In this final section of my three-part series looking at life immediately following the PhD, I want to discuss research. Not revising your thesis for publication (covered in post one), but starting a new, postdoctoral research project (or a few of them). Some may find the suggestion to conduct new research controversial, and would instead advise sticking to revising the thesis for publication. This is certainly a valid position to take, but not one that would have worked for me. Working on new research has been amongst the most important my post-PhD endeavours, affirming my love of research, ensuring that I had a viable second project when applying for jobs and postdocs, and providing much needed distance from the PhD. When not teaching (i.e. when the entirety of my spare time is focused on working on my monograph) I dedicate at least one day a week to my postdoctoral research project (an exploration of the relationship between assemblage and identity between 1780 and 1914). A central part in developing this project has been applying for fellowships, as discussed below.
There’s an old adage that success breeds success. While cliche, in terms of the academic job market, it’s certainly true that short-term fellowships at well respected research institutions will make you a more competitive candidate. I spent a good part of December and January of 2015-16 crafting applications for such fellowships, and received a travel grant to visit Yale University’s Lewis Walpole Library, a Visiting Scholar Award at Yale Center for British Art, and a Short-Term Research Fellowship at the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library. Though a lengthy and often disappointing process (I think I applied for around 15 fellowships in total), revising and refining your research proposal for each of the applications is a great way of developing your ideas for your second major research project. As many note, hiring departments aren’t as interested in what you have done, but what you will do, that is how your dissertation translates into a REFable published work, and that you have an dynamic and engaging idea for a second research project, which will similarly garner publications and funding. As many fellowships require you to work closely with the host institution’s collections, the application process allows you to compile a list of sources to consult during your project, thereby allowing you to develop a fairly specific picture of what your project will look like even at an early stage in its gestation. Furthermore, receiving a fellowship for your project, demonstrates both its viability under peer review, and more importantly, the fact that your work is fundable, something of immense importance to any hiring committee concerned with choosing a candidate who will continue to attract funding once in the job.
My final piece of advice is to track what you do. When you’re managing several projects and teaching concurrently, days, weeks, and months can slip by without any real sense of accomplishment, although this is often an erroneous perception. I like to keep a monthly list of my ‘achievements’ to demonstrate to myself that whilst I have been busy, I’ve also been productive. This is also useful at a broader scale – when I ask myself what have I done in the year since submission, I can list the following: successfully defended my PhD thesis, taught three courses & contributed to the Sutton Trust Summer School, organised a bimonthly research seminar series, ran a panel at AAH, given four conference papers, had two job interviews, received four travel grants and two research fellowships, submitted several book reviews and an article for review, became a peer reviewer for a journal, conducted archival research for my new research project, and just yesterday, I submitted my book proposal (minus sample chapters) to a publisher for feedback. And I still feel disappointed not to be further ahead. I list these achievements not to boast, but to show that the period ‘between’ is a busy, stressful, and productive one, when you’re expected to balance many divergent demands. I’m not sure there’s any way around this, but talking more about the realities of being at this stage, and strategies to deal with this difficult time period, can only be a good thing.