Some advice on applying to Junior Research Fellowships

It’s the time of year when applications for Junior Research Fellowships – research-only positions based in an Oxford or Cambridge college, intended for people who are just finishing or have recently finished a PhD – are starting to get going, and as a current JRF (at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge), I’ve been getting various requests for advice on the application process, and I thought it might be helpful to post a bit of advice here – the process can be pretty opaque, especially for those who aren’t currently at Oxford or Cambridge and so don’t necessarily have supervisors or colleagues with direct experience of assessing JRF applications. Also, since no-one likes writing job applications, I’m including a picture of a dog to help improve the situation slightly (as you can see, she doesn’t like job applications either).

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Before I start, a couple of other useful references for anyone in the process of applying or who’s thinking about applying in future to consult:

This post by Katherine McDonald (who was previously a JRF at Caius) is an extremely useful guide to what a JRF is, where they’re advertised, and how and when to apply.

Here is a post by Laura Tisdall, focusing primarily on advice for JRF interviews, but with some discussion of the application process as well.

I’d encourage you to check both of those out first, but here’s a summary of the most important practical information:

  • Some JRFs are (more or less) subject-specific (e.g. History, Physics); others are more general (Humanities; Sciences). They also all have slightly different eligibility criteria (usually determined by length of time since PhD submission) so check carefully!
  • JRFs are advertised at different times in autumn/winter/spring by different colleges – the Cambridge Reporter, Cambridge College Jobs site, and the Oxford Conference of Colleges site are some of the most convenient sources of information.
  • They all have slightly different application requirements, but in general you’ll need to provide CV information (focusing on academic stuff: degrees, awards, publications if any), a research statement detailing your PhD research and/or the project you propose to do as a JRF, and a sample of work (sometimes this is submitted with the application, sometimes they ask for it at shortlisting stage), plus details of 2 or 3 academic referees.
  • Note the difference between “stipendiary” JRFs (a job, with a salary) and “non-stipendiary” ones (effectively, a college affiliation for people who already have a postdoctoral position on a research project/in a lab/etc; does not provide a salary).

I’m not going to go into much more detail now about the practicalities of the application process, though if you have questions that aren’t covered here or by either of the links above, feel free to ask! The rest of this post is intended to share the main advice I usually give when asked about JRF applications, and also the answers to some of the more common questions. It’s not comprehensive by any means, and it reflects my own personal experience as someone who applied for (a lot!) of JRFs and was (eventually!) successful – NB that I have never been involved in assessing applications, so I can’t speak from that point of view.

Devising a research project: it’s common for this to relate in some way to your PhD research, but there’s no exact formula for this. My own proposal effectively grew out of two things: 1) a case-study I did as my last PhD chapter, testing out some methodologies to see what happened and what could potentially be done with them more broadly; and 2) a footnote I was trying to write about a particular issue, when I found that no-one had written the book on that yet, so I couldn’t cite it, which was a pain. There doesn’t have to be as direct a relationship as that with your PhD, though – many people will propose to explore an issue they couldn’t do in full during the PhD, but you might also propose to apply your PhD methodology to a new area, or research a whole new aspect of your broader topic, or…[fill in the dots]. Everyone’s will look different, and the best people to talk to about this are your supervisors and colleagues!

Research statement: as said above, this varies by college, but whether it’s about your PhD research, proposed JRF research, or both, the most important point is: although it will be reviewed by a specialist in your subject (this may be someone in the college, or an external reader from another college/another university), it will also be read by the entire JRF committee, most of whom will be in totally different disciplines (and even if it’s a humanities JRF, some may be in the sciences, and vice versa). Your statement needs to convince specialists that your research is valuable, the project is a viable and important one, etc, and so you should certainly ask your supervisor(s) to read it and comment from that perspective – but it also needs to convince a lot of people who don’t necessarily know anything about your subject that you have an interesting project that will have a significant research impact in your field. (The “in your field” part is important: this is not to say that all JRF projects have to cure cancer. I research a 3000-year-old writing system! But remember that someone who works on international law or 16th-century Spanish literature will not know whether my proposed research will be important to other people working on that 3000-year-old writing system or not unless I, and my referees, tell them so). If at all possible, get someone from a different academic field to read your statement so you can see whether there are parts you need to make clearer for non-specialists – maybe do a swap with another PhD student from another department who’s also applying?

