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.

A Thesis Abstracted

I found writing up my thesis to be an exciting time. I have always enjoyed writing (hence this blog), but the assembly of so many words, ideas, arguments, was something new to me. For various reasons (publication, the fact I’m writing this before my viva, copyright), I cannot publish the thesis online here. I can, however, offer you my abstract, the document which attempts the probably impossible task of distilling three hundred pages and years of reflection into a mere four hundred words.


 

This thesis draws the line of a rise and a fall, an ironic pattern whereby the English stage of the long eighteenth century, in its relation to Shakespeare in particular, first acquired powerful influence, and then, through the very effects of that power, lost it. It also shows what contemporary literary criticism might learn from the activities that constitute this arc of evolution.

My first chapter interrogates the relationship between text and performance in vernacular writings about acting and editing from the death of Betterton in 1709 to the rise of Garrick in the middle decades of the century. From the status of a distinct tradition, performance comes to rely on text as a basis for the intimate, personal engagement with Shakespeare believed necessary to the work of the sentimental actor. Such a reliance grants the performer new potential as a literary critic, but also prepares a fall. The performer becomes another kind of reader, and so is open to accusations of reading badly.

My second chapter analyses the evolving definition of Shakespeare as a dramatic author from Samuel Johnson onwards. An untheatrical definition of the dramatic (Johnson’s) is answered by one which recognises the power and vitality of the stage, especially in its representation of sympathetic character (Montagu and Kenrick). Yet that very recognition leads to a set of altered critical priorities in which the theatre is, once more, relegated (Morgann and Richardson).

My third and fourth chapters consider the practices and critical implications of theatrical performance of Shakespeare during Garrick’s career. I focus on the acting of emotion, the portrayal of what Aaron Hill called ‘the very Instant of the changing Passion’, and show that performance of this time, attentive to the striking moment and the transitions that power it, required from the actor both attention to the text and preternatural control over his own emotions. In return, it allowed Garrick and others to claim a special affinity with Shakespeare and to capture the public’s attention, both in the theatre and outside it. Yet this situation, that of ‘twin stars’, does not last. French and German responses to English acting, the concern of my last chapter, show its decline particularly well. They also, however, show the power that existed in such a union between page and stage, and equal weight is given in both my third and my fourth chapter to how the theatrical-literary insights of eighteenth-century critical culture might also illuminate modern approaches.