I applied to the WSG Mentoring Scheme in the autumn of 2020 at a time when isolation was the order of the day in the UK. For me, this sense of disconnect with the wider world was compounded by the faceless cycle of postdoctoral applications, a process that felt bewildering and discouraging. Still in the third year of my PhD, I was only eligible to apply for Oxbridge Junior Research Fellowships (JRFs) where every application required a slightly different set of research statements. The rejections steadily rolled in with zero feedback.
For those unfamiliar with this particular postdoctoral scheme, the Oxbridge JRF competitions run annually. Every Oxbridge college runs its own scheme, so positions vary widely from one-year to five-year posts with different salaries and benefits. Some colleges have ‘open’ competitions where applicants can apply from any subject background in the arts and sciences while others are subject-specific (e.g. English JRF) or even have a defined theme (e.g. a JRF focused on postcolonial studies). In terms of eligibility, you usually need to be within three years of handing in your thesis. What is especially attractive is that you can apply in the third or fourth year of your PhD, i.e. *before* you have handed in your thesis, which can really help close any funding gaps. For instance, if you’re planning to hand in your thesis by the end of an academic year in August or September, you can apply for a JRF that will start in September or October of the following academic year, allowing you to move immediately from PhD to postdoctoral position. This differs from the eligibility requirements of Leverhulme and British Academy where you need to have either submitted by 23 February (Leverhulme) or had your viva by 1 April (BA). In both cases, you’re left with a funding gap of several months between PhD and potential postdoc. However, what is especially unattractive of the Oxbridge JRF scheme is that each college runs its competition distinctly from other colleges. This means that every application is different – different closing dates, different length research statements, different number of referees. They are also hugely competitive. One rejection email I recall stated that the college had received over 900 applications for one post. Amid such an oblique landscape, it was difficult to know how to pitch my research.
When I saw the WSG Mentoring Scheme advertised, I was immediately keen to apply with a view to focusing entirely on my postdoctoral applications. My supervisor, Professor Emma Gilby, was always wonderfully supportive of these applications, but only so much of our supervision time could be devoted to projects beyond the thesis. As well as wanting to carve out time for applications, I was especially eager to talk to an academic with expertise on early modern women in multiple national contexts to help me situate my own work. Even though I was officially attached to the French department, my research interests lie in the history and writings of early modern women in Europe, hovering at the intersection of several disciplinary boundaries including French, English, and History. My PhD was on French exiles in Restoration London and my future research was leaning towards the global reach of Huguenot women. I was unsure how to frame the value of my interdisciplinary approach.
Not long after the deadline for the scheme passed, I was thrilled to find out that I had been successful and would be paired with Professor Brenda Hosington. It was an excellent fit as Brenda’s long and rich research career has drawn attention to the writings and influence of dozens of early modern women in both France and Britain. We set up a virtual meeting for January 2021. In preparation for it, Brenda asked me to send her a detailed summary of my thesis and its chapters.
The meeting was enormously encouraging and reassuring. Firstly, I benefitted from a new pair of eyes on my work, which is always helpful. Brenda gave me wonderful feedback on my doctoral project from how to frame it in broad terms to little snippets of insight like Voltaire’s comment in his Lettres philosophiques on women’s influence in England. Secondly, we had an enjoyable and productive conversation about how to pitch a postdoctoral project. Although a big part of any first postdoctoral position involves developing your thesis into a monograph, you still have to pitch a second major project in your applications. If you’re applying in the third or fourth year of your PhD, it can be difficult to come up with a second project. I’d written statements for several similar projects – usually on banished women in Francophone contexts – but I was underconfident in my ideas. During my conversation with Brenda, she probed each chapter of my thesis to see if there was spare material to inspire the second project. We ended up speaking a lot about Huguenot women because part of my thesis discussed Huguenots in London and Brenda had recently worked on the Huguenot-born translator Suzanne DuVerger who lived and worked in London. I mentioned that I had considered writing up a postdoc idea on Huguenot women but hadn’t been sure how to formulate my intervention in the field. She recommended some reading and we decided to organise our next meeting for a few months’ time to give me space to think.
Weeks later, I saw an advertisement for a JRF in Modern Languages, with a preference for projects on ‘translation’, at The Queen’s College, Oxford. Buzzing with ideas about Huguenot women and translation from Brenda’s reading recommendations, I applied with my usual description of my thesis and a brand new research statement on ‘Huguenot Women: Lively Translation and Communication, 1500-1700’. Happily, I got the interview and the job.
The whole experience of the mentoring scheme was incredibly useful. Even if I hadn’t got the job, I gained fresh perspectives on my work and a sense of confidence in my ideas. Like many ECRs, I missed out on heaps of opportunities to network during the pandemic at a crucial time in my career. The WSG Mentoring Scheme is an excellent way to make a new contact – with the possible bonus that your mentor will extend their own network to you – and to hear about future opportunities for conference papers, publications, and teaching posts from someone well-acquainted with the field. I am very grateful for the experience.
Dr Annalisa Nicholson
The Queen’s College, Oxford