A Beginner’s Guide to Writing a Post-Doc. Research Proposal

It might not feel like it at times but every PhD student knows that the thesis will one day be finished and that means planning for post-PhD life. Although universities are increasingly providing PhD students with training in order to better prepare them for a career in academia, many early career researchers remain unsure of what opportunities are out there, how to navigate the academic job market, or how to put together a successful research application.

With in this mind, we asked the University of Exeter’s Dr David Thackeray, an AHRC Fellow, Professor Richard Toye, the Department of History’s Director of Research, and Dr Gareth Curless, an ESRC Future Research Leader, for their advice on how to write a successful post-doctoral research proposal.

Richard, drawing on a similar post from his blog, provides an overview of how to write a research proposal, while David and Gareth offer some advice on how to tackle the challenges presented by a Research Council application. If you have any suggestions of your own, please post them in the comments below!

Richard Toye:

1. A statement of the topic and why it is important and interesting.

2. A summary of the existing historiography.

3. Some reflection on the deficiencies/limitations of the historiography.

4. A description of the sources that you intend to use, and how they will enable you to overcome those limitations.

5. Detail is good: not just which archives/sources but how they will help your project.

6. Needs to show development from PhD work – be distinct from it without moving away from it so far that it becomes implausible.

7. Specify (within reason) which journals/publishers you are aiming at. But don’t make your list of proposed outputs unrealistically long.

David Thackeray:

1. Get to know the Research Support team at your university. Often they will be able to provide you with previous successful applications from your institution for the funding scheme you’re applying for. Looking at past applications is great for getting a feel for how to structure your application (I learnt a lot from an application on medieval liturgy).

2. Think about potential project partners. Research councils are placing an increasing emphasis on encouraging academics to organise public ‘impact’ activities with organisations outside the academic sector. It’s worth giving thought early to who you might like to work with and then making contact with them. This doesn’t have to be a major national or international institution, think about what local museums, heritage organisations, or creative institutions you might already have links with. The list of regional partner organisations for the AHRC Doctoral Programme gives a sense of some of the opportunities available:

3. Be creative. A few months ago I attended the first conference for successful applicants under the new AHRC fellowship scheme. Having thought that aspects of my application were quite left-field before then, I was quite surprised by how many humanities and social sciences academics were engaged in activities such as documentary making and creative theatre. The core message of the day was to focus on creative, inter-disciplinary and experimental forms of research and public engagement, rather than worrying too much about the REF.

4. Plan early- ideally for about 12 months before you put your application in. Many schemes have long and unwieldy applications and the last thing you want to be doing while in the middle of teaching or finishing your thesis is rushing to make a research council deadline. It’s worth signing up for J-es as soon as you start to plan to apply for a RCUK grant as this provides you easy access with all the notes for applicants and you can also easily share applications on the system, including with colleagues at other institutions.

5. Don’t panic. Even if you aren’t successful with your initial application you can often get useful feedback which is valuable for subsequent applications. My current AHRC fellowship is loosely based on a post-doctoral application I submitted to the British Academy in 2009 and is all the better for the long period I had revise my initial plans. It’s worth thinking about opportunities that you have to develop your project if you aren’t initially successful, such as small grants or internal funding for workshops.

Gareth Curless:

1. Get feedback from colleagues before submitting. Your proposal should be reviewed by colleagues within your department or university before it’s submitted. It’s important that you make the most of this opportunity. Colleagues will often have experience of acting as peer reviewers and will therefore have a sense of what reviewers are looking for. Internal reviewers can also help you to refine your research questions and methodology, as well as offering helpful suggestions with regard to outputs, project partners and impact activities.

2. Be realistic. Research Councils are looking for research projects with potential ‘impact’ beyond the academic sector but in the rush to demonstrate the value of your research don’t promise more than you can deliver. Start by thinking about potential project partners or intermediaries, such as History & Policy, who can connect you to the relevant non-academic organisations. Involve these project partners in the application process. Find out if and how they could use your research and what type of activities would be most appropriate for disseminating your research. Once you’ve identified your project partners and how you can help them, you can then, as David advises, start to think creatively about potential impact activities. The ESRC has some useful advice on impact.

3. Persevere. Research applications – particularly those completed through J-es – are often long, confusing, and seemingly without logic. When you’re trying to juggle writing for publication, teaching, administration, and writing a proposal, it can often be the proposal that gets sacrificed. I almost gave up half-way through my ESRC application. It was only after my supervisor encouraged me to continue that I decided to finish. Even if I hadn’t been successful it would have worth the effort because not only would I have a proposal that I could use again but the peer review feedback would have helped me to improve the application.

4. Keep it simple. As Richard says, it’s important that you provide an overview of the existing historiography, commenting on its limitations and how your project will extend scholars’ understanding of a particular topic. However, avoid using too much technical jargon, keep your points simple and concise. Reviewers are busy and won’t want to spend too long deciphering what your project is about. The same principle applies to impact activities. Simply state what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it, why it’s important or beneficial to your project partners or the wider public.

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