Work samples: often there’s no specification as to whether this should be published work or parts of your PhD, in which case, either (or both, depending on the quantity of work requested) is fine. In general, I don’t think there’s any special advantage to published work over unpublished PhD work – the most important thing is to choose the best piece(s) of writing you can to fit in with the specified word-limit. Though also, if one particular part of your PhD is the basis for your proposed research, it may make most sense to submit this rather than a more tenuously related part – because this will give the expert readers the best chance of commenting on your research proposal!

If submitting selected parts of your PhD, think about how these will read to someone who doesn’t have the entire thesis in front of them – it’s fine to put a brief explanation at the beginning of the chapter(s)/section(s) you’re submitting explaining how this fits in with the rest of the work.

Rejections: unfortunately, these are going to happen. For context, I applied to every single Oxford and Cambridge JRF that I was eligible for, over two rounds of applications. That was 32 applications, the vast majority of which rejected me outright or after shortlisting; I had four unsuccessful interviews before the successful one at Caius. It’s not uncommon for literally hundreds of people to apply for a single position, and far more of them will be very strong candidates than could possibly be appointed; to some extent, which of the many appointable applicants will in fact be successful has to be a matter of luck. This is not meant to discourage anyone from applying, but just as a reality check: if you don’t get a JRF, this doesn’t mean you’re not a good researcher, or that you won’t get other academic jobs, or even that you won’t get a JRF if you apply again next year (and yes, you can reapply to the same college, they won’t care or probably even remember that you applied last year, and the committee will be different people anyway).

And finally, a note on salary – to the best of my knowledge, this is generally somewhere in the £20-25,000 range, which is significantly lower than postdoctoral salaries paid by departments/externally funded projects. The reason for this is that free accommodation and meals are provided and considered part of the overall compensation package, which is a pretty good deal in the (very expensive) cities of Oxford and Cambridge if you’re single with no dependents, but may be much less so if you live with a partner/family. Colleges generally have more limited couples/family accommodation, and non-college-employees have to pay (partial) rent, so it may or may not work out cheaper living in college accommodation than renting privately (and although there’s a ‘living-out’ allowance paid to JRFs who don’t take up college accommodation, it’s not likely to be anywhere near the cost of renting). Unfortunately, this makes a JRF potentially a much less financially viable option for those with families, which is obviously not a good situation, but one I think it’s important to be upfront about.

Update, August 2020:

Visas: usual JRF salaries as discussed above may not meet current UK immigration requirements for non-UK citizens/residents. Anyone thinking of applying for a JRF to whom this applies is advised to check current regulations on the UK government site, and potentially to contact colleges for advice on whether they are able to sponsor visa applications for JRFs. This issue is definitely on (at least some) colleges’ radar, but how far they are attempting/able to address it (especially in the current situation) I don’t know.

FAQ: “Don’t Oxbridge JRFs almost always go to people already at Oxford/Cambridge?” I have no actual data on this, but ancedotally, yes, people with existing Oxbridge connections (whether that’s being a PhD student in Oxford/Cambridge at the point of application, and/or having done (a) previous degree(s) there) are certainly over-represented amongst JRFs (confession: I have three degrees from Cambridge, and am probably not atypical in this). I think this is due to a combination (the exact balance of which I don’t know, and it probably varies a lot by college/application committee) of 1) actual pro-Oxbridge bias, whether conscious or unconscious, amongst assessors and 2) structural pro-Oxbridge bias in the sense that people who are/were at Oxford or Cambridge are much more likely to know about JRFs to begin with; to have access to advisors and referees who can advise on how to write a successful application, write strong supporting references, provide interview tips, etc; and to have access to current or former JRFs for advice on the process. This blog post is my small attempt towards redressing the latter imbalance.

I’ll update this post if I think of other useful points, or if people ask me other questions that I want to address. If you are applying/thinking of applying and have other questions, please feel free to ask me – in the comments here, or on Twitter (@annapjudson), or by email (apj31 [at] cam.ac.uk). And good luck to everyone applying!

Author: Anna P. Judson

Researcher of Linear B, currently in Athens

4 thoughts on “Some advice on applying to Junior Research Fellowships”

  1. Thanks for this post. Do applicants need a prospective mentor/supervisor agreed before applying for a JRF? i.e. like the BA Postdoc Fellowship

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    1. In general, no, having a supervisor/mentor is not part of the process (some colleges or departments may assign you one, others may not, but that would be more of a mentor to check in with generally rather than a project supervisor). The exception may be for research requiring facilities, like lab-based work, where I think you probably need to be able to say that you’d have a place in the relevant lab (but obviously I have no direct experience of that!)

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