what’s a post PhD research plan, or research agenda?

You’ve passed the PhD. You’re past the PhD. Congratulations. And I hope that you’ve taken some time to celebrate and that you’ve got over– or are dealing with – the post PhD slump. You’re now applying for jobs and post-doctoral positions. And you notice that these teaching or a post-doc positions (inside and outside of a university) ask you about your research plan. What’s that, you wonder?

Of course you had a few future research options in mind when you finished the PhD. You’d spelled them out in the conclusion to your thesis – the implications for further research. There were probably at least one or two of those that you thought you might like to do yourself, given half a chance.

But this project, or even one or two of the projects you identified in your PhD, is not what the job and postdoc panels usually want to hear about. When they say plan they are signalling that they want to see something longer term. Interview panels often signal this interest by asking you what you hope to achieve over the next few years. They ask what you are going to contribute to their department or organisation. When they ask this question, they are not looking to see whether your next research project fits in with them. They are looking for you to talk about something longer term, and something bigger than a single project.

One of the challenges for new Drs is to move past thinking about the next project that they can do, a project that they can conceptualise as being something similar to the PhD. A singleton researcher working on a boundaried project with discrete publications and associated activities.

However, job and postdoctoral panels are looking for you to dream of doing something different, something more ambitious and bigger than the doctoral style of project. And the challenge the panels set is tricky. Even though you may still well need to be engaged with the PhD – publishing from it , you are being asked to move past the thesis and the immediate following project which you haven’t yet done.

The panels and organisations want you to develop a plan which has at its heart a broader area of concern. An area to which you can make a contribution through several projects and publications.

What do I mean by this? Well, I can say what this means for me- just as an illustration. I’ve had a long term interest in academic writing. Now, I’m not a linguist, so I’m not going to be able to contribute much to understandings about how language and texts work. But I am an educator, so the kind of contribution that I can make is – or ought to be – in learning and teaching. My particular interest in academic writing is educational – it is in the pedagogies of academic writing. My academic pedagogies research agenda – and that’s what I have, an agenda not a project – means that I generally take “stuff” from linguistics and build on work from writing scholars, and think/research/write/teach about how the “stuff” can be taught and learnt.

I’ve been working with this agenda for more than twenty years. I’ve sustained it through practitioner research and through various forms of publication. And there have been a few discrete research projects in there (abstracts, advice books, blogging, bio-notes) . I’ve not addressed this agenda on my own – I’ve often worked with other people, sometimes with colleagues from disciplines other than my own, and who work in other places. And I’ve had to learn a load of new stuff in order to develop the pedagogies agenda. And I hope I’ve made some kind of contribution.

So to abstract from my process a little – my writing research agenda has involved an ongoing and substantial line of inquiry. It’s involved strategically winning some funding, publishing a lot, collaborating, engaging with a wide range of people beyond my institution and developing my ideas and skills.

And it’s this range of activities that people are looking for when they ask you what your plans are in the longer term. Post-doc panels and employers who are offering real work (not Mcjobs) want you to think about running your own lab, your own research team, or building a platform. They want you to think about your development as a scholar and the contribution you will make. They want you to go beyond the project you identified at the end of the thesis. They want to know what your thinking about publications and public engagement. They want you to “profess”. They want you to finish the sentence…

(your surname here)’s work on (your long term agenda) shows that….

And they want to know how you will get from where you are now to that point.

And yes, there are real down-sides to dreaming beyond the single project. In these times it can be tough to dare to think that you might get to have an agenda, given the current lack of jobs and funded post docs compared to the number of people applying. An exercise in cruel optimism, to steal an idea and term from the late Lauren Berlant. And probably unrealistic, given then twists and turns of life. But if you decide to put yourself into this postdoc and job race, then spelling out your agenda and your plans is what’s expected.

Photo by Tamas Tuzes-Katai on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in post-PhD slump, research agenda, research plan and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to what’s a post PhD research plan, or research agenda?

  1. This is a beautiful post, Pat.

    I seen this idea expressed in different ways. ‘Becoming independent’ is a phrase I’ve heard in the sciences, where researchers can undertake their PhD and post-doc in labs with strong leaders. Are you breaking away from that research leader, finding your own way and asserting your research independence? Or are you continuing to work within their research profile? Signals that you are finding your own way generally include working with new researchers and developing new projects. Sometimes it means leaving the lab, but it doesn’t have to. However it might include spending time in a different lab, perhaps in a different city or country.

    An old boss who did very practical, action research would talk about ‘repeating your PhD for the rest of your career’ (and he didn’t mean that in a good way). In his mind, he wanted to see people take on new challenges and go in new directions. More importantly, he wanted people to look wider, rather than become more and more specialised. I think that specialisation can be a real trap – funding that is excellence-driven and peer reviewed can encourage researchers to focus, focus, focus. Research that is multi-disciplinary, uses creative methods and looks in new directions can be harder to fund, but probably has a lot more impact.

    I often talk to people about the difference between a research project and a research program, particularly when I see a sprawling grant application that lacks definition. A research project (in my mind) has a clear scope that can be defined by (1) the people involved who are working (2) over a fixed period of time on (3) a problem that can be solved for (4) a specified cost. A research program, on the other hand, is (as you said) involve a long term agenda to address an open-ended question (often an intractable problem) through a range of approaches, generally involving diverse teams. Research programs get funded through a series of research projects. Research projects are fundable. Research programs (in general) aren’t.

    Thanks again for a great post.



  2. Susi Herti Afriani says:

    This is a really great thought! Thanks Pat


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