Applying for a Postdoc. First, imagine you are an idiot …

Ok, just a rant.

I read the Guardian HE section, on and off, and sometimes it’s quite helpful and interesting. Not so much, today. Today we have a guide to getting a postdoc. I started reading, winced at the stats (14% of Arts and Humanities PhDs end up with research posts), and got settled in to the advice section. This is advice culled (and, I suspect, heavily edited down and decontextualised) from a group of senior academics. I’m sure they meant really well, and I’m fairly sure they don’t actually believe their PhD students are idiots, but … really?

It’s easy to be mean. “Be cautious about firing off out-of-the-blue emails” made me snort. There’s a bit of a stereotype of well-intended advice you get from your bewildered family (‘she seemed so smart at school, but she’s 29 and still just reading things’), which includes ‘couldn’t you just send Oxford your CV and ask if they’ve got anything?’ I suppose it’s nice to know that this is, like, officially frowned upon, but I kinda think most of us have worked that one out.

On the positive side, reading this article it would seem that the competition for jobs includes people who’ve completed a PhD and still haven’t cottoned on that applying using the form and guidelines provided, as opposed to, perhaps, interpretative dance, would be a great start. If these really are the hurdles at which most prospective postdocs fall, then really, we should all be celebrating.

What bothers me most about this advice, though, is that I think some of it is actually wrong. Tucked in amongst snippets I think my careers advisor told me when I was 16, there’s this:

Applying when you don’t meet the essential requirements is a waste of time. It also has reputation costs. If you get a number of applications that is not huge, you will tend to remember names from one time to the next. It doesn’t make a good impression to receive the application of someone a second time if you still remember that this person applied for another job for which he or she was not suitable at all. It sends a signal that they are not attentive to detail, which is something highly valued in academic jobs. (Laura Morales, professor in comparative politics, University of Leicester)

I see where she’s coming from with this, and I bet it is really frustrating to keep getting the same puppy-eyed candidate popping up everywhere, but I think this needs unpicking.

When I started applying for jobs, I didn’t get anywhere. Nada. Not even a call to interview. At some point, my supervisor started sending me job adverts, for jobs for which I wasn’t qualified. And I’d write back and point out, look, they’re asking me to have experience supervising MA candidates, and I don’t. Or, look, they only want someone with publications, and I don’t have any. One day, I fired off an application for a teaching job at Cambridge, for which I didn’t meet the job spec.

I can’t actually remember how I didn’t meet the spec now. I was so sure I wasn’t going to need it that I deleted the job particulars from my computer after I’d sent in my application. Don’t try this at home, kids. It’s really annoying when you get called for interview and have only a hazy memory of what you’re applying for. On a related note, when you’re in the interview and they ask if there’s any reason you applied for the one-year post and not the twenty-six month one, you should probably find something better than ‘nah, I was just disorganized’. Also, when they phone you a couple of hours after the interview, that’s a good sign. You want to be listening for your phone to take that call. You do not want to be fannying around Cambridge, such that the very kind head of the Search Committee has to ring you back at 9pm.

At every stage in the process, I did not expect to get that job. Because I’ve read an awful lot of pieces like the one in the Guardian, and they all made me feel as if I was bound to fail – for the most trivial reasons – before I’d even started.

What’s telling about my experience – other than the fact that, clearly, I am an idiot – is that an awful lot of women (and, I’m sure, some men) do the same things. We don’t expect to get jobs. We read the stats and we know that only 14% of us will get research jobs (NB: mine is not a research job). And we look at our own CVs and they never measure up to what the job is asking for.

I know there are far more very good people than there are academic jobs. I can believe it’s really frustrating to come across candidates who make the really basic mistakes described in the Guardian article. But I think there is a bigger problem with articles like this one, which don’t really provide any useful advice that couldn’t be gleaned from a sixth-form careers day. They suggest we’re all failing to get jobs because, really, we’re all a bit lazy, stupid, and unmotivated. We think too highly of ourselves and expect we’ll be considered without having the courtesy to fill in a proper application form, wait for an official job advert, or bother to get to know people in the field.

I’ve no idea how you get a postdoc. Luck, probably. But you definitely don’t get a postdoc if you keep telling yourself you’re no good and might as well not apply.