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How to Get a Postdoctoral Fellowship – Some thoughts from Liam Clegg, Lecturer in International Relations and ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow, University of York

I’m going to start with a bit of bad news: now is not a great time to be finishing a PhD.

As a fairly dramatic illustration of this, a few days after I agreed to write this blog the ESRC announced the closure of its Postdoctoral Fellowship (PDF) programme. As of now (April 2011), it has been announced that the PDF will be replaced by a ‘Future Leaders Scheme’ – although we still don’t know what form this will take. Fingers crossed, it will share many of the same features of the PDF, and be designed to help recently completed PhDs to make the transition into their first permanent academic position. Keep an eye on the ESRC website for further details…

With that out of the way, some basics about PDFs.

So, what exactly is a Postdoctoral Fellowship? Well, there are two general types of PDF. Firstly, there are PDFs that have been created as part of larger research project, generally under the control of a senior academic. Here, you – the recently completed PhD student – will be bought in to work on a pre-designed piece of research. These PDFs can be great, especially if there is a genuine overlap between your research and the focus of the project. But the relationship with your boss is key, and it is vital to ensure that you are able to carve out an independent ‘research identity’ (ideally by producing sole-authored work) to enhance your own CV and maximise your chances of getting a permanent position once the PDF finishes. In terms of where to look for these opportunities, get signed up to ‘jobs.ac.uk’, and all of the subject-specific mailing lists you can find.

The second general type of PDF are the ones where you’re the boss – and it’s these that I’ll write about most.

As far as I know, independent PDFs in Politics and International Relations will come from one of three main sources: the ESRC, Leverhulme, or the British Academy [please post below if you know of others]. But the idea behind them is the same – to provide promising early-career scholars with the time to: disseminate their work to as wide an audience as possible (academic and non-academic) through publications, conferences, workshops, and more innovative means; and to enhance other important aspects of their professional development (e.g. specific research training, teaching experience, etc). These PDFs are highly sought after, and the application process tends to be both slow and arduous. But the following tips should help a little:

  • Put as much time as you can into the application. I, for example, went through six drafts of my ESRC PDF application – with the help of an incredibly generous mentor!
  • Don’t overclaim in your application. For a one-year postdoc, it’s realistic to suggest you’ll get a contract for your first book, a couple of articles into high-ranking journals, and some other interesting dissemination activities. Too much more and the project will start to look unattainable.
  • Come up with a joined-up workplan. So, for example, explain that you will present paper x at conference y, and then in the light of comments received redraft and submit to journal z. Tell the reviewer a series of nice, tidy stories like this.
  • Use the application form to its fullest. If you’re given six pages, fill them. Leave the reviewer wanting to read more about an interesting project, rather than wondering about the details left out.
  • Reference. A lot. You will have either just finished or be about to finish your PhD thesis – show beyond any doubt that you know the relevant literature by citing it and including an extensive bibliography.
  • Find a very strong mentor. The mentor should be a senior figure with subject-specific expertise that clearly overlaps with your own research, and you should also be able to tell a story about how (s)he will assist in your professional development (advice on publications, grant applications, etc).
  • Make sure you sell the wider benefits of the department you’re applying through. What input will other staff have; will you present and receive feedback on your work in the department; does the department have a track record of successfully mentoring postdocs into permanent positions; what addition resources will they offer?
  • Ask for advice from people who’ve been through the process. Whichever department you’re in, there should be someone who has successfully negotiated the process, or perhaps acted as a reviewer. Seek them out!- they will undoubtedly have very useful ‘insider’ tips.
  • And hunt down successful past applications. Different funding sources will be looking for slightly different things from your application. Whilst you can pick up some of this by closely reading Guidance Notes, seeing successful applications will really help.

And good luck.

And for PhD students at York who are reading this, GET INVOLVED WITH THE PhD STUDENT SEMINAR SERIES THAT WILL BE RUNNING EVERY MONDAY AFTERNOON FROM  2ND MAY TO 6TH JUNE. Details will be sent round internally. Forums like this provide PhD students in their early stages with an invaluable chance to get advice from peers and staff on how to most effectively progress with your research, and those at a more advanced stage with feedback on how to frame your work and fine-tune publications for research. See you there!

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Writing a Good PhD Proposal – Some Guidelines by Dr. Audra Mitchell, University of York

(For more on how to write a good PhD proposal, click here)

What is a PhD proposal?

A PhD proposal is a an outline of your proposed project that is designed to

–          Define a clear question and approach to answering it

–          Highlight its originality and/or significance

–          Explain how it adds to, develops (or challenges) existing literature in the field

–          Persuade potential supervisors and/or funders of the importance of the work, and why you are the right person to undertake it

Research proposals may vary in length, so it is important to check with the department(s) to which you are applying to check word limits and guidelines. Generally speaking, a proposal should be around 3,000 words which you write as part of the application process.

