As I sit here writing & thinking about my postdoc year, I can’t believe how quickly time flies or how much can be done in a year with access to dedicated time & resources. As someone who was hesitant to continue into academia, despite successfully completing a PhD, once I changed my mind after seeing that the grass wasn't greener on the other side in the corporate world, the postdoc provided me with the perfect opportunity to test out the academia waters & to wet my feet. After the year I have had, my feet are well & truly wet & I have learnt how to swim a little in said waters. I also now have a better understanding of the role of an academic researcher & I am truly grateful. But to be honest, I guess that is the purpose of a postdoc.
What is a postdoc?
For those that aren’t familiar with a postdoctoral fellowship (postdoc for short), it is the immediate role a PhD student gets after they have successfully passed their PhD. While it differs according to discipline & the postdoctoral scheme requirements, it usually must be taken within 2 years (or so) of your viva voce (the oral examination of your PhD) & the researcher should not have a lot of previous postdoctoral experience as the aim is to get this from the postdoc. The postdoc provides time & resources (salary, office space, mentorship, budget etc.) to build on PhD research & experience to propel a researcher into an academic career. I describe it as another rung on the academic ladder if you like, with the PhD being the previous. It’s like an academic graduate scheme. Postdocs are usually fixed-term, lasting between 1-3 years & you can work on someone else’s project or your own. My reflections will be largely focused on the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) postdoctoral fellowship as I just completed one.
Applying for an ESRC postdoc
I initially didn’t consider applying for an ESRC postdoc because after looking at the call specification, it looked like a LOT of work for just one year. Also, I was aware that it was a very competitive process & I didn’t know if I had the energy required to jump through all the hoops. I thank God that I found the energy as I will say that it definitely requires a great deal of investment of time, passion & writing to perfect the proposal. A good thing about it is that it's definitely a team effort as your potential mentor & school/department also invests a great deal in supporting you too. There are several steps that you have to take when applying for an ESRC postdoc:
1. Submit an expression of interest to the Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) that you wish to complete the postdoc at. If successful, you can move to the next step.
2. Complete all the required paperwork:
Case for support
Justification of resources
Data management plan (if creating a new dataset)
This will also be peer-reviewed by your school/department so there is sure to be many revisions!
You also have to ensure that you get the following documents in support of your application:
Head of Department statement
Mentor statement & summary CV
Referee statement (make sure you keep connected with your PhD supervisor so they can provide this!)
3. Interview (though this may be scrapped)
For more information about the ESRC postdoctoral requirements from the Welsh DTP, click here.
I was lucky to have an amazing mentor, Professor Sin Yi Cheung, who really supported my proposal, believed in me & my vision & worked with me to ensure my proposal was successful. Writing a proposal is truly a skill & if I didn’t get the postdoc, I had already learnt a lot from going through the application process. It also helped me to understand why I may have been unsuccessful in the previous ones I had applied for (!) I wish that every potential postdoc fellow has a mentor like Professor Cheung to show them the ropes- I will always be thankful!
The aim of the ESRC postdoc is to provide a year of development, as the UKRI website specifies, the “fellows’ actual programmes or proposed programme of activities should reflect their prior knowledge & experience & be designed to support their longer term research career aspirations”. Therefore, the main activities could include building networks, publications & research/ professional skills. My proposal identified each of these activities as postdoc objectives & included, completing a publication; participating in research training; building networks; enhancing my teaching practice & contributing/ supporting my mentor’s research group MEAD’s programme of public engagement & knowledge exchange initiatives.
So, how did I do in meeting my postdoc objectives?
Meeting postdoc objectives
I completed the first draft of a monograph ✅
I have a co-authored paper in preparation ✅
I am a guest editor on a special issue of Frontiers in Sociology: Race & Ethnicity ✅
I was also able to make connections & set up potential paper collaborations too ✅
Research / professional training
I completed a number of research training sessions at my university & externally that included:
Telling Stories with Research: Narratological Methods ✅
Multilevel Modelling using SPSS ✅
Managing Research Projects ✅
Consulting Skills for Social Researchers ✅
Cardiff University fellowship support programme ✅
Being a co-convenor of MEAD was also great training as I got to co-organise research seminars & our inaugural conference. ✅
I built many networks & made so many rich connections who I learnt so much from. This was helped by attending the Black Europe Summer School, the University of the West Indies (UWI) & the University of Leicester’s (UoL) summer school, as well as the Connected Sociologies summer school. ✅
I went to the British Educational Research Association (BERA) conference for the first time too. ✅
I also joined a few early careers’ networks & I was also a member of the GW4 Universities & National trust community of practice project. ✅
Enhancing teaching practice
I gave guest lectures for Race Council Cymru, the University of Kent & presented my research at the Black Europe Summer School. ✅
Paying attention to the additional aim to use the postdoc to support “longer term research career aspirations”, I applied to & successfully gained a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship. I will now be in academia (& Cardiff University) for at least another 3 years. I must note that many of my activities fed into my application & will be built upon during my next fellowship. ✅
Overall, I am happy that I was able to, as you can see, exceed my objectives 😁
While I achieved my objectives, it’s important to be honest by sharing that doing so wasn’t without challenges. Here are some of the ones I encountered:
It wasn’t so much having a time limit that was a challenge because you enter into the fellowship knowing you only have one year. For me, it was being aware of the fact that time was ticking which made me anxious & meant that I put pressure on myself.
