The most useful thing you can do when writing an application, whether for a research fellowship, grant, or teaching job, is to put yourself in the mind of the person or people reading the application. Partly this helps you think hard about what they are looking for, partly it will encourage you to present the information you provide in the most accessible manner. Remember that you are often speaking to multiple audiences – highly qualified specialists in your field, scholars in your discipline who are not experts in your field, and those outwith the discipline altogether.
1. What requirements are outlined for the post?
Read the further particulars, FAQs on the websites of funding bodies, and the website of a prospective employer. You will probably work from a core CV and cover letter, but adapt them to each particular post you apply for. Tailor your application as appropriate, but don’t pretend to be something you are not.
2. Only send the material requested
If the application says (for example) a maximum of twelve pages, don’t send twenty-five. Some people won’t read it on principle, others will exclude you for not being able to follow basic instructions.
3. Make it as easy as possible to find information
This is particularly important with a CV. Your application won’t necessarily be read in the order in which you provide it: e.g. a CV may be read before a cover letter. Use a clear font, with subheadings allowing easy navigation to publications, teaching, grants, etc. Bullet points are helpful on CVs; avoid large blocks of prose.
4. A variety of experience is good to have, but be realistic
Early career scholars, especially postgraduate students, sometimes worry that their CV looks ‘thin’. An adept reader will be realistic about what can be expected of someone at a particular career stage. There will always be someone who has done something you haven’t – but so too will you have done something which they haven’t. Teaching experience and seminar/conference papers are good to have, but you don’t need a massive abundance of them. However, it is good to think early on about possible activities beyond your PhD, so you can factor in the time they will take and not try to acquire them all in a rush at the end when simultaneously trying to submit the thesis.
5. Have a credible research proposal
This is especially important for fixed-term research fellowships and grants, but it can also come into play when asked for a three- or five- year research plan when applying for a mixed research/teaching post. Postdoctoral positions also often implicitly expect more than publication of your thesis (although this can be included as one target); having a distinct new project shows ability to move on from the thesis – although it also needs to be cognate enough to look feasible. You want to offer a body of work which is significant and ambitious, but which in practice can be realized in the time available. Including a timetable showing interim targets is a good way of demonstrating that you are aware of finite time. If collaborative work or impact are involved, remember to factor in sufficient time for these: such activities can be more time-consuming than one thinks.
6. Give your referees a decent amount of notice
Advance notice of at least a week is courteous to referees, especially when someone is writing for you for the first time. This involves you checking whether the referee has to submit to the same deadline as you do, who notifies them, and whether your section of the application has to be fully submitted first. (Beware – both the first and third of these elements can apply.) Check carefully whether the application requires specific types of referee and whether they can be from the same institution as you are. Send them a copy of your application – even online systems don’t always allow the referee to see what the applicant has submitted.
See also – what is an early career scholar?