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post doc ergo propter doc

I got a postdoc of roughly this kind last year (not open AOS like Society of Fellows or MIT's Stalnaker, but not attached to a specific research project either). I would guess that it's not quite as competitive as those postdocs or the Bersoff, but is still very competitive. I had no publications and am not from an Ivy. So that's at least one data point against the reply.

My strategy in the cover letter/research statement was what the post describes as the first strategy. I went into a fair amount of detail on two proposed projects, and described how they're connected to the kind of work I did in my dissertation but take my work in some pretty new directions. My sense is that, at least with the faculty here, going into some detail was helpful in giving them a stronger idea of what I wanted to do and how it would relate to some of the faculty's work. Plus, I get the impression that listing a bunch of projects can seem like you haven't put much thought into any of them, even when that isn't true. I was both aiming to show that I had relatively developed ideas about where I was going research-wise, and trying to give the committee a sense of how the new work and dissertation present a coherent picture of what my research is about.

Of course, I also am under the impression that the only general truth about search committees is that they all have different preferences, so I don't feel super confident in how well my approach would work in general.

Trevor Hedberg

During my past time on the job market, I was offered a total of 4 postdocs -- an interdisciplinary research one with a minimal teaching load, two in biomedical ethics with significant teaching responsibilities (but still plenty of time for research), and a teaching postdoc focused primarily on designing and administering many sections of an innovative introductory philosophy course. One of these positions did require a specialized research statement about the particular initiative related to the postdoc; the others did not. However, in all cases, I think that being able to demonstrate that I fit the research area of the postdoc via publications and research plans and had relevant teaching experience was crucial. In this respect, I suppose postdocs aren't that different from other jobs.

It sounds like the reader was wondering specifically about distinguished postdocs that lack clearly defined research specializations. In those cases, I suspect it's mostly about publications, prestige (e.g., where you got your PhD, who's writing your letters), and what you intend to do as a postdoc (which is basically your research plan for the next 2 years). I would strongly advise taking the first strategy that the OP mentions: having a clear plan for what you will do the next 2 years anchored around single topic (or perhaps two related topics) is better than stretching yourself thin across many things that you may or may not do during that time. Teaching isn't irrelevant, but postdocs -- unless explicitly labeled as teaching-focused -- usually have low teaching loads and carry an assumption that you will engaged in significant research while you hold the job.

another postdoc

I've done a few postdocs now (but research-focused ones, admittedly, and in Europe rather than the US). I agree that some nice publications help, of course. The one thing I'd add, although perhaps it is has only gone unmentioned because it is so obvious, is that it is definitely a good idea to contact a recent recipient of the postdoc you're interested in and to ask them whether they'd be willing to share a copy of their successful application. Don't just copy it, of course(!), but it will certainly be helpful to see how they have presented their application, what they have emphasised, etc.

UK Philosophy

I know of several people who got good post-docs in the UK and Ireland with minimal or no publications. It may well be harder than if you have several strong ones, but not impossible. As the above people note, a clear and focused research plan and strategy is (to my mind) key. Partly, this is about having an exciting and original(ish) research project, but it is also being very clear what will be delivered and how. Being realistic about outputs, but showing that you know exactly what outputs they will be, will likely reassure at least some funders. My guess is that for at least some of them, they want to be reassured that they are not wasting their money, and that means that the project will deliver its outputs on time (and that these will be worthwhile outputs). Promising too much can be as bad as too little.

Finally, as mentioned, looking at previous successful applications is a great thing to do.

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