Rebecca Windemer: My top 5 tips for designing and undertaking an ESRC postdoctoral fellowship

The post PhD job market is challenging and completely demoralising. By the time I finished my PhD I had lost confidence in myself and my research. I had spent the past few months applying for a large number of postdoc jobs, sometimes getting to interview but never getting the job. As a result, I nearly didn’t apply for the ESRC postdoctoral fellowship. I knew I wanted to do more with my PhD and share my findings, but I felt that I had no chance of success. It was only thanks to encouraging feedback on my thesis from colleagues that I finally decided to apply.

The application process enabled me to consider who I wanted to share my findings with, how to do so, and how I could use the opportunity to develop my career. I was delighted when I found out I had been successful, but also nervous about being able to achieve the impact I had planned. Unsurprisingly my fellowship plans changed due to Covid. While I wasn’t able to undertake some additional research overseas, this provided me with more time to generate impact and work on collaborative projects.

My fellowship experience went better than I could possibly have imagined. I was able to share my research with a wide range of industry leaders, policymakers and communities as well as develop new collaborations. I am also very fortunate that my experience has ended with securing a permanent lecturing job. A lot of my success this year resulted from trial and error so I thought that it would be useful for future applicants and fellows if I shared some tips on what worked well for me.

1. Consider how to share your research with different audiences

Some audiences can be really hard to reach, particularly industry and policymakers. I found it useful to spend time working out how best to communicate with each group. For industry I identified an international industry conference linked to my research topic and wrote to the organisers explaining the potential value of my findings. At the conference I shared infographics summarising the key recommendations from my presentation. For policymakers, concise briefing notes and presentations have worked well. Meanwhile, for the public I tried to create engaging ways of simplifying my research such as videos and visual summaries. The fellowship provides the time to try out different methods and see what works well.

2. Have a plan, but be willing to adapt it

Having a detailed and achievable plan will help you secure the funding. It will also help to ensure that you stay on track with the range of activities that you hope to achieve. However, some of my biggest achievements this year have come from saying yes to opportunities that I could not have predicted. Sharing my findings in different outputs, particularly industry presentations, led to a range of follow-up requests including advising government policymakers and speaking at an online panel event. Saying yes to these requests (even when they pushed me outside of my comfort zone), enabled me to generate more impact and reach new audiences.

3. Develop your online presence

This may sound like an obvious tip, but building my online presence really helped me. At the start of the fellowship I asked the university to set up a project page for my research. I then regularly updated the page with links and downloads of my outputs as they were published. This provided a useful resource to share with stakeholders and to refer to in job applications. I also developed my online blog page, wrote blogs for other outputs and curated my twitter feed to be focused on sharing my research.

4. Identify and address your skills gaps

The fellowship provides the perfect opportunity to identify and develop the skills needed to make you more competitive on the job market. I hadn’t planned to do any teaching this year. However, I realised there were aspects of teaching experience that I needed to develop, particularly dissertation supervision. In most cases the university will be happy to support you in undertaking teaching activities as this also benefits them. Additionally, make the most of the training opportunities within the university. I was surprised at the range of courses on offer and having the time available to undertake additional training on applying for grants, generating impact, and leadership has been really valuable.

5. Build collaborations

I hadn’t planned to collaborate. My PhD had been an individual project and I had very little experience of academic collaborations. However, an unplanned but extremely rewarding part of this experience has been collaborating with two other ESRC postdoctoral fellows. Our collaboration started as a result of discussing our shared interests and deciding to organise an impact and engagement event. This has developed into co-authoring a book chapter and planning a longer term project that we will progress after the fellowship. If like me, you are not confident in how to form a collaboration, start by discussing your research with others and seeing if there are any shared areas of interest. The fellowship provides the perfect opportunity to test this out, without the pressure to achieve something from it.


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