ECH Careers: Your postdoctoral project

1 October 2014

Whether you are applying for a postdoctoral grant/fellowship or a lectureship, you will have to present a convincing proposal for your next research project.This is the most important indicator that potential funders or employers will use to assess whether you are capable of developing into an independent researcher who can make significant contributions to your field.   It is also a valuable guide for yourself, in taking decisions about your future and in defining your approach to history.  If you find it really difficult to come up with another project, pause to ask if this is what you really want to spend the rest of your working life doing.  There are more people who can produce good research to a specific brief, under the guidance of a supervisor and/or project leader, than can do so when they have to generate their own ideas. If you do have ideas, then the process of developing them will help you to define yourself as a historian.

A good postdoctoral project should have a clear intellectual connection to your PhD research, yet be sufficiently different from it to demonstrate that you are moving on. The most common mistakes people make are to be either far too ambitious, or far too cautious. You need to think in terms of a book-length project, which you should be able to justify both in terms of the work that you have already done and in relation to the kind of historian you want to be.  Think about your position within the field.  Where do you stand in relation to the debates in your area? How do you hope to move them on?  Are you a global, transnational or comparative historian, or none of these?  Talk to historians beyond your field and, just as importantly, to friends and family outside of academia, and try to explain to them what kind of questions you hope to answer through your research.  If they can’t follow you, your ideas are probably not clearly thought out.  Clarifying your intellectual self-awareness through such conversations will help you to develop into a historian who is thinking about the big questions that most people are interested in.  Thinking about the big picture will help you to be appropriately ambitious in your project; you then need to think carefully about how to make it viable.  Viable means:  do-able within 3 years (for a research fellowship) or within 5-7 years (for a lectureship, depending on your institution’s sabbatical leave entitlement).  If you’re applying for a lectureship, plan the project taking into account that time spent in archives will be limited to a couple of months at most over the summer.  Remember that in designing your new project you are not necessarily committing yourself to doing exactly that work (although it will look odd if you don’t do something related):  the important thing is to present an intellectually coherent, exciting and realistic piece of research.  But you need to be passionate about your ideas and to convey that sense of excitement.  If you aren’t enthusiastic about the project, no-one else is likely to be.

The quality of your next research proposal is at least as important as your publication profile in determining whether or not you are ready to start making applications.  It is also crucial to have a clear sense of how you hope to develop as a historian.  A candidate who can give a convincing account of his/her intellectual trajectory is likely to impress as much, if not more, than a candidate who has a longer list of publications but little sense of direction.  You are unlikely to be successful in job-hunting until you have developed that degree of self-awareness.

Publications profile

There are many urban myths about how many publications you need before you stand a good chance of a lectureship.  The fact is that it varies greatly, from appointments made on the basis of one good article to junior lectureships going to someone with two books.   The following factors are worth bearing in mind:

i) Articles in reputable journals are usually more impressive than chapters in edited collections.
ii) A book contract from a good publisher is worth securing, so that even if publication of your first monograph is a couple of years away, there is proof that your work of interest to senior figures in your field. Start work on a book proposal as soon as you can, even if you are too busy teaching to do any more work on the book itself.
iii) The Research Excellence Framework (REF) cycle. Well in advance of the next REF, recruiters are often more willing to appoint candidates who have a lot of potential but fewer published items; the closer it gets, the more they are likely to select candidates who already have a strong suite of publications.  Make sure that you know the REF rules for ECRs and how they apply to you.  If you are job-hunting before they are announced for REF 2020, work it out on the basis of the rules for REF 2014.  Make a publication plan for the next five years, and make it realistic.