Recently I’ve been in touch with a couple of people who had questions about the British Academy postdoc scheme that is funding my research project ‘Making North Sea coasts in England, Flanders and the Netherlands, c.1800-1950’ at The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London for the next three years. I shared some advice with them, but it occurred to me that it would be more equitable to have this available to anyone interested. So I’m writing this post. It’s a bit late for the current application cycle, but hopefully can be useful to people already preparing their stage 1 applications or thinking of applying to the British Academy next year.
Rather than jump straight into the advice I offered, I’m going to start with a brief bit of background on UK postdocs. This will help anyone unfamiliar with the UK research funding landscape; if you are already some of the way into preparing an application you can probably skip this next section and go straight to the next part where I give some specific advice. One thing I’m not discussing here is whether the UK is a good research environment: there are many issues with it, and also many reasons you might be attracted to it, that are all probably best left for another time!
(A quick word on advice I found useful: the talk that really convinced me to go for the BA scheme was Sarah Arens at ECRday2021, available here (from about 31.30). All of the talks that day were interesting, you can find them on this page.)
Types of UK postdoctoral positions
The terminology around postdoctoral positions can vary in different countries, funding systems, and universities, so before I get into specific advice about the British Academy it’s worth giving a brief overview of the various positions a postdoc might have in the UK (as I’m a historian, what follows concerns humanities disciplines although many sciences and social sciences are similar):
- Teaching Fellowships/temporary lectureships: there are a wide range of temporary (aka fixed-term) teaching positions in UK universities. These are sometimes given names that clearly distinguish them from permanent positions (a Teaching Fellowship, for example) or they sometimes use the same job title as a permanent position (such as Lecturer or Senior Lecturer) but in either case the job advert should clearly state the length of contract being offered. These positions are focused on teaching; sometimes there may also be some support for a small amount of time spent on research. These are not generally termed ‘postdocs’ in the UK, as that is generally taken to imply a research position.
- Postdoctoral Research Assistantships (PDRAs): these positions are research-focused, and involve working on a specific part of a larger project led by a Principal Investigator. As such, these positions involve working as part of a team, with varying levels of support for your individual work. They also vary a great deal in length, from a few months to a few years. Again, these are advertised positions so the length of contract should be clearly stated. It is difficult to make general remarks about these as the terms vary so much, but one thing worth noting is that postdocs are often sought to bring a specific set of skills or area of expertise into a project that cannot be supplied by the rest of the team.
- University/College Research Fellowships/Junior Research Fellowships/Chancellors Fellowships etc: some UK institutions fund promising researchers directly, through a range of different schemes, some regular and others occasional or one-off. These can vary in length from one year to as long as five years. They are sometimes called Chancellors Fellowships or something similar relating to university administration. A small minority of schemes (such as NUAcT at Newcastle or the Nottingham Research Fellowships) offer a tenure-track path, although the route to tenure is often dependent on securing additional external funding, and these schemes generally only run for a fixed number of years. These will generally involve presenting a coherent research plan for the next few years; some schemes will require more details than others. The colleges of Oxford and Cambridge have a tradition of offering Junior Research Fellowships (JRFs) to promising scholars who have recently completed (or are just near the end of) their PhDs (if you see an advert for one of these that says it is unremunerated this means that it is intended for someone who already has postdoctoral funding at the relevant university, this should not be confused with paid JRF schemes). Historically these were awards to scholars with strong PhD theses, so although the application processes vary there is generally an assessment of written work involved and less weight is given to future research plans.
- Postdoctoral Fellowships with external funding (British Academy, Leverhulme Trust, Wellcome Trust*, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions**): these are research-focused positions, generally around three years in length (the schemes linked to here vary between 2 and 5 years). These are not jobs that seek applicants: rather, they are funding schemes that award money to a research project with one researcher, the postdoc. Eligibility criteria vary and can be found on the websites linked to above, in particular it is important to note how long you remain eligible after being awarded your PhD (three years in the case of the British Academy) and any requirements about existing connection to the UK (the Leverhulme Trust scheme is for scholars who have a UK PhD or a job at a UK university). Generally funding covers salary and a research budget of some level. The applicant must approach a university to host them, generally through an academic that they identify as a potential mentor for the project. This mentor role is a little like a PhD supervisor, but less hands-on as the postdoc should have the skills needed to complete the research. The British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust both require the host university to provide some funding in addition to what they contribute: 20% for the BA and 50% for Leverhulme. This means that these applications involve a significant commitment from the university, and not all will be able to support applications to these schemes every year. Universities (or departments) sometimes run a competition of their own to select candidates to put forward for these schemes, as they are highly competitive. If you are interested in working with a UK academic on an application for a scheme like this, be sure to contact them as early as possible, as there may be additional hurdles to clear such as an internal competition or funding approval. And be aware that their university may not be able to support such applications in a particular year: this is not a comment on you or a sign that your potential mentor does not support your work! Universities that are supporting applications sometimes advertise this, but this varies.
