Piled High and Deeper!
September 30, 2012 8:32 AM   Subscribe

How difficult is it, really, to get a post-doctoral fellowship? I'm kind of panicking about it, so any reassurance would be helpful; that said, it would also be helpful to know if this is a totally unrealistic pipe-dream at this point, so I can start to think about other options.

I'm starting my second year of a three-year PhD program, in England (it's so short because it's only research, not courses; England's PhD programs are generally like this). I'm in the humanities. I realize that especially because of the recession, it's becoming almost impossible to get a tenure-track academic job directly from the PhD - especially with a UK PhD. I had hoped that it would be reasonably feasible to get a postdoc or two instead, so that I could work on building up my publications list and teaching experience for several years, and then try for permanent positions. However I just had a chat with an academic in my field (not my supervisor) who said that many humanities postdoc positions now have over a hundred qualified applicants per place applying for them (and sometimes upwards of three hundred qualified applicants per place), since there's a huge pile-up of recently-minted PhDs who can't find tenure-track jobs, and postdocs are now almost as hard to get as actual faculty positions.

I've already been stressed about my PhD, because my research is going more slowly than I had hoped, because the archival stuff that I've been digging through has had far less relevant material than I had expected. I'm having a bit of a panic about this. I only have three years of funding, and the whole process is giving me huge anxiety. I had planned to apply for some first postdocs next summer (the ones you don't actually need the degree in hand yet for, so Oxbridge JRFs, the Harvard Society of Fellows, and any others of that kind); if I got one, this would give me fourth-year funding as I finish writing, which I really need. If post-docs actually are so competitive to get, however, I suppose I need to reckon with the serious possibility that I may not get one, which is really making me panic. I don't want to stress out about this to my supervisor, because I don't want to worry him, and I feel like I'm probably the only grad student of his who's panicking, both about my work about about fourth year funding and post-docs, and I don't want my supervisor to think that I'm incompetent (honestly, I'm starting to think I really may be) or don't have it together (I'm not sure I do), or that I'm That Girl Who Panics (and clearly, I am).

So, my question for Metafilter is this: How difficult are post-docs to get right now (in the humanities)? I believe I have good/excellent references, and I'm at a top school for my doctorate (Oxbridge), and all of my previous degrees have been from schools generally regarded as comparable to it in reputation. My supervisor is still young but pretty well-known and well-respected in my field already, although there's a bit of a ghettoization of British academia in my subject which means that my supervisor/department may have fewer connections to American academics in my subject than would be preferable. I've won a number of major scholarships, including several generous fully-funded scholarships for my PhD (doctoral funding isn't automatic in the UK, so not everyone is funded). I currently don't have any publications, which I think is my biggest problem: I switched subjects for my PhD, and I've only really been doing this subject for one year, so I'm starting from behind, which really in retrospect probably wasn't wise. I will have given one seminar paper (and maybe a paper at an international conference) by next early autumn, when I was hoping to apply for JRFs etc.; by that point, I will also have published a couple of book reviews, and possibly a 25-30 page (single-authored) article accepted for publication (maybe two, if things go really well, but I'm not banking on it). If I wait another year to apply, I'll probably have about four book reviews published, and hopefully definitely two articles, and possibly a third shorter one. I'm planning to apply for all of the post-docs that I see advertised, both in the US and the UK. I'd be curious about any thoughts about how difficult it is to get post-docs, and how likely it is that I personally might get one. Are they easier or harder to get in the US or the UK (or farther afield, like Australia - I'm willing to apply anywhere). What else specifically should I do to improve my chances? What's most important - publications, or something else? I'd also like to hear any comments of this nature on tenure-track jobs in the humanities. I'd love reassurance, but please tell it like it is, because if I need to be thinking about a different non-academic direction to go next, I'd prefer to know now.
posted by UniversityNomad to Education (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
You know that some of these--the Harvard Society of Fellows, for example--require nominations from inside before you can even apply, right?
posted by liketitanic at 8:45 AM on September 30, 2012

I'm sorry to say that yes, these things are all very competitive and you should be devoting yourself now to making yourself competitive. The main page of the academic job wiki has a list of links to articles that may contain useful advice for you but you should begin crafting your CV towards getting a postdoc now.
posted by gerryblog at 8:47 AM on September 30, 2012

Basically, and unfortunately, postdocs can be as hard or harder to get (depending on the nature of your project) than TT jobs.
posted by gerryblog at 8:50 AM on September 30, 2012

I realize that especially because of the recession, it's becoming almost impossible to get a tenure-track academic job directly from the PhD

I assume you are looking at job ads in your field to learn what code words are being used, etc, already, but something I've been seeing more and more of this year are requirements like "applicants must have received their PhD within the last four years." In other words, more and more entry-level jobs are requiring a very recent doctorate, with enough time to have done a short visiting position or a post-doc, but that's about it. There are more and less charitable readings you could give of that kind of requirement, and it may or may not be a factor in your field, but if it is you should be aware of it and positioning yourself accordingly.