What is the research proposal for?

Potential supervisors, admissions tutors and/or funders use research proposals to assess the quality and originality of your ideas, your skills in critical thinking and the feasibility of the research project. Please bear in mind that PhD programmes in the UK are designed to be completed in three years (full time) or six years (part time). Think very carefully about the scope of your research and be prepared to explain how you will complete it within this timeframe.

Research proposals are also used to assess your expertise in the area in which you want to conduct research, you knowledge of the existing literature (and how your project will enhance it). Moreover, they are used to assess and assign appropriate supervision teams. If you are interested in the work of a particular potential supervisor – and especially if you have discussed your work with this person – be sure to mention this in your proposal. We encourage you strongly to identify a prospective supervisor and get in touch with them to discuss your proposal informally BEFORE making a formal application, to ensure it is of mutual interest and to gain input on the design, scope and feasibility of your project. Remember, however, that it may not be possible to guarantee that you are supervised by a specific academic.

Crucially, it is also an opportunity for you to communicate your passion in the subject area and to make a persuasive argument about what your project can accomplish. Although the proposal should include an outline, it should also be approached as a persuasive essay – that is, as an opportunity to establish the attention of readers and convince them of the importance of your project.

Is the research proposal ‘set in stone’?

No. Good PhD proposals evolve as the work progresses. It is normal for students to refine their original proposal in light of detailed literature reviews, further consideration of research approaches and comments received from the supervisors (and other academic staff). It is useful to view your proposal as an initial outline rather than a summary of the ‘final product’.

Structuring a Research Proposal

Please check carefully with each department to find out whether a specific template is provided or required. In general, however, the following elements are crucial in a good research proposal:

Title

This can change, but make sure to include important ‘key words’ that will relate your proposal to relevant potential supervisors, funding schemes and so on. Make sure that your title goes beyond simply describing the subject matter – it should give an indication of your approach or key questions.

2. Overview of the research

In this section you should provide a short overview of your research and where it fits within the existing academic discourses, debates or literature. Be as specific as possible in identifying influences or debates you wish to engage with, but try not to get lead astray into a long exegesis of specific sources. Rather, the point is to sketch out the context into which your work will fit.

You should also use this section to make links between your research and the existing strengths of the department to which you are applying. Visit appropriate websites to find out about existing research taking place in the department and how your project can complement this.

If applying to multiple departments, be sure to tailor a unique proposal to each department – readers can tell if a proposal has been produced for ‘mass consumption’!

Be sure to establish a solid and convincing framework for your research in this section. This should include:

–  research questions (usually, 1-3 should suffice) and the reason for asking them

– the major approach(es) you will take (conceptual, theoretical, empirical and normative, as appropriate) and rationale

– significance of the research (in academic and, if appropriate, other fields)

3. Positioning of the research (approx. 900 words)

This section should discuss the texts which you believe are most important to the project, demonstrate your understanding of the research issues, and identify existing gaps (both theoretical and practical) that the research is intended to address. This section is intended to ‘sign-post’ and contextualize your research questions, not to provide a detailed analysis of existing debates.

Research design & methodology (approx. 900 words).

This section should lay out, in clear terms, the way in which you will structure your research and the specific methods you will use. Research design should include (but is not limited to):

–          The parameters of the research (ie the definition of the subject matter)

–          A discussion of the overall approach (e.g. is it solely theoretical, or does it involve primary/empirical research) and your rationale for adopting this approach

–          Specific aims and objectives (e.g. ‘complete 20 interviews with members of group x’)

–          A brief discussion of the timeline for achieving this

A well developed methodology section is crucial, particularly if you intend to conduct significant empirical research. Be sure to include specific techniques, not just your general approach. This should include: kinds of resources consulted;  methods for collecting and analyzing data; specific techniques (ie statistical analysis; semi-structured interviewing; participant observation); and (brief) rationale for adopting these methods.

References

Your references should provide the reader with a good sense of your grasp on the literature and how you can contribute to it. Be sure to reference texts and resources that you think will play a large role in your analysis. Remember that this is not simply a bibliography listing ‘everything written on the subject’. Rather, it should show critical reflection in the selection of appropriate texts.

