The fifth testimonial is by Dr Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley discussing British Academy Postdocs. Alex is currently in the second year of his British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship in the History department at the University of Exeter, where he is also Lecturer in European History (1750-1900).
What did you do your PhD on?
My PhD was a study of the new system of ‘revolutionary’ justice set up during the Terror in the French Revolution (1793-1794). I used the legal archives of the Paris Revolutionary Tribunal to build up a picture of the mechanics of the judicial Terror, with a particular focus on the defence campaigns mounted by and on behalf of those who were subjected to this form of repression.
When, and why, did you apply for a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship?
I applied in October 2013 – my last year of eligibility (candidates need to start the fellowship within three years of their viva). My decision was not the result of some fiendishly clever strategy: it was a postdoc I was eligible for, and therefore I applied for it! By that stage, almost two years after finishing my PhD, I was getting increasingly worried about my chances of breaking back into academia as a paid career. I had been applying for a wide variety of teaching positions and postdocs (both in the UK and the USA) without any success beyond a couple of interviews and some positive feedback on my research proposals. In that sense, my BA application was just another in a long line of previously fruitless applications. Looking back, however, it probably wasn’t a coincidence that it was this particular application that was successful. The BA rules on choosing a host institution were more flexible than with Leverhulme fellowships (I’m not sure if they have altered them since 2014), so I was able to apply through QMUL, where I have strong links from my PhD years. QMUL were very supportive during the application process, and I believe this helped me to write a stronger, more confident proposal than usual. When the postdoc was offered to me, QMUL then supported my request to change my host institution to the University of Exeter so that I could combine the BA with the Lecturer position I had just been offered there.
What tips would you give to anyone interested in applying for a BA fellowship?
- Remember that it is a competition for applications from anywhere in the Humanities and Social Sciences. It is therefore a good idea to emphasise any potential interdisciplinary qualities in your current and proposed research.
- The BA place great emphasis on the postdoc programme being a way of helping ECRs land a permanent academic post at the end of the fellowship. There are various opportunities within the structure of the BA application form to indicate your career awareness and ambition.
- The BA runs a two stage selection process. If you get to the second round, you submit a piece of written work to complement your proposal. What is this going to be, and how will it read in combination with your proposal? In theory you can submit an extract from your thesis or other unpublished work, but the strongest applicants will submit a PUBLISHED piece of writing. That is the standard you will be up against.
- Elements of the BA application form are quite unusual. Significant room is given to a ‘Plan of Action’ for your research, and also for your plans for ‘Publication and Dissemination’. These are both opportunities to be creative and show an awareness of your research proposal’s potential for impact and engagement beyond the standard article/monograph route.
- Potential host institutions now have their own (sometimes less than transparent) procedures for pre-selecting a small number of applications to submit to the BA (this is also the case with the Leverhulme competition, and presumably others as well). Where possible, try to establish and improve contacts with the institution you want to work with, so that they know who you are when making these decisions.
And I have one further suggestion for postdoc applicants in general: consider the international options. Although none of mine were successful, I still found the process of applying for American postdocs (and jobs) to be a positive experience. It definitely helped with the development of my research ideas because I was conscious of speaking to a different audience, and it meant I got feedback from outside of UK academia. Take a look at the Academic Jobs Wiki page for Humanities and Social Sciences postdoc competitions, which focuses on the US but also has global coverage. It offers revealing (and sometimes terrifying) perspectives on the annual postdoc merry-go-round.
How are you finding it so far?
It’s brilliant! I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity to focus almost exclusively on a second major research project at this early stage in my career. I’ve also had great support from the History department at my host institution, the University of Exeter. The financial security of a three year postdoc also means that I am able to be quite ambitious in my archival work: rather than the quick fix of the Paris archives, I can enjoy the luxury of departmental research right across France. The latter can be time-consuming and expensive, and so I doubt I would have been able to develop my current project in the way I am doing without being on a BA postdoc.
Would you do anything differently?
I’m pretty happy with the way things are going on my postdoc, but in terms of those years of applying beforehand? It took me quite a long time after my viva – between eight and twelve months – to develop anything like a clear enough strategy for how to go about securing a postdoc. Ideally, I would have done more groundwork in the final year of my PhD, but this can be difficult if those final months are a bit choppy! I should probably have asked for guidance on the postdoc process earlier, and from more people. Looking back, I also feel embarrassed about how I treated my referees across all those different applications! Let’s just say I didn’t always give them as much notice of an impending deadline as I should have…
Dr Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley is in the second year of his British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship in the History department at the University of Exeter, where he is also Lecturer in European History (1750-1900). For this fellowship, he is researching the ways in which the legacy of the Terror, the activities of its surviving victims, and the dynamics of transitional justice helped to shape the second half of the revolutionary decade in France, between 1794 and 1799. Alex studied for his PhD at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) under Professor Colin Jones, and passed his viva in November 2011.