As I write this, I am coming to the end of my first postdoctoral position.. My job with the Digital Index of Middle English Verse reaches its finale at the end of August. It has been a whirlwind of a year since I left York, where I’d finished my Ph.D. in March 2012.
The fierce competition for humanities research jobs means that increasingly-qualified people are vying for the few permanent early-career jobs out there. This means those who do get an academic job upon finishing their Ph.D, will most likely filter into a postdoctoral position as opposed to an permanent job. The research and/or teaching ‘postdoc’ is intended to fill the gap between finishing a doctorate and entering a more steady career in academia. The traditional postdoc is three-years long – long enough to get your teeth seriously into some research and, hopefully, get a book on its way. However, with the high demand for even temporary jobs, the number of much shorter positions is increasing. These research posts can be as short as a few months. Some of them are funded by smaller-scale grants by research bodies and others arise because an established project needs an extra brain/pair of eyes/hands.
The smart postdoctoral researcher will use these short bursts of employment to build up publications, gain teaching experience, collaborate and make contacts, and of course make millions of applications for the next job. As I reach the end of my year-long postdoc, I have several articles submitted and under consideration, and I have some more teaching experience under my wing. I have worked on a digital project with excellent supervisors and have had some exciting conference experiences along the way. However, I have learnt from my experience in making job applications that I am not quite ready for a permanent lectureship. I have been doing the right things, but not for long enough. A year has not been enough time to make me strong enough to compete strongly against the increasingly experienced individuals who are going for these jobs.
So, as I near the end of my paycheques, I am peeking over the parapet for what might be out there. I am finding that my short-term research project has actually been an excellent step-up in developing new ideas for projects. When I was finishing my Ph.D., I felt under-prepared to craft a research proposal for a three-year-long research project. After all, I’d spent the last three years engrossed in an in-depth study of a relatively small network of scribes and manuscript readers in East Anglia. I had real difficulty thinking outside of that specific field of research. Unsurprisingly, my research projects were rejected by funding bodies – and I can see now that they were tied to my doctoral research with a very short lead! They did not demonstrate my ability to diversify.
A year-long research ‘break’ from my Ph.D has allowed me to discover new avenues of research, which channel my passion for manuscript books and build upon the expertise that I developed as a doctoral student, but do not use my Ph.D thesis as a prop. There have been many unsettled moments during this year. As the title suggests, I have sometimes felt that I am neither in one place, nor another. However, a year working on the Digital Index has given me some intellectual distance from my established interests and has encouraged me to discover new texts, new ideas, and new approaches. I have pushed myself out of my comfort zone in many ways, have unsettled my feathers and have preened them into a slightly different arrangement. I am now developing my ideas from a stronger and more intellectually-mature position and am excited about the next academic year.