Getting a ‘Post-Doc’: How Is It Even Possible?!

We asked British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow Dr Matthew Pritchard at Cambridge for his insight into getting a post-doc. (Yes! How is it even possible?!) And after his popular talk at this year’s Research Student Conference at Southampton, we’re presenting to you a shorter written version as one of our post-RSC2013 features. Does the thought of putting together your proposal for a post-doc give you palpitations? Then take a deep breath, and read on!

The question I ask in my subtitle is one that many doctoral students ask themselves. The number of exclamation marks at the end is liable to multiply when one stumbles over statistics such as the applicant-to-place ratios for the Oxbridge JRFs (some of the most coveted postdoctoral fellowships): 500-600 people often compete for two or three positions. But it is possible, in the end. A number of factors help when preparing your applications (and the plural is important: it is worth applying to at least three and possibly a good half-dozen fellowships if you want to have a chance).

Factor number one is – and it’s not that surprising – a really well-thought-through and carefully presented proposal. Writing a really attractive and sharp proposal is not just a matter of individual inspiration: it’s a team effort. When I worked on my British Academy proposal in 2009, I must have had my proposal seen by at least four senior academics, not to mention friends, all of whom chipped in with comments and suggestions. I also refined the proposal through several stages with my supervisor, going back and forth and back and forth until we were both confident that more or less every word was justified. This was necessary not just to make a good impression, but also because the online system through which one applies for British Academy fellowships (called e-GAP) is annoyingly precise about the amount of space you have to fill: the proposal must be less than 8000 characters ! Similar restrictions apply for many other fellowships. There may be supplementary documents or boxes to fill out that go alongside the proposal, which will also need care and attention, though not as much as the proposal. For the BA Fellowship these included a short abstract of the proposal for readers outside the discipline; a description of my previous (i.e. doctoral) research; a “plan of action” saying how I would go about the various stages of the research – what I would do in year 1, year 2 and year 3; and plans for “publication and dissemination”, i.e. what I would publish and present on, and when I was going to do it. The rubric for the latter two boxes more or less admits that you probably won’t hold exactly to the given plan if you get the award, but you are being assessed on whether you can formulate something that sounds plausible and realistic, even if you later depart from it.

Another important factor is “institutional fit”, which Ananay Aguilar, current Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Cambridge, defines as “an environment that will stimulate and support your project, not just house it”. Her own research into music and copyright law depends on the unique opportunity which she saw available at Cambridge of linking up two already-existing research centres in different faculties – the CMPCP or Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice, based in the music faculty, and the CIPIL or Centre for Intellectual Property and International Law, based in the law faculty. You also need to leave yourself time! Even if application guidelines permit you to apply while finishing off a PhD, it may be better, if you can, to give yourself more time than this situation might allow you: time to develop a convincing project idea that is more than just an extension or a sketchy spin-off from your PhD, time to look around, liaise with potential mentors (the equivalent of a postdoctoral “supervisor”) and institutional hosts, and work hard on the application.

All that said, success depends on how you frame your research too. You need to have an answer to what Katherine Ellis called (in conversation with me prior to my Southampton workshop) the “so what?” question. OK so you’ve covered a new piece of musicological territory, found sources, provided analyses, or served up new and more convincing interpretations of old data. So what! Why should anyone care? In particular, in terms of the post-doc application process, why should someone who is not a musicologist care? Because these positions are not discipline-specific, decisions as to who gets funded depend partly on the judgments of academics outside your discipline. You are going to have to convince them that your project on late seventeenth-century opera, say, is going to contribute more to the general advancement of knowledge than a project on the eighteenth-century French book trade or the nineteenth-century intersections of literature and entomology. And so it isn’t surprising that being “interdisciplinary” really helps. But set your ambitions higher than that. It’s possible to be interdisciplinary in quite a modest and dull way: many of us are without even necessarily thinking about it. If you’re a medieval musicologist you need to know your paleography: that’s interdisciplinarity already, but not the kind that by itself will impress someone assessing your work. Rather than just using what comes in handy from a neighbouring discipline in order to fulfil a need or plug a gap in your own, aim to transform both disciplines, aim to question their assumptions, to confront one with the other’s fundamentally different perspective. (This is what Georgina Born calls “agonistic/antagonistic” interdisciplinarity – a major feature of her “relational musicology“.) Ananay’s research pinpoints the way in which copyright law relies on conceptions of music as essentially composed “work”, or more widely as an “object” to be owned and copied, which have long since been questioned and undermined within critical musicology. My own work uses both critical musicology and source-work in the history of music theory and aesthetics to challenge similar assumptions within contemporary music theory and the “philosophy of music”. Of course there is much worthwhile research out there that “does the groundwork” and “maps territory” – but there is no reason why, if it’s solid and you think about its implications hard enough, such research shouldn’t also contribute to a transformation of the discipline. And that’s certainly the kind of thing that impresses people on postdoctoral fellowship funding committees…

2 comments

  1. I can only commend you for this information. It is true, it is accurate, it is honest. As an early career researcher/ cum administrator I can agree with everything said, especially the need for pre-review ( a pre-requisite with Research councils); the diverse and not always easy to navigate electronic submission systems; the TIME required to draft, re-draft and…re-draft. Success rates are low and being just good, is not good enough nowadays.

  2. There is a great deal of really useful advice here. Another tip I would offer is to publish your work as early as you can, for instance by turning a chapter of your PhD into an article before the PhD itself is complete. There is now an ever-growing pool of well-qualified PhD students and having a publication can mark you out from the crowd. I found out that I had had my first article accepted for publication the day before my JRF interview and I am sure that was what made the difference and got me the job. And when departments are hiring (whether for postdocs or for first teaching posts) around REF time, these things certainly matter.

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