So that said, you really do need to talk to your advisor. Not in an "Oh my god what do I do I am fucked oh my god what do I do?" kind of way, but rather as a proactive, "how can I help you help me" discussion about planning seriously for job and post doc applications in a couple of years.

I gave a longer comment about this in a previous answer, but basically (and to obviously over generalize) top candidates from top schools who are doing exciting work and who have good departmental support aren't struggling to find jobs. Not dream jobs necessarily, but jobs nonetheless. The fewer and fewer of those boxes you can tick off, however, the less ideal the situation gets.
posted by Forktine at 8:54 AM on September 30, 2012

In general, what are post-doctoral fellowships choosing based on? Obviously, I'm sure a whole lot of factors come into play - references, quality of the written sample, number of publications in peer-reviewed journals, conference papers given, prestige of your supervisor and/or whether he/she has any connections with the people considering you, etc. But are there one or two of these things that are *particularly* important? Also, to what extent does a sort of academic nepotism play a role? Are most post-doc positions filled by people whom the dept already knows, or by students whose supervisors are friends or well-regarded by the people choosing? Or is it more impersonal than that?
posted by UniversityNomad at 9:09 AM on September 30, 2012

Also, I'd be interested in knowing whether it's gotten harder to get post-docs (and tenure-track jobs) since the recession, or whether that was largely scare-mongering. Are humanities post-docs harder to get than ones in other fields?
posted by UniversityNomad at 9:19 AM on September 30, 2012

Also, how many substantial (10,000-ish word) publications do competitive applicants for post-docs have when they apply? (Am stopping threadsitting now!)
posted by UniversityNomad at 9:21 AM on September 30, 2012

If you have not done so already, take a look at the Chronicle of Higher Education's postdoc forums. Some of your questions may be addressed in existing threads. You could also post your own question there - you might get more specific answers there than in a general community like this.
posted by needled at 10:28 AM on September 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Getting a postdoc is nearly the same process as getting a TT position, more or less. The things that matter less would be teaching experience (probably) and them thinking about what you add, longterm, to the department. It also might be more project specific. There are some postdocs that are like "yeah, just keep doin' what you're doin'" and others that are explicitly on a topic. (If the topic isn't part of your research agenda though, I think that it'd be a big waste of time.)

Depending on the field, a postdoc might be considered a step that one does before going for a TT job. In my social science field it varies.

There are benefits to going for a postdoc before a TT position - it buys you time to write and publish before going on the TT track (few postdocs have teaching assignments). Personally I couldn't really consider doing one because I have a second and third body problem and moving somewhere for a year or two didn't make sense for us.

What I would do if I were you is prepare to apply for both TT jobs and postdocs. Your UK degree, as you likely know, is going to hurt you on the American job market. (The Professor is In has a lot of resources about what UK academics can do when applying for American jobs, BTW.)

So what to do to prepare?

- Book reviews - stop doing them. All they do for you is buy you favors with people and establish you as a member of an intellectual community. But they're not a good use of your time currently.
- Publish. Get a few peer reviewed journal articles out. Conference papers are almost meaningless if they're not turned into a publication. (They're a bit of a symbol that you're active in a particular intellectual community, and obviously they're for networking, but the actual conference papers don't "count" per se.)
- Network. The fact is that a huge part of getting a job or a postdoc is who you know. This matters for letters of recommendation as well as being on the shortlist.
- Follow these ideas from The Professor is In and start reading that blog.

Now STOP PANICKING. This is serious but your panicky behavior is not going to help you at all. You need to buckle down and MAKE IT WORK.

Academia is like this. It is competitive and intense. It is only going to get more so as you pass into dissertation/thesis writing and go on the market. And then once you have a job it is also stressful, competitive, and intense (but at least you're being paid.) You need to learn the skills to manage this level of stress and pressure NOW. (Therapy and/or CBT as well as yoga is recommended.)

If you really want this, you're going to need to settle down and learn how/if you can do this. Strategize. Find a mentor.

(I am in a TT position but in a social science. However, I keep abreast of job market trends and read a lot of academic blogs.)
posted by k8t at 10:34 AM on September 30, 2012 [7 favorites]

BTW, if you're curious about getting a particular postdoc or job, the easiest thing to do is look at the CVs of those that currently have the postdoc or were recently hired by the department. It isn't a perfect solution, but it gives you a sense.

