To Post-doc or not to Post-doc: is this a question?

As a doctoral student the first time round, I struggled to imagine myself conducting a seminar or giving a lecture.  This struggle, allied to the knowledge that postdoctoral positions were thin on the ground, certainly influenced my decision to pursue a career in academic librarianship rather than pure academia.

I couldn’t have known that “thin on the ground” in the mid-eighties, would become “as rare as hens’ teeth” by the late noughties.  How ironic, though, that I rejected the choice when I might have had one.  Indeed, by not completing the first doctorate, the question of postdoctoral research simply never arose.  I had already jumped ship by failing to complete.

Turn the clock forward a quarter of a century, though, and the landscape has changed.  I’ve conducted seminars, sure I have.  I’ve spent most of my working life helping students – mainly, but by no means solely on a one-to-one basis – and given countless papers.  I don’t need to imagine myself doing it now!

And of course, I’ve completed a doctorate.  I don’t need anyone to tell me that the second piece of work was better than the unfinished first attempt.  Even if I’d finished the first thesis, I don’t think it would have been as good a piece of research, and certainly, the subject of late eighteenth and nineteenth century Scottish song-collecting has not only proved interdisciplinary (not even a consideration in the eighties), but also attracts more interest both from scholars and the wider community.  I’ve never, ever been asked, ‘But why Scottish song?’  I was regularly asked, ‘But why PLAINsong?!

But, as I mentioned, the landscape and climate have shifted underfoot.  A postdoc position?  Almost impossible to find, and from a personal perspective, barely feasible, for who with family commitments would exchange permanence for something less?!

So, here I am.  Knowing that it is conventional to speak and publish widely in the first postdoctoral year, I’ve been deeply, deeply conventional!  But now, a year on?

I’ll address that in my next post!


About Karen Mcaulay

Karen McAulay is a music librarian and musicologist. Between 2012-15, she was seconded to spend 40% of her week on an AHRC funded project into Scottish bass culture: the basslines and accompaniments in Scottish fiddle tune collections, contributing bibliographical and musicological data to the Historical Music of Scotland website (blog She's currently researching the University of St Andrews' historic music copyright collection. As well as speaking on her research specialism, she is also in demand to talk about research skills and her career as a part-time researcher.

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