Recently, I have been applying for postdoctoral fellowships in the UK. The proposal can be tricky to write, as you have to explain the justification, research context, methodology and project outcomes in a relatively short document (often just two sides of A4). Then there’s the added frustration that arises when you attempt to write about a project that you’ve only just begun researching. To make matters worse, unlike journal articles or books, there are no published post-doc proposals to model your work on.
However, I can offer the following advice, and links to some useful resources, based on my experiences so far of writing a proposal. I’m currently submitting applications for a project called National Cinema? Film Across Britain’s Borders (which you can read more about under Research and Publications), and am busy filling in forms and awaiting decisions about funding. As and when I find a post to conduct the research, I’ll share the proposal on the Writing on Reels blog.
The suggestions below are based on personal reflections and I’d encourage anyone with additional (or different) perspectives to leave comments sharing their experiences. Each tip is followed by a short, practical example.
The big questions…
Selecting a topic
You’ll need to select a topic that links to, or expands on, your current research (likely the PhD project). You don’t necessarily have to address the same theme or write about the same period. However, you can draw on a similar methodology to that which you already use, or you can focus on the same broad research area (for example, in my case, the current and proposed projects examine British cinema). Also bear in mind that while the PhD and the post-doc need clear connections, the post-doc has to say something new.
Selecting a topic in practice
The topic for my postdoctoral project emerged from a conference paper I presented at Screen in 2014. Having spent three years watching British railway movies, I noticed that a number of films featured characters travelling by train across the English-Scottish border. The movies all represented England and Scotland as distinct nations, which made me curious about the notion of ‘transnationality’ within UK cinema. Thus both my PhD and post-doc explore the specific within the general: in the former, thinking about particular groups of people and their experiences of modernity, and in the latter, investigating the cinema cultures unique to each British nation. In addition, the methodology in both the projects draws on archival sources, as well as qualitative and textual analysis.
Planning the research and proposal
If you can, start thinking about the post-doc project before you finish the PhD so that you can begin collating resources while carrying out your current work. You’ll need to have a clear sense of the relevant secondary literature to frame the post-doc project, as well as some preliminary evidence that demonstrates the viability of the research. With regard to submitting the proposal, be prepared to write multiple drafts ahead of major funding deadlines (including Oxford and Cambridge colleges throughout the year, British Academy in early October, and Leverhulme in March). Also note that some universities will have earlier deadlines than those advertised by the awarding bodies for internal selection to take place.
Planning the research and proposal in practice
The preparation for my conference paper on English-Scottish railway films began in April 2014, so I have been gathering materials for the post-doc for nearly a year. Often, I’ve come across relevant sources about British film policy while trying to find material for my book on cinema and the railways, which has helped me build up evidence for the post-doc proposal.
It’s important that you keep drafting, drafting and redrafting, as each application you make will need to be tailored to the award, as well as your host institution. Make sure you read the application instructions carefully and have a good sense of what the funding body is looking for. Prior to submitting, ask colleagues and/or trusted friends, including your PhD supervisor, examiners, and proposed project mentor to read your work and offer you feedback. If there are any recipients of post-doc funding in your department, it might be worth asking if they have any advice based on their experiences.
Peer review in practice
I have shared my proposal with a number of readers and every comment has helped me make improvements to the next draft. At my host institution, a committee comprising scholars from across the Arts and Humanities read my work, which proved incredibly valuable. Their comments highlighted areas of my proposal where I’d assumed specialist knowledge about my topic, which might be off-putting to the final selection panel. While re-writing can be time consuming, the process is worthwhile and I’d recommend asking non-specialists to read your work to ensure that your proposal is accessible to readers outside your field.
For useful advice about structure and form, see:
The Professor is In, ‘Foolproof Grant Template’
Jobs.ac.uk, ‘5 Tips on Finding a Post-doc and Making Successful Applications’