New level & status as staff member
Transitioning from student to staff after being a student for years & years (I didn’t have a break from studying from primary school until PhD) meant that I found it difficult to find my place. I was used to being a student when in university settings. Now, the academics that taught me were my colleagues. I had transitioned to the other side. I was a salaried member of staff. As the postdoc has a similar structure to a PhD in that, you no longer have a supervisor but you now have a ‘mentor’, you still have regular meetings & you still have to meet objectives, it took me a while to adapt into my new position.
A postdoc is also the next step on the academic career ladder & therefore a higher level. It requires adjustment to a different, professional, academic, researcher mindset. You are also meeting different kinds of demands as well as a new time limit of one year.
Isolating like PhD
As I was working on my own project, no-one- not even other ESRC postdocs in the same cohort- were working on anything remotely similar! To be honest, this is similar to doing a PhD. Also, due to being aware of the time limit, I was always conscious of ‘not having enough time’ which meant I was doing a lot & not really socialising & getting involved in wider school activities (though I did towards the end). Starting this postdoc as the world was just emerging from COVID-19 probably contributed to this as well. The different early career networks I joined & the summer schools & conferences I participated in helped to lessen this.
I suffered from the worst writer's block at different times throughout the postdoc! This is a normal part of writing & it included at the beginning in terms of not knowing where to start, being away from writing for too long when for example I focused on completing other postdoc objectives. I also suffered from jet lag & readjustment after attending summer schools/ conferences/training. However, I was able to find ways like having writing mentors & going to writing retreats to unblock the block!
It’s important to be balanced & so, while I had some challenges, I also had many triumphs too like:
Networking & connecting
I thoroughly enjoyed networking & making connections with so many different people from my school, wider university & beyond. Attending the summer schools, the conference & retreats were great ways to facilitate this & it didn’t hurt that I got to go to Amsterdam, Kingston, London, Liverpool & more in the process!!
Productivity & outcomes
I am happy that I was able to, as you can see, exceed my objectives despite the challenges I faced 😁
Securing another academic role
I guess this links to the previous triumph, but it is truly wonderful that I got a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship in my school to explore my other research interests. The supportive & friendly environment was definitely key to securing this.
Lessons learned & words of advice
So now you know the postdoc application process, what my objectives were as well as what I actually achieved. I also shared the challenges & triumphs that I experienced.
Based on my postdoc year, here are the top 6 lessons I learned & the advice I would give to anyone about to start any postdoc:
Utilise your postdoc time & resources wisely- make the most of your mentor, your colleagues, the resources, your budget & your office space. This is precious time with limited teaching expectations- don’t waste it !
Keep a record of everything you are doing- this is useful for writing required reports, for instance, I had to go through my university’s new staff procedures which included completing 3, 6 & 9 month progress reports. The ESRC will also expect to have an end of project report, so it’s best to keep on track as you go along.
See it as a stepping stone- a postdoc is like a bridge crossing between PhD student & academic researcher. The ‘bridge’ continues though as you cross over to research fellow or lecturer & beyond. As I said earlier, it’s like an academic graduate scheme so treat it as such, start with the end in mind (as my dad says) & make decisions accordingly. Allow the postdoc to mould you as you learn, do & become an academic.
Objectives are fluid (for the most part)- things happen & plans change but be sure that you will be able to justify any changes if required. I also advise that if you want to change your plan drastically, be sure to seek advice from your mentor &/or to email your DTP office to discuss & gain permission to proceed.
Pace yourself & prioritise- one year goes quickly & you can’t do everything. You also shouldn’t do everything. It’s ok to stick to your objectives only. Use the postdoc to develop good working habits which includes saying ‘no’. Start as you mean to go along in your academic career (or any career), don’t let academia’s infamous toxic culture rub off on you. Resting is part of the process!
Celebrate!- be sure to pat yourself on the back & to celebrate a little periodically because it's a great achievement to be shortlisted for a postdoc, let alone to successfully complete one! I am the 👑QUEEN👑 of celebrations & treats- again it’s part of the process!!
Post-postdoc & next steps
Once you have completed your postdoc, I can guarantee that you will be a more experienced project & budget manager, have more connections & networks, as well as stronger ones. You will also have a fuller, more impressive CV due to finishing your objectives! This will put you in a good position to gain another role, academic or not, as the skills gained are transferable.
I hope this post has contributed to demystifying postdocs. I for one am definitely a postdoc advocate as I really think that they are great for gaining some experience & insight into academia, as well as developing professionally & personally.
I am happy to have a chat with anyone considering one.
Good luck- you’ve got this!!