SSHRC Postdoctoral Thoughts (and advice for the interested)

Turns out if you end up on the first page of Google searches, people look to you for information.

I’ve been asked by a few of my web readers now via e-mail for information on SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowships. Given that these are people that I don’t know professionally or personally but who came here via Google searches (some variation on “SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship” seems to bring me about a dozen readers a day, more during application season), I thought I might write down a few of the things that I’ve shared with them. I’ll put this on the common landing page for those visitors so they can come on over.

First, as I try to preface my thoughts: I’m not an expert on this by any means. Indeed, my only qualification was to blog about things and put my application online. I only held a postdoctoral fellowship at Western for a few months before moving to Waterloo. But, then again, nobody – apart from people involved in the adjudicating process or the handful of people who study this sort of thing – is really an expert on this.

And second, if you don’t get one, it really isn’t your fault. Take a look at the structural shifts, where we’ve gone from a third of people receiving one to around a fifth. Plus, rejection is the bread and butter of academia. We just don’t talk enough about it, but trust me, it’s going on every day (my consolation to myself is that if you’re not getting rejected enough, you’re not reaching far enough).

So what is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship?

Read the official docs here.

It’s a bit of an odd beast, in many ways, compared to American fellowships which vary wildly. As I put it to one inquirer recently, it’s “more akin to applying for a grant than a job.” There is no cover letter, the CV is largely form based, and emphasis is placed on your four-page program of work and secondly on your track record. This track record seems, based both on anecdote and on sketchy statistics via the AcademicJobs Wiki, to be skewed towards peer-reviewed publications.

Applicants then get a score out of 30, out of 15 for the program and out of 15 for the track record. While it has an objective veneer around it, you don’t receive any comments or real substantiation. Johannes Wheeldon tackled this in a lawsuit before the federal court, and you can read about that in his article “SSHRC, Post docs, and Procedural Fairness at the Federal Court of Canada.”

There are restrictions on applying, the major one being that currently you can’t apply if you’ve applied twice before (a convoluted way of saying you have three kicks at the can) and the second one being that you can’t have held a major postdoc like the Banting before.

How do I apply?

To apply you need a few things:

  • A four-page program of work, discussed below.
  • A bibliography.
  • Two letters of reference, ideally one from your doctoral supervisor and one from somebody else. I chose another committee member for the second one.
  • A letter of reference from your potential supervisor at the host institution.
  • A letter of reference from your departmental chair at the host institution.

The main letters, from your supervisor and another person,  are pretty familiar steps – chances are, you’ve been asking them for letters for quite a while! The second two might give you pause, however. I remember thinking that it would be daunting to contact somebody to supervise me.

But really, I wouldn’t worry. If you don’t have a close, readily apparent relationship with a perfect supervisor, feel free to reach out. I can’t think of many people who wouldn’t be at least happy that somebody was interested in working with them, especially if it’s in a closely-related field.

Same with the department. Chances are they’d be delighted to have somebody join their department for free: the energy of a newer scholar, a new face in the hall, at many universities the opportunity to get a course or two from a person at the absolute cutting edge of their field. Your potential supervisor should be able to work with you to get this, and many departments will have boilerplate language on file.

And even if it doesn’t work out, it’s a good opportunity to make some connections.

What should I do on my program of work?

God only knows. Honestly, I don’t think there’s a magic bullet.

But I’ve now read a couple of these, so here are a few ones. The real trick to me is to find a way to sell your next project as much as possible, and in some cases, downplay your dissertation a bit more. To me, the dissertation is really there to show why you’re the best person in the whole wide world to carry out this second project.

My breakdown was: [click here to see proposal]

  • Paragraph 1: Overview of new project, setting up the significance of the project.
  • Paragraph 2: Introducing the specifics (i.e. project name) and why previous work didn’t do it justice.Also don’t hide your gems in the middle of paragraphs. Topic sentences are important.
  • Paragraph 3-11: Specifics on new project
  • Paragraph 12: Dissertation (that’s really it).
  • Paragraph 13: What the host university and supervisory team would offer.
  • Paragraph 14: Plan of work (i..e what first/second years would look like).

Otherwise, my only secret was to get a million people to edit it and read it.

Again, this is not a magic bullet, just my two cents.

What does a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship mean?

Again, it varies. At some universities, it’s a token relationship: some postdoctoral fellows hold their positions remotely, commuting down a few times a year to coordinate with their supervisor and carrying on their relationship digitally. You do not have to teach for a postdoctoral fellowship, and indeed if I’d stayed at Western I would not have taught in my first year (nor would I have moved to London from Toronto).

At other universities, you might teach and your relationship to the department might be akin to being a sessional faculty member.

At the other end of the scale, there are universities that provide office space, involvement in committees, and the like.

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