Also remember that a good CV shows a research agenda/body of work. So a few pubs that are really good (venue) and meaningful > many pubs all over the place.
posted by k8t at 10:55 AM on September 30, 2012

I don't want to stress out about this to my supervisor, because I don't want to worry him, and I feel like I'm probably the only grad student of his who's panicking

You're not. You can't be. Unless he has the most amazingly self-assured PhD students of all time in the history of ever, I guarantee you will not be the only one worrying about this. There is something about the PhD system - the pressure, the atmosphere, the job market - that just sows worry and panic in the calmest of us. Some people express it in floods of tears, some people express it in bolshy defensiveness, but the stress gets to everyone to some degree or other.

So first of all, give yourself a break. Calm. Breathe. You are not incompetent; you're doing a funded Oxbridge PhD. Thinking about post-PhD research plans is a good and responsible thing to do. You have only done one year of a humanities PhD, you aren't expected to have a stack of articles by this point. You're fine. What you need to do now is go and talk to your supervisor about your plans. It is not a sign of weakness or incompetence to go and talk to your supervisor about this; it is a sign that you are a sensible person who is willing to get all the information needed for the direction you want to go in.

many humanities postdoc positions now have over a hundred qualified applicants per place applying for them

Speaking from a UK position: this is true, but this is also the case for full-time academic jobs (UK equivalent of 'tenure track'). The market is awful and has been for a while. Some people believe it will get better after REF, but who knows; it didn't get better after RAE in 2008. So no, postdocs aren't easy to get in the humanities, but this isn't an unusually horrible time in that regard. And as above, you'll be in a strong position, and you can make that stronger (concentrate on publications, and on getting all the information you can about the positions you want - who the funders are, what they're looking for, how to write a successful bid for them).

Is there a particular reason you want to apply solely for postdoc fellowships, rather than going for what's available? Being willing to apply for full-time academic jobs will widen your chances, and there are a growing number of postdoctoral research assistant/associate positions in the humanities, which are more like the science PhD model (this is what I'm doing). These might or might not be good options for you, but with the academic job market the way it is, you don't want to be narrowing down your odds to "either I get this particular type of fellowship at this particular type of institution or I'm a failure!"

Are most post-doc positions filled by people whom the dept already knows, or by students whose supervisors are friends or well-regarded by the people choosing?

Not really, in my experience. JRFs have a bit of a reputation outside Oxbridge for only hiring Oxbridge people, but obviously that won't harm you. Otherwise, most UK humanities postdocs are wholly or partly funded by research bodies who don't know you from Adam anyway. What you will need, if you're looking at one of those postdocs and you're hoping to do it at an institution other than your PhD place, is to have a department who'll back your application and be willing to have you work with them; for some postdoc fellowships, like Leverhulme, they'll be paying a good chunk of your salary anyway. So you'll have a much better shot if that department knows who you are, but that's less about nepotism than it is about them not wanting to take on an unknown quantity. You need to do your research about where you want to work and why, and you need to network, and you need to make sure you look like a good bet for them and the research board who'll be funding it (look to those publications!).

Also, relax. I know it's stressful, but letting the stress get to you will not actually make you more productive.
posted by Catseye at 11:34 AM on September 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

K8t's advice is excellent. I'd like to just nuance the bit about conference papers vs. publications. My advisor advised me not to publish too much as a grad student, on the grounds that it was a bad idea to publish work prematurely, before I had had a chance to think things through and get to know my subject better. I think that's excellent advice, especially now that online publication means that your early work will always be available (at least until the zombie apocalypse). K8t's last line is worth taking to heart. Publish one or two really good papers, not four or five mediocre ones.

I'm in History at a RU/VH institution (formerly R I in the old classification), and it's rare for a candidate for one of our beginning t-t jobs to have more than 1 or 2 articles. Things may be different in other fields, though.

Making conference presentations, especially at conferences that have commentators who read the papers in advance and respond to them, is an excellent way to get feedback, while simultaneously laying claim in public to your research subject and networking.

And for what it's worth, when I applied for jobs back in 1996-97, before I had finished my Ph.D., I applied for 46 positions: 34 tenure-track jobs,* 4 short-term/replacement positions, and 7 postdocs. I wound up getting a few interviews, all for the tenure-track positions. None of the postdocs shortlisted me. (I was fortunate enough to get one offer and have been at the same place ever since.)

