Postdocs

I’m writing this in the living room of my new flat. The sky is iron grey, the temperature is low, and all is quiet. An excellent time for some introspection. Today subject is how I got here.

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The story begins at the very end of my second year as a PhD student, when I wrote the first chunk of text worthy of the name of chapter. It was entitled ‘Transition’, and examined how sequences of passions could be used to analyse drama of the long eighteenth century. My supervisor liked it very much, and confirmed that it could form the basis of a postdoctoral application, should I wish to apply for postdocs during my third year.

That, of course, was the question. In the end (and as you’ve probably guessed by now), I decided to do so. I’ve already taken a few years out of academia, and was eager to find stable employment before turning thirty. On top of this, writing applications during my third year turned out to be something of a boon for my research. Being forced to confront the big questions of your work over and over again (“describe your research and its importance in 500 words”, etc.) really made me focus on what I wanted to do and why it should be I who was doing it. When I eventually came to compose the introduction and conclusion to my thesis, months of proposal and summary writing paid off many times over.

While applying alongside writing up worked for me, I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. It is, after all, immensely time-consuming, not to mention very dispiriting. It can be very hard to keep going when you receive periodic rejections of your academic hopes and dreams. Some good advice I received about dealing with this is to consider postdoctoral applications undertaken during the third year as a ‘dry run’, a chance to learn new skills and, as it were, enter a lottery where you at least have some chance of getting employment rather than none at all.

And now for a numerical interlude. Having spent decided in August 2014 to try and obtain a postdoctoral position that I could take up immediately after my PhD, I then, from September 2014 to July 2015, applied for 41 jobs.

  • 14 JRFs – Junior Research Fellowships: the Oxford and Cambridge postdoctoral position par excellence
  • 17 ATER positions – Attaché temporaire d’enseignement et de recherche: the standard French postdoctoral teaching fellowship
  • 2 Lecteur positions – Language assistant at a French university
  • 2 Maître de langue positions – Language course convenor at a French university
  • 4 Teaching Fellowships – Of varying length and at various institutions
  • 2 Lectureships – Permanent, full-time posts combining teaching and research

Out of all these, I got:

  • Shortlisted 3 times for a JRF
  • 1 offer of an ATER position
  • 1 offer of a lecteur position
  • 1 interview for a teaching fellowship
  • 1 offer of a lectureship

Which brings me to Newcastle, and this still, grey morning. The weather thus continues to invite some more reflections, so I’ll conclude with some general points.

First, the world of postdoctoral employment is extremely opaque, such that it is very dangerous indeed to try and draw conclusions from the way your application is treated. With regard to JRFs, a combination of the sheer quantity of candidates (sometimes more than a hundred to a single fellowship) as well as the internal needs and politics of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges make it all but impossible to get a sense of how people felt about your research. Fellowship committees rarely give feedback either, although it is always worth trying. Such opacity is pushed to absurdity in the French system, where ATER applications are fed into an online platform (a bit like UCAS) and sent off in the post. Two months later you might (as I did) receive a phonecall saying that you have a job waiting for you or (as often happened to me also) you’ll get an automatically generated email telling you to log on and read the notice of your failure.

The second thing, following on from the first, is that it is important not to lose heart. This is far easier said than done. Strategies that I found useful for keeping up morale included: strict limits on the time spent applying for postdocs, formulation of a back-up plan if I found nothing, and regular opportunities to present my research in a non-competitive context (be it showing chapters to my supervisor or giving conference papers).

The sun is peeking through the clouds. Time to go and visit Newcastle a little more. I hope that this post is useful to those who find it. If you have questions, do sound off in the comments.


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