Lately I’ve been reflecting on how hard it is for those floating in a post-doctoral limbo land to connect with academic networks and stay ‘in the game’. I was undeniably one of the lucky ones in this respect: straight into a position with all of the inherent early career support structures, mentorship and resources that entails. How can I help provide that kind of support for my friends, colleagues, and former students who aren’t so lucky (i.e. the vast majority of post-doctoral scholars)? This is a thought process still in process. Some of these ideas may seem self-evident, but pooling them together might at least help some post-doc folks feel less isolated in their travails. Here are some initial ideas:

  1. Thank your examiners & stay in contact. Your dissertation examiners have given you a precious gift. Not just a qualification that gives you entry into post-doc land, but the even more precious gift of taking your ideas seriously enough to read them carefully, reflect on and question them, summarise, critique, praise and discuss them. Not only did they do this for free (like most academic work!); but having done so they become some of your most important supporters. They know your work more intimately than any other person besides yourself and your supervisors. But unlike your supervisors, whose own interests are inextricably bound to your success, they’re independent witnesses of your right to call yourself “Dr”. Thanking them for their contributions to your progress so far, for their remarks and feedback that might influence how you revise or take your work forward to publication or a new project, even for their critique which can be so productive once carefully sieved and considered, is an important thing to do. It not only recognises their efforts, and acknowledges their contribution to your ideas and progress, but it builds good will, and helps cement their place among your supporters in post-doc land. You may need their advice on publications, or their support as grant or employment referees, so it makes sense to cultivate that support. But more importantly it’s a polite and human thing to do. Once you’ve done this, stay in touch. If you’ve read and enjoyed their new book, tell them so. If you’re going to be attending the same conference, maybe suggest buying them a coffee to say thanks in person. Send them a pdf of your latest article, or an update when your book is contracted. Naturally, they are people working in your area, so this information is actually directly useful to them, and it also keeps them up to date with your work so that their knowledge of your work and their support doesn’t date as your career progresses.
  2. Competition is bunk. Well, OK, not entirely. I fully recognise that there are only so many academic positions, and many more people in search of one. You can’t change that on your own, and especially not from the disempowered position of early career ‘independent scholar’: that has to be somebody else’s battle. But you can break down the barriers between yourself and others in the same boat, for mutual benefit. Approaching grant writing, job applications, article drafting, and other post-doc land activities collaboratively not only makes it a less lonely road, but materially increases the chances of everyone in the network getting further along their academic journeys, faster, and with fewer dead ends. Get together with other recent graduates and set up a fortnightly or monthly workshop group: read and critique each other’s articles, grants, CVs, and cover letters. Even if you are all ‘competitively’ in the market for the same position, you will still get further together than alone. And, if you’re among those who get the furthest and make it into an academic position, don’t forget to pay back those who helped you out, and read their stuff too – and to pay it forward to the next generation of grads by mentoring, modelling, and introducing them to the collaborative ethos. As Liz Herbert McAvoy recently commented with respect to women in academia, “we must refuse to pull up the drawbridge behind us when we’ve made it into the castle”.[1] The same goes for early career researchers generally.
  3. Maintain institutional ties. Sometimes the pathways to this are easier to determine than others, but there’s usually a way. For example, talk to your local department head about becoming an honorary fellow, associate or adjunct researcher. Such a position doesn’t normally entail any payment, but means you are on the mailing list for internal job opportunities, grants, seminars, and workshops etc. If there are any of these that look relevant, make an effort to be there: not just to get the benefit of the content, but to remind others that you are still involved, and to keep your academic networks alive. Institutional ties also give you an official affiliation to put on your conference badges, business cards, CVs, and cover letters, which can count for a lot in the job market and conference networking stakes. At my institution, it also means, as of recent date, the opportunity to present at semi-regular internal symposia.
  4. Keep your finger on the ‘opportunity pulse’. In most university towns, there are seminars, public lectures and other academic activities that are open to external participants. Conferences set further afield may be more challenging to get to without financial institutional support, but it may be worth the effort to attend a strategically selected one if you can manage it. (NB. Many major conferences offer early career and independent scholar bursaries, and some scholarly societies offer grants for exactly this purpose, so familiarise yourself with those opportunities as soon as possible, and set yourself up a timeline so you are well-prepared for vital application deadlines.) Follow relevant social media accounts, or get yourself on the mailing list for relevant opportunities, and apply/go along. This is important for your scholarship, in terms of staying up to date with literature in your area, but also in psychological terms of helping you to feel part of the community (and helping the community to recognise your continued membership).

Any other ideas?

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[1]. Liz Herbert McAvoy, “President’s Statement”, Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship, 20 January 2016. Available at http://smfsweb.org/presidents-statement/ , [Accessed 2 April 2016].