Possible pitfalls

Quite often, students who fit the minimum entrance criteria fail to be accepted as PhD candidates as a result of weaknesses in the research proposal. To avoid this, keep the following advice in mind:

  • Make sure that your research idea, question or problem is very clearly stated, persuasive and addresses a demonstrable gap in the existing literature. Put time into formulating the questions- in the early stages of a project, they can be as important as the projected results.
  • Make sure that you have researched the departments to which you are applying to ensure that there are staff interested in your subject area and available to supervise your project. As mentioned above it is strongly advised that you contact potential supervisors in advance, and provide them with a polished version of your proposal for comment.
  • Make sure that your proposal is well structured. Poorly formed or rambling proposals indicate that the proposed project may suffer the same fate.
  • Ensure that the scope of your project is reasonable, and remember that there are significant limits to the size and complexity of a project that can be completed and written up in three years. We will be assessing proposals not only for their intellectual ambition and significance, but also for the likelihood that the candidate can complete this project.
  • Make sure that your passion for the subject matter shines through in the structure and arguments presented within your proposal. Remember that we may not be experts in your field – it is up to you to make your project and subject matter engaging to your readers!

(For more on how to write a good PhD proposalclick here)

The following books are widely available from bookshops and libraries and may help in preparing your research proposal (as well as in doing your research degree):

Bell, J. (1999): Doing Your Research Project: A Guide for First-time Researchers in Education & Social Science, (Oxford University Press, Oxford).

Baxter, L, Hughes, C. and Tight, M. (2001): How to Research, (Open University Press, Milton Keynes).

Cryer, P. (2000): The Research Student’s Guide to Success, (Open University, Milton Keynes).

Delamont, S., Atkinson, P. and Parry, O. (1997): Supervising the PhD, (Open University Press, Milton Keynes).

Philips, E. and Pugh, D. (2005): How to get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and their Supervisors, (Open University Press, Milton Keynes).

Co-Authoring

There at least two distinct co-authoring contexts. In the first, there are junior and senior authors (e.g. supervisor/PhD student, principal investigator/researchers). The subject of the article may or may not be your own idea or on the subject of your expertise. In such cases, different authors may also make different sorts of contributions (e.g. data gathering, analysis, literature review).

The second co-authoring context results from the recognition of a mutual research problem or interest. While it is still possible for one of the authors to be ‘senior’ in a technical sense, the dynamics are different as there is parity between the authors. Moreover, the subject of the article is of interest to both authors and while there may be some differences in the allocation of workload, both authors contribute equally. It is this second type of co-authoring that we will address in this post.

How do you know what to write about? Well, you might have a friend or colleague that you would like to work with; together you can develop the research question or problem. Alternatively, you may find that you have encountered similar problems to someone else and that these issues can be explored more deeply with benefit of drawing from you distinct – though complementary – experiences.

Once you’ve hit on an idea and found a co-author to work with, you need to manage the working relationship. This may not be as easy as it sounds, even if your co-author is someone you get along with quite well. You will have different methods of working, different schedules and different commitments. As PhD students and researchers, we are also accustomed to working independently and suddenly letting someone else into your private working world can come as a jolt. Along with different schedules and working patterns come different procrastination habits. This means that staying on track can prove doubly difficult.

Given these challenges, here are some tips for successful co-authoring:

  • You need to have a positive relationship with the person you are working with. This is not a sufficient condition, but a necessary one.
  • Having agreed on a topic, you need to be clear and agree on the objectives for the article. Who is your target audience? Which journals do you want to publish in? Why are you writing the article in the first place?
  • There has to be an intellectual advantage to co-authoring (versus a solo authored article) and you need to be clear about what each author will contribute.
  • Set a working schedule and try to stick to it. That said, you need to be flexible. Otherwise, you could end up not only without an article but with a damaged friendship as well.
  • Maintain good channels of communication and manage each other’s expectations. If you are not going to be able to finish something by the established deadline, you need to be honest and upfront about it. Your co-author will probably be more understanding of your situation than you think, especially if you address potential conflicts early.

Have any of you co-authored a paper? Or do you have any questions about how to get started?

(PS – This is a co-authored blog post)

 

History

The idea for this blog started to materialise midway through our PhDs.  In 2007-08 a very active group of students in the Department of Politics at the University of York was trying to create a support network. The support group that emerged was named the “Politics Research Forum,” although actual research was never discussed in detail. Instead, we wanted to create an outlet where PhD students at different stages of their research could share their worries, successes, questions and doubts in a supportive environment. For most of those who participated in those Friday evening sessions, the Forum became not just a supportive tool but a real learning experience. After June 2008, however, the group dispersed.

But two of us continued to talk about these issues, particularly the soft skills needed to complete a PhD (or any research project of considerable length for that matter). How do you define your research in a single sentence? What should be included in the literature review? When should you start attending conferences and which conferences should they be? What on earth do you do if your supervisory relationship is a dysfunctional one?

You can’t conduct a literature review to answer these questions. Nor in most cases will your supervisor have the time or inclination to spell everything out for you. The skills required for answering these questions are often overlooked as unimportant or brushed aside as obvious but you must have them – and master them – to survive.