Postdocs – some home truths

The changing face of the academic world, the major cuts in funding, the new pressures faced by academics are also reflected in the changing role of the postdoc. While in the past newly qualified doctoral students or those in the writing up stage would spend a great deal of time writing up grant applications for postdocs, these days the ever diminishing success rates of these awards and the complicated applications have started to impact the working landscape for new PhDs. I’m often asked about my postdoc experience and whether I would recommend it etc. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject.

I guess the first thing a postdoc needs to ask now is whether this is actually the right path for them. What do you hope to achieve at the end of it? Do you have a project that has the right qualities and thematic material to attract funding? Mine didn’t – not really anyway. My research was based at the time in a niche corner of Russian music and culture – funding was not easily forthcoming. So to my mind, the first question is whether your subject matter and proposal are strong enough to survive the rigours of the postdoctoral process. Seek advice on this, either from your supervisor, or examiner or even from the prospective institution you want to be working with. They are able to discuss not just the content with you, but also its projected impact, its outcomes and the finances associated with it.

Secondly, if you know that this is the topic you want to spend the next two or three years of your life working on, then go for it! It’s a long road fraught with various obstacles, at the very least you need to be working on a subject that you are passionate about and that is all-consuming. Otherwise, life will get in the way. If your topic does not fall easily within the funding trends of the moment, then seek alternative funding. There may be some creative thinking involved here, but nonetheless it is worth it. This was the route that I took (I had funding from three different bodies) and I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I started my first post doc right after defending my thesis and having completed the first one, commenced my second one six months later.

So, is a postdoc worth it in the long run? Again, this depends a little on where you see yourself in five or ten years’ time. As I said earlier, the changing face and space of academia also affects the role and identity of the postdoc. Don’t get me wrong – postdocs are still crucial to the professional life of an early career academic. I think they are immensely helpful for cultivating contacts in the right areas, discussing your work with the best people in your area and getting feedback as well as testing whether academia is actually the right place for you (you might still be able to get out while you have time!).

My postdoc was a mixture of performance based research and academic practice (more on that in another post) and came in three parts. For 24 months (well a bit more if you count the writing up period) I juggled practice based research with research into digitisation of musical sources and archival research. I guess it was the best of both worlds. Most importantly though, its benefits were wide and far-reaching, not just for my personal development but also for my identity as a researcher and as a practitioner.

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