This is just a general overview, but gives some flavour of the sorts of things you might see advertised or hear discussed. Almost all academic jobs in the UK are listed on jobs.ac.uk, so if you are interested you should look at that site and consider signing-up for email alerts. It is worth saying that the formal minimum qualification for a permanent lectureship in the UK is usually a PhD (generally with some teaching experience), so there is no embedded tradition of tenure-track jobs, although sometimes these do appear.
My personal advice on British Academy funding applications
The BA is a bit of a black box even to those of us who are successful, so what I’m about to say is just the strategy I followed, in consultation with my mentor and the research office at The Bartlett. In terms of understanding how the BA scheme is positioned, I think it’s probably useful to compare it to Leverhulme’s: the Leverhulme Trust thinks of itself as a funder that supports research that might not otherwise find a home. Of course it cares about excellence but it also values originality in an expansive, potentially quirky sense that is consciously distinct from the supposedly more traditional stance of the BA (or the expansive well-being agenda of the Wellcome Trust). The British Academy seeks to fund what it considers ‘outstanding’ humanities researchers, so their focus is on finding the strongest applications (in this they are similar to the PhD funding bodies such as the AHRC in the UK system). One specific aim of the scheme is to equip applicants with the skills and experience for a permanent job, so it’s worth thinking about how it fits within your overall career trajectory and how this is precisely the thing you need to take you to the next level.
In terms of how to develop the proposal content, the classic trio of questions that people often mention are relevant: Why this? Why now? Why you? Think about how you can take your reader from not knowing anything about your topic to really wanting you to find the answers! This might sound basic, and is similar to framing a PhD application, but is still at the heart of this kind of postdoc application. You should also have clear reasons for the choice of mentor and department, although there isn’t space for these to be long. One thing that came up in early conversations was my mentor said that my first draft of the application didn’t really have explicit research questions as such; I rephrased and moved these closer to the start to make them more apparent.
A couple of things to consider in terms of how you set out the application itself:
– Disciplinary boundaries: are you moving disciplinary settings (for example from an English department to history) for this project? If so, how do these disciplines relate in your work. In the application form you must identify a main discipline and can add a subsidiary one. Think about how the choice of discipline affects how your application will be assessed. There’s also space for you to label your project as belonging to an emerging new field or one that’s at risk. If you think you could make a case for either of these, probably makes sense to do so although officially BA say they don’t favour these applications. I argued that my project contributed to the emerging field of environmental architectural history, citing recent symposiums and new publications and showing that my work is already part of this agenda.
– Relation to existing scholarship: there’s no part of the form dedicated to a bibliography, but think about whether it’s worth including one in your main project description. Maybe it’s because I’m a historian, but I find it hard to see how an application could work without at least something in this direction, though I imagine it varies in size.
– Previous projects: the BA is wary of funding that just covers your time while you publish work from earlier projects. Make clear that this work is new, and present your previous projects as completed. (Of course this project might continue something you’ve already started working on, that’s not an issue, but make clear how this project is distinct to the next three years.) Think about this when completing the CV elements of the application form and how you describe any existing/forthcoming publications.
– One thing my application was praised for by people at UCL was a coherent link between the aims and outputs, events involved, and the timetable and costings. I started with the key outputs I wanted to achieve and events I wanted to attend and sort of hung the timing around those. In the first stage application I roughly used academic terms for the timetable, but in stage 2 when you do costings these are quarterly, so I changed to quarterly planning. As the timetable is just a text box you can describe it however you want, but something that is visually easy to skim and which clearly links to other parts of the application is useful I’d say. (Don’t be put off by the Full Economic Costing element at stage 2: this is all worked out by the university research office, you just have to estimate a budget.)
– When you’re approaching the key dates, be very clear with your host institution and referee about what is needed when. Bear in mind that their research office will have a very clear idea of their own processes but only a more general one of the BA, so it’s down to you to keep everyone on the same page organisationally.
– This shouldn’t need saying but be polite and professional with everyone involved and do thank them! Remember that this scheme involves the university committing funding to you as well as the British Academy, so you are also asking for an investment from them and should behave accordingly. With that said, part of the process will involve negotiating your salary; do not devalue yourself. Provide an extensive CV which puts your existing experience and expertise in the best light, and look at the university’s payscale yourself to understand the logic by which your pay offer will be made.
These are the general points that seem especially important to me! If you have specific questions about any of this please don’t hesitate to contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
*The Wellcome Trust Early-Career Award is open to all disciplines but applicants must show how their project would ‘will deliver shifts in understanding that could improve human life, health and wellbeing’.
**This is a European funding scheme and the post-brexit relationship between the UK and Europe for this kind of research is still being argued over, so exactly how this scheme will work in the future isn’t entirely clear.