experience has also taught me that it is better to submit no applications at all, or just one really good application, than five sub-standard ones. You should be prepared to put your application through several drafts. This is really difficult, as many of us are already employed full time – either in academia or outside of it – so where do we find the time? My answer is to be selective, and begin applications as soon as the position is advertised – then you should have over a month to prepare the application in stages. For yearly fellowship schemes I’ve been advised to compile lists of which month they are usually advertised, in order to begin to prepare well in advance.


       This is related to the previous point. I was recently preparing to submit an application, and felt really happy with my efforts. Then – to my horror – I discovered that I also required a letter from the Head of Department. Luckily, I had left just enough time and had very understanding referees, but this could have spoiled a good application. After experiencing several rushed application processes (giving my supervisors and referees headaches in the process), I have now resolved to read the application instructions fully and create a timeline for the application process.  If you are required to fill in an online application form, I’d advise filling in the bare minimum and progressing to the last screen before submission, to determine that there are no unexpected fields or requirements. I recently found out, for example, that I needed to have an ‘administrative’ reference as well as an academic one, so had to ask permission from my intended referee before submitting.

       As a result of being more prepared, the process of putting in my application for my fellowship was much more relaxed. This does not prevent unexpected hiccups – I had to make an impromptu trip on the application submission date, and so had to rush it through the day before. However, it does make for a more relaxed and well-organised applicant (not to mention happier referees).


      In my experience, I’ve found that referees will usually allocate one or two ‘yellow cards’ when it comes to tight deadlines. Sometimes they are unavoidable. I’ve certainly pleaded my referees for help with only days to spare once or twice in the past. However, with my recent application I notified my referees a month before the application deadline, informing them of exactly what was going on and giving them time to respond appropriately. Some applications will ask your referees for the reference after you are invited for interview, whilst others will require it before the application deadline, so it is crucial to give your referees time to prepare a reference – it is in your best interests, of course! Also, bear in mind their schedules, and allow extra time at busy times of term, or at times when you know that they will be on research leave or out of the country.


      In every successful application, I’ve made contact with the department before submitting my application. Going in ‘cold’ is difficult, and departmental websites can only tell you so much. Thus, I would highly recommend either contacting the person named in the job advertisement or making email or in-person contact with someone with whom you would be working if successful. If that is not possible, email a friend who has worked/studied in that department and is familiar with its ethos.  In my case, organising meetings with my potential mentors formed a stronger connection with them and helped me to make a really good application. It is not always possible to visit the department or meet up with your potential colleagues. However, simply dropping someone a line can help to find out more about the teaching syllabus or research priorities. Thus, it can help you to establish why you want to work there and what you would bring to the department that nobody else can.


       I have learned to never submit an application without giving it to at least of my ‘critical friends’ for review. This need not be restricted to academics, but includes any individuals who are willing to help with making a statement that reads well. My Ph.D supervisors, postdoctoral mentors, department administrators, and understanding friends have all had a role in ensuring that my applications are worthy of submission. Again, I’d recommend allowing plenty of time for this process, developing a thick skin, and learning to embrace constructive criticism. Being wary of wasting the time of your friends is also a good way of ensuring that you are selective about which jobs that you apply for. Don’t be afraid to ask successful friends for copies of their C.V.s and cover letters. I’ve learned a lot by doing that. Also, remember to say ‘thank you’.


      The job application process can be harrowing and it can be a real let-down when you receive what seems like the sixty-millionth rejection letter. I do believe that I once received a rejection letter on Christmas Day! I have learned not to take this too personally, and file the rejected application forms under an ‘archive’ folder immediately. Even the process of putting in a failed application helps you to improve and is not a complete waste of time. It is worth asking for feedback from the selection committee, but not wallowing over it too much.  However, I also think it is important to be flexible. After my first postdoctoral research project was rejected several times, I decided to develop a different one. The new idea which has attracted much more attention – and funding.

I hope that these thoughts and tips are helpful. I’d be interested in hearing ideas from others… as I know that it won’t be too long until I’m clicking on ‘apply’ again.


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