* Many of jobs were defined very broadly - for instance, "European history before 1900" or even "European history." Those were at very small institutions that had a handful of historians. Compared with the current job market, though, 1996-97 was a very good year for early modern Europeanists.
posted by brianogilvie at 12:43 PM on September 30, 2012

D'oh! In the footnote, insert "those" after the first "of."
posted by brianogilvie at 12:44 PM on September 30, 2012

You'll need to have your PhD awarded before being considered seriously for a post-doc. Some Oxbridge JRFs may invite applications from final-year PhD students, but in practice, these days, it's virtually unheard-of to get a post-doc without already having your PhD in hand. So I'd advise you to focus on finishing your PhD before you start devoting time and energy to post-doc applications -- though of course you need to keep your CV updated and start building up a list of publications, as evidently you're already doing. For post-docs and JRFs, the sample/s of written work you submit with your application (which may include a chapter from your thesis) will probably count for more than publications.

For post-doc positions, two things will be vital. The first is that you have realistic thesis-into-book plans, i.e. you know how you're going to revise the thesis to make it publishable, and how long this is likely to take. The second is that you have a research proposal which builds on the PhD but also takes it further. 'I've spent three years working on this topic, and now I want another three years to work on it some more' is not going to impress a committee, but neither will 'I've spent three years working on this topic, and now I want to work on something completely different'. The trick is to come up with a proposal which seems like a logical next step, developing the PhD into a bigger, broader and better research project.

The job market is tight at the moment, but when has the job market not been tight? It's something of a lottery, but when has it not been something of a lottery? Horror stories like the one you describe (300 qualified applicants per place, etc) have been doing the rounds for as long as I can remember. The two best pieces of advice I know for people in your position are, first, from a wise friend of mine, 'follow your dreams, but always have a Plan B', and secondly, from the much-missed Invisible Adjunct, that whether or not you get an academic job is not a measure of your intellectual worth.
posted by verstegan at 3:02 PM on September 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

It is true that the market is horrible and it is true that postdocs are hard to get. In my experience, harder than TT jobs - if you are not locationally restricted and prepared to move anywhere in the world and take any sort of TT job, you should be able to get one (given your Oxbridge background and what you say about your track record).

In my personal experience, postdoctoral fellowships have between 20 and 200 applicants for each available position. (20 is in the case of the large national funding body here, where there is between a 5 and 10% success rate for applicants for multiple fellowships a year). Two postdoctoral fellowships I applied for that you would think are less prestigious than that, since they were funded internally by universities, both required that the applicant have a BOOK OUT before they would even consider them. TT jobs actually seem to be less picky - at least at some universities.

But that said, I really don't think you need to panic too much. I am at a university in Australia, and while it is the top university in Australia and gets in the top 10-20 of international rankings, it still doesn't have the same sort of credibility as an Oxbridge or Ivy League university. Yet everyone I went through my PhD program with now has a postdoc or TT job. EVERYONE. Most of them had to apply many times, many places, and had to move overseas. Two of them got postdocs (funded on people's grants, not fellowships) before finishing the PhD, and that was due to an opening in exactly the topic they had done for the PhD. In both cases it then took them more than two more years to finish up the PhD, because the Postdoc is meant to be a whole new body of work, and the supervisor doesn't want you to keep spending all your time on your thesis. So your plan to try and use a postdoc as a fourth year of funding is, I think, not a great one.

As for specifically what fellowships look for in an applicant, it varies from program to program. I only know the details for two, but there's some cross-over in those. Both wanted:
1. Stellar publications record (a book, multiple peer reviewed journal articles in top journals)
2. Track record of obtaining other competitive funding (internal and external small grants)
3. A strong and well-thought out plan for a project to be carried out during the fellowship. Not too much crossover with your PhD research, but enough similarity that you can claim it naturally follows on from it. Specific details about what publications this new research will lead to.

They don't, in my experience, give a shit about teaching experience, conference presentations, book reviews, or committee/service work you have done. Even if they want a full CV and those things should be on it, emphasise the other stuff more (e.g. by putting publications before teaching, service right at the bottom, etc.)

Some positions also care a lot about your references. Not so much what they say (as long as they aren't bad), since everyone applying will have glowing references. But some care WHO your referees are: big names? alumni? (This is especially true for the Harvard postdocs. Your nominator has to be an alumnus, and I hear they look most favourably on people who have stayed in close contact with the Harvard community over the years.)
posted by lollusc at 6:49 PM on September 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thank you all! I really appreciated all the advice in here: it was insightful, and has given me direction and avenues to explore rather than panicking. I found all of these answers extremely useful: I'm constantly surprised at how helpful and specific the answers on Ask Metafilter are. You all are great!
posted by UniversityNomad at 4:57 PM on October 8, 2012

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