The subject of this blog post was suggested to me during a conversation about the problems faced by ECRs and those graduate students on the verge of finishing their PhDs. I was asked whether I had ever written about the process of applying for an academic job, rather than just bemoaning the absence of one. So I began looking back over the many, many lectureship and research fellowship applications that I have submitted during the last eighteen months. What was required for these applications? What was common among them, and what was unique?
I should premise by saying that this blog post is based solely upon my own experiences of, and conversations with other ECRs about the application process.This advice may benefit some ECRs and soon-to-be-finished graduate students, but it should not be read as universal. For me, the whole process did, at times, feel like a never-ending merry-go-round of rejections and dejection.
So, unless you are incredibly talented (or, more likely, just lucky) your first academic job will be a fixed-term position. These vary in duration and normally range between nine months and five years. There are, roughly, three broad categories into which humanities-based academic jobs for ECRs in the UK can be divided:
Postdocs affiliated with existing projects
If the job is a postdoctoral post affiliated with a larger externally-funded project, then you need to think carefully about how your own research interests can be adapted to best suit the research, publication, and public engagement objectives of that project. Look over the previous work and publications of the project’s PI. Think carefully about where they want to take their project. How will you satisfy their planned research objectives, but how, also, will your contribution be unique? Basically, what makes you the best candidate for the job and what can you contribute to the overall project that no other candidate can?
The PI will want to see (both in the written application and at interview) that you have given considerable thought to their project and your role within that project. Often, there will be room for postdocs to develop their own self-contained project (often manifesting in one or more peer-reviewed articles) that links to the overarching project. If there is scope for such work, the PI will also want to see that you have thought about the focus of this individual research and the types of outputs you envisage.
The job advertisement* will normally come with its own list of person specifications, but it does not hurt to email the PI or project administrator to ask for a detailed summary of the project. There is usually one available.
A Fellowship will likely give you greater autonomy over your research. These vary from the above-mentioned postdocs in that they are primarily self-directed. You develop your own research project and are solely responsible for the successful running and completion of that project. These types of posts are awarded according to the sophistication of the proposed research project as well as the achievements of the candidate.
Candidates will be expected to present a clear and refined overview of the project they propose to pursue during their Fellowship. Many external funding bodies, such as the British Academy, Wellcome Trust, AHRC and Leverhulme Trust, will ask for a proposal totalling between 2000 and 5000 words. If you are applying for a Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) at an Oxford or Cambridge College you will be expected to submit a statement of proposed research totalling between 500 and 2500 words.
Your statement of research needs to be an adaptable document. Once you have refined your statement of research, you should be able to tweak and re-tweak it for each new Fellowship application. This process of continuous modification meant that I was able to constantly rethink the parameters of the project. With each new statement of research I was able to further refine the project so that it became more persuasive with each new application.
If you are applying for a JRF, you need to write your statement of research in such a way as to make it accessible to non-specialist members of the College’s selection committee. For example, a candidate applying to take up a JRF in English Literature will be interviewed by a selection committee including at least one member of the English Faculty. However, there will also often be panel members from across the University, from the natural sciences, to philosophy, to engineering. If you are called for interview, you need to be prepared for non-specialist questions from these members of the selection committee. From personal experience I can say that these types of questions are often much harder to answer than highly technical questions.
How to prepare for this? Ask your supervisor to organise a mock interview and provide feedback. Present your proposed project to friends in other academic disciplines, and have them ask questions based upon their non-specialist understanding of the project.
Lectureships or Teaching Fellowships
These jobs will often require you to put together some form of teaching plan, including one or more proposed modules that you could coordinate. Look at the undergraduate and taught MA modules already offered by the Department or Faculty to which you are applying. Think about how you can adapt your own research interests and expertise to teach these modules, or to create new modules that fill identifiable gaps in the existing module programme.
Although the selection panel may want to see a coherent and well-defined plan of research for the duration of your Lectureship, previous experience as a lecturer and tutor is particularly important. Even if this experience is not extensive, the panel will want to see that you understand the demands of university teaching and that you are flexible in your teaching practices to accommodate students with special needs, different interests, and different levels of ability.
Where do you find these job advertisements?
* There are many different online forums through which academic jobs are advertised. Some, such as Mersenne, are specific to particular fields within academia. Others, such as jobs.ac.uk, are much broader academic job websites, and will often allow you to tailor job alerts for specific fields. Remember to apply for job alerts from individual Universities and also keep an eye on individual College websites, as well as those of the major funding bodies.