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!