It has come to my attention that many junior people do not have a clear picture in their minds of the requirements of a postdoc application.
Some treat it too much like the job application. And some treat it too differently from the job application. The fact is, it falls somewhere in the middle. It’s quite different from a job application…..and yet many of the same principles apply.
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that the postdoc application is requiring a cover letter, a 4 page research proposal, a description of a proposed course, and a brief statement articulating how you will participate in the scholarly community of the campus. While not all postdocs will require this exact set of documents, by discussing these here, we can address the major requirements, expectations, and potential pitfalls of the typical postdoc application effort. I will take them in order.
This cover letter will be very similar to your job cover letter as explained in this post. It will contain the standard set of paragraphs to start: introduction, dissertation, dissertation import, publications. In all of this first part, the relevance of your work to the stated mission of the postdoc will be emphasized clearly. This requires carefully tailoring the cover letter materials. It’s difficult but it must be done. If your topic is Mexican women immigrant workers, then for a gender postdoc, you will emphasize how the phenomenon reflects changing gender relations at home or abroad; for a globalization postdoc, you will emphasize how the phenomenon reflects changing labor mobility globally; for a Latin American Studies postdoc, you will emphasize how the phenomenon reflects new economic circumstances in Mexico. This tailoring requires an original recasting or reframing of your work to meet the mission of the postdoc! Failure to do this reframing means failure to get the postdoc.
After the discussion of research, the postdoc app letter will specifically discuss the plan of work for the postdoc year–ie, month by month, what new research and revisions will be made.
It will then include a very brief discussion of teaching experience (much shorter than for a regular job cover letter), followed by a discussion of the proposed class required by the postdoc, and how the proposed class will also advance the mission of the postdoc.
Lastly, in place of the typical tailoring paragraph, the letter will conclude with a brief paragraph explaining how the research and writing time of the postdoc will be used, how the scholarly community on campus will advance the project, and how the candidate will participate in said scholarly community. The letter will be no more than 2 pages long.
The principle in operation here—and the one that too many applicants don’t seem to grasp—is that the campus is funding this expensive postdoc not so some random academic can come and sit in an office and write for a year, but rather, to “buy” the energy, contributions, and participation of an additional world-class scholar to their campus community for the period of that year. The postdoc, dear readers, is not meant to serve YOU. Rather, you are meant to serve the postdoc. That means, that in every document, you articulate how you will PARTICIPATE in campus/departmental scholarly life. You do this, however, as in all professional documents, without flattering, pandering, or begging. Rather, you identify faculty on campus with whom you would collaborate, and initiatives and programs on campus that are likely to house interdisciplinary conversations and debates to which your project relates, and you articulate clearly your interest in engaging with them in substantive ways.
4-Page Research Proposal
This research proposal looks very much like a grant application, and Dr. Karen’s Foolproof Grant Template will serve you well here, at least for the opening paragraphs. As in all research proposals you will want to open by proving the importance and urgency of your topic. Following the standard Dr. Karen template, you will construct the Proposal As Hero Narrative, with yourself in the role of Hero.
You may follow the Foolproof Grant Template all the way through to the point where it breaks off into things like budget and methodology. In place of those sections, you will focus entirely on timeline. The point of a postdoc research proposal is to, first, articulate an important and significant project, and second, articulate a coherent and feasible plan of work. It is this second element that most applicants fail to grasp.
Remember: the postdoc is not there to serve you, you are there to serve the postdoc. What does that mean? It means that the postdoc wants to see publications result from your time there. The postdoc wants to be mentioned in the acknowledgments of your book. The postdoc wants to be in the line, in the footnote, “this research was supported by generous funding from xxxxx.” The postdoc committee is going to judge the applications based on how likely it is that the applicant is going to efficiently and effectively use the time on campus to complete a specified set of publications. You will impress them when you include a month-by-month timeline/plan of work that shows explicitly what new archival/etc. research you will conduct, and when, what book chapters you will complete, and when, and what journal articles you will finish and submit, and when.
You will conclude this document with a strong and expansive conclusion that clearly shows how the postdoc year will play into your larger scholarly and career trajectory as a world-class scholar. Why? Because the postdoc wants to get part of the fame and glory that attaches to you as you move ahead in the world.
Postdocs are in the business of supporting the next generation of leaders in the scholarly world. To the extent that you represent yourself as a leader, you will do well. To the extent that you represent yourself as a little lost sheep desperately looking for a chance to get out of teaching for a year while you try and figure out what your book is about, you will do poorly. Be aware that the vast majority of postdoc applications are written by the latter.
Proposed Class Description
A point of vast confusion among postdoc applicants seems to be how to pitch the required class. Many applicants do not clearly grasp the difference between the postdoc and an adjunct. As such, the class they propose is one that is adjunct-level. Basically, applicants too often envision a course that is generic and basic. This is a mistake.
Postdocs are very expensive. If a campus wanted a generic and basic course, it would hire a cheap adjunct. There are many available. Instead, however, they are advertising for a postdoc. That means, they want a highly specialized course, that reflects the postdoc’s unique and distinctive scholarly program. The class can’t be absurdly specialized, of course. If the applicant’s specialization is the emerging gay male community in Jakarta, the course cannot be “Emerging Gay Male Communities in Jakarta.” Too narrow. Neither should it be “Introduction to Indonesia,” or “Gender and Sexuality.” Too broad. Rather, it should be pitched somewhere around, “Global Sexualities,” or “Gender and Sexuality in Southeast Asia,” or “Queer Globalizations.” The final choice for how to pitch the course will hinge on the climate of the department and the campus, and the postdoc mission itself—if it’s an Asian area studies postdoc, then you’d prioritize SE Asia, if it’s a gender postdoc, then you’d prioritize Global Sexualities, if it’s a transnational studies postdoc, then you’d prioritize Queer Globalizations. Get it? The tailoring happens here.
Statement of Participation in Campus Community
Here’s what the postdoc committee does not want: someone who arrives, walks into their allotted office, and is never seen again for the rest of the year. Here’s what they do want: someone who arrives and dives into the scholarly work of the department and the campus community. A postdoc is (should be) exempted from all service work on campus. However, the postdoc should make herself visible as an involved and interested departmental member. She should show up for brown bags and talks, symposia and conferences, and coffee and lunch with colleagues. In this statement, you articulate your orientation in that direction. Identify programs and initiatives in the department and on campus, by name, and discuss how you anticipate participating. Mention two or three faculty members by name, and how you look forward to engaging with them.
In all things, however, do NOT fall back into graduate student habits. You are NOT on campus to “learn from” or “study with” the scholars there. Rather, you ARE one of the scholars there. They may well learn from you. The proper stance here is that of a colleague who brings her own dynamic field of expertise to the campus, and who looks forward to energetic and innovative interactions with the colleagues there.
In sum, remember that, no matter how much you need that postdoc to get your book written, the postdoc is not there to serve you. You are there to serve the postdoc, but as a first-rank, world-class scholar and specialist in your field whose work speaks directly—DIRECTLY—to the mission of the postdoc. By virtue of your energy and brilliance, you cause the postdoc committee to pick you, out of all the competitors, to spend the year on their campus, sharing your work, and augmenting their teaching and intellectual profile and advancing their scholarly cause. Remember, make them want you.