Doing postdocs in interdisciplinary humanities

I don't really do 'advice' posts that often, but I was inspired to do this after a recent 'mini interview' I did for the Chronicle of Higher Education on what it's like doing multiple postdocs in the humanities. The resulting article is all a bit more doom and gloom than I was expecting, so I thought I would do my own version here that focuses on the positives.

Disclaimers. 1. The Chronicle article I assume is for a US audience, and it's worth pointing out that there is  a terminology difference. Postdocs in the UK, at least in my field, are not really training positions, but contract research jobs. You may get some additional training but that's not the main purpose, and you're expected to be able to do the job from day one. 2. Also I am an unusual case in many ways, as I sit right in the middle of the sciences and humanities, and actually for the scientists in my field it's the norm to do multiple postdocs and fellowships.3.  And my case is probably not a good comparison for researchers in the US, where the whole system is different and the type of postdocs I've done don't exist in the US (as far as I am aware) 4. This is all assuming you even want an academic job, if you're just here for the pretty archaeology and microscopy images, then read no further!

So. We all know the academic job market is tough, and the likelihood of getting a permanent lecturing job (or tenure track assistant professor in the US) is very small. But a discussion of that is not the purpose of this blog. The purpose is to pass on my experience of doing multiple postdocs (and subsequently a fellowship), and how you can make these work for you, if you do intend to head down that long hard road of academia. And if somewhere down the road you decide to head in a different direction, well at least you will have gained professional experience and had a fun time.

Post-doctoral Research Assistant, Associate, Fellow?
A research assistant, you are hired to do the work for a PI. The project belongs to the PI, and you are doing the work they want you to do. An associate, still working on someone else's project, but you may have more of a say in developing the research. A fellowship, you are the PI! This is more of a staff position with a focus on you completing an independent research project that you have designed. It's  like doing your PhD, but you start out actually knowing what you are talking about, you don't have to write a thesis, and you get paid actual money to do it. I love my fellowship. In fact, although I won't apply for any more postdocs, I will apply for fellowships. They are offered for all stages of an academic career, early, mid to advanced. Even people with permanent jobs can apply for them and take a year off to go do research. A fellowship is like creating your own job - you design the project, select a suitable institution and write the proposal. If successful it also counts as a research grant on your CV.

Should I apply?
Getting a postdoc is the same as the rest of the academic job market - not only do you have to be good at what you do, but you also have to specialise in the random area that the jobs happen to appear in. In the case of my first postdoc this was Archaeological Chemistry. This was the only postdoc advertised that year that matched my technical expertise! My advice is, apply for whatever you are qualified for, whether it be lectureships, postdocs or even other jobs in a relevant area. As long as the position allows you to develop your CV and produce publications, all those things you will need to be competitive for a 'proper' academic job.

A postdoc is a great opportunity to develop your network with a new department and research group, so make the most of it. Develop collaborations, co-organise conference sessions, volunteer to sit on committees. Discuss your aspirations with senior staff, and get their advice on career development. Any big name professor who may be able to provide an authoritative reference? Make sure they know who you are and get them interested in your work!

Expanding your research interests
In an ideal world there would be a postdoc that perfectly matched your interests. In reality, it's likely that the jobs will be kinda sort of something you're interested in but not your immediate area. Apply! You may be surprised, a postdoc is also a great way of discovering new areas. I never thought I was interested in medieval archaeology, but after being involved in the Ecology of Crusading project, I've discovered how it links with my broader interests. Both of my postdocs have introduced me to new areas that have subsequently led to my own projects. By working on the Feeding Stonehenge project I learned about the Ness of Brodgar, which turned out to be the perfect case study for one of my projects.

Transferable skills
Have fun doing a postdoc, develop your academic CV, but don't ignore other options. The last thing you want is to spend years doing postdocs, then find it difficult to switch to something else, should you make that decision. There are many resources and websites out there that help you identify your transferable skills, and it's worth thinking about these from the beginning (e.g. Professor Is In focuses on academia). As a fresh new PhD you may think why should you bother, but remember, getting an academic job is not just about being the best at what you do, it's about being the best in whatever specialisms the jobs are in. There are only a handful advertised every year in archaeology in the UK (and not all of them will be in your specialism), so even if you want to be a lecturer, it is likely you will have to do 'something else' to fill in the gaps until the right jobs come up for you!


  1. I read the article also, and ran across this blog post. I thought it was unfortunate that the authors didn't take differences between the US and UK systems into account. In the UK, one or more postdocs or fellowships seems to be the norm because the PhD program is shorter. Hiring also seems more targeted and if you are doing interdisciplinary work this makes it harder. Having your own funding definitely is better than being a "hired hand" on someone else's project, and they missed an opportunity to point this out too.

    There are also more fellowship opportunities, including the 5 year ones like the Royal Society's University Research Fellowship, or ERC starting grant, which have no US equivalent. They are aimed at people with a few years postdoctoral experience - sounds like you are already applying for these or similar ones. Good luck!

    1. Thanks! Indeed, others also mentioned on Twitter that the difference between UK and US PhD system means that in the UK a postdoc is often expected before you can even apply for ‘tenure track’ positions (open contract lectureships). In fact, most of my publications from my PhD research were written and published during my postdoc period. I imagine if I’d done my PhD in the US I would have been able to do this during the time of the PhD, so it balances out in a way. Either way, my situation is a bad example to use to support a doom and gloom scenario in the US. Getting an academic job anywhere is difficult, but it doesn’t help anyone to confuse the situation with misleading information. One thing I would recommend for US grads (or elsewhere outside Europe) with a good publication record is the EU’s Marie Curie International Incoming Fellowship scheme. This is a 2 year fellowship that is very well paid, to bring international researchers to Europe to develop skills and collaborative networks.

    2. Yes, the Marie Curie program is also a good one to try, and ERC funding can also be used to move into Europe from elsewhere. In addition, some UK universities, including Birmingham and Edinburgh, have started to offer their own 5-year "fellowships" which seem to be a little closer to "tenure track" - there is a probationary period before transitioning to a permanent teaching position but it is not supposed to be a major hurdle. This seems to have been fueled by the recent REF (a concept which has no direct US analogue) so it may not be come a regular occurrence, but I'm hoping it catches on.


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