By Dr Stephen McDowall |

Last week we ran an informal session on ‘Applying for a Postdoctoral Fellowship’ as part of our advanced doctoral training programme here in the History, Classics and Archaeology School at the University of Edinburgh. I was joined by Dr Zubin Mistry (History), Dr Tanja Romankiewicz (Archaeology) and Dr David Lewis (Classics), who together reflected on their experiences of applying for postdoctoral funding in the Humanities.  The folks at Pubs & Pubs thought it might be useful to put some of this down in blog form, so here are a few tips based on what we discussed.

  1. Think carefully about whether you really want to stay in academia.   Did I really just start with that?  Way to set the mood.  But seriously, if you have made it through your PhD you owe it to yourself to pause for a few moments to ask yourself this question.  If an academic career is not for you, this is the logical stage to get out.
  1. There is no one correct postdoc road. There are plenty of different options out there, and they all do somewhat different things.  The list of permanent staff in our school includes colleagues who had no postdoc, independent research postdocs, project-based postdocs, teaching fellowships or various combinations of the above.  While some are more attractive than others, they are all valuable CV-building positions.  The perfect postdoc for you is the one you have just been offered.
  1. Cultivate your networks. Your formal and informal networks are important.  Many postdoctoral research positions can emerge from existing relationships with colleagues.  People cannot help you find a job if they do not know you are looking for one.
  1. Start early. Like most things in academia, this stuff takes a long time.  Institutions will have internal deadlines, usually many weeks before the official deadline.  Make contact with the research director, or head of department, several months before the due date.
  1. Choose your institution. For open calls, institutional fit is considered very important.  Some, but not all, funding bodies explicitly require a change of institution.  Why is this the right institution in which to carry out this project?  If the answer is ‘because this is where I live’, you should do some more thinking.
  1. So what? I get it.  You are super smart and you wrote a brilliant thesis on food metaphors in epic poetry.  But really, do I need to know this?  Why is your research proposal important?  I’m not talking about ‘impact’ or ‘public engagement’ here, just asking you to explain why your research is important to your wider academic field.
  1. Use your resources. Different institutions have different resources available for funding applicants, but at the very least you will have friends and colleagues who can read a draft.  Don’t worry that they are not in precisely the same field as you are – the application assessors won’t be either.  Listen to criticism and re-draft.  Multiple times.


  1. Pray. I used to have regular conversations with a small figure of the Goddess of Mercy 觀音 on my desk.  It can’t have hurt.
  1. Check your spam. Most emails with the word ‘congratulations’ in them end up in our spam email folders.   This is perhaps a rather sad reflection of modern society, but regardless, this folder is indeed where I found the award letter for my Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship some years ago.  I now check that folder regularly.  In other news, I have just made a pretty sweet deal with a member of the Nigerian royal family, so I won’t be coming in on Monday.
  1. Don’t take it personally. There really is a lot of luck involved in the awarding of these fellowships, so don’t take it to heart if you are unsuccessful once or many times.  Plenty of great colleagues began their careers with rejections at this stage.  Pour yourself a gin and get over it.


Been awarded a postdoc?  Congratulations!  Now stop smiling and get to work.  Think carefully about what you want your CV to look like by the time the fellowship is over, and start making it happen.  The days of getting permanent academic employment based on publications alone are in the past.  Increasingly, employers will be looking for a much more rounded CV that shows experience in research, teaching and administration.  Your postdoc is your chance to demonstrate these things.


Stephen McDowall is a Lecturer in History at the University of Edinburgh and Acting Deputy Director of the History, Classics and Archaeology Graduate School. 

(Image 1: Post-doc Appreciation Week by Jorge Cham; Image 2: