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JRF's are fixed term awards of college membership, given to early stage academics, often before final submission of their PhD or shortly afterwards. They are awarded on the basis of research excellence, are prestigious and highly competitive.

Stipendary JRF's include a salary, non-stipendary ones don't. The connection to a college sometimes, but not always, includes benefits such as accommodation or meals. Teaching, and other college responsibilities, vary dependent on college requirements.

Finding openings

Applying for JRFs - finding openings

  • Look for JRFs on jobs.ac.uk, the Reporter, the Oxford Gazette, the Guardian and The Times HE section. Some are only advertised on college websites, check them regularly.
  • Any age / seniority limitations should be indicated on the advert. Many have limits on amount of time passed since gaining first degree / since beginning PhD.
  • Overseas applicants: Colleges should specify whether you need the right to work in the UK or whether they could sponsor your visa; but as long as immigration rules are in flux, keep checking the UKVI website.
  • Application deadlines for different colleges are spread over the entire year.
  • Apply to as many Colleges as possible
  • Not all Colleges will be advertising JRFs in your subject area in a particular year
  • Do not be afraid to ring the Colleges up to resolve uncertainties (many questions can be asked without giving your name!)
  • Making JRF applications takes time and should not be rushed, start drafting ideas and networking early.
  • Some Oxbridge ‘fellowships’ are more like ljunior ectureships.

The application procedure

  • First round of applications
  • Long shortlist (~30 applicants) – written work requested
  • Written work evaluated by anonymous specialist assessors, usually external
  • Final shortlist (~8 applicants)
  • Candidates invited for interview
  • Successful candidates (in most cases 2, probably one in humanities, one in sciences)
  • Create a table for your JRF applications to keep track: deadlines, paperwork required, what stage each application has reached etc.

Perseverance and resilience needed

  • Apply early (before finishing PhD) and often.
  • You are likely to be competing against people you know, like and respect.
  • Applying can last 18 months if applying to all available JRF's. The process can be exhausting at a time when you are uncertain about your post PhD future (and probably writing up as well). Don't lose heart - many do and drop out of the process.
  • Do your research (in your field) and be realistic about your chances. Find out who has been successful in the past. how does your CV look against theirs, get honest feedback from referees, sponsors etc.
  • Statistically there are more good researchers than there are JRF's to offer. If you're getting shortlisted it is a good sign. Keep going and you may well get an offer in due course. Plenty of people have good academic careers without a JRF.
  • It’s acceptable to re-apply to a college that you applied to in a previous competition.
  • Usually 150-250 applications per place, 700 applications for the big group competitions. However, numbers are unpredictable: one subject-specific competition had 16 applicants one year, and 86 the next.
  • 'Open competitions' may not be truly open – they may unofficially want / not want a certain subject, but you won’t know this. Do not be disheartened if your application does well at some colleges and is rejected outright at others.
  • Some interviewers may have decided in advance that they are not interested in certain candidates. They are not accountable to HR in the way that other employers would be. Hiring / shortlisting process is not 100% transparent. You often get unofficial feedback but rarely hear anything officially.
  • There is always a lot of luck involved! It’s a complicated and opaque process.

Surviving meanwhile (during the application process)

Many leave applying until after submitting their PhD which leaves a gap before any JRF would start.

  • Research Assistant roles, either full or part time, keeps you in academia and available for networking, interviews etc
  • Supervisions (which pay in arrears)
  • Guest lectures - network to offer these
  • Academic administration (try the Cambridge Temporary Employment Service)
Research proposal and CV

Applying for JRFs - research proposal and CV

  • Have an draft version of your statement ready to develop.
  • It needs to address: why I should be doing the research; why here; why now; why at all.
  • Format for easy consumption (title!!)
  • It is worth starting to apply early, so that you can refine your proposals with practice. Many applicants apply before finishing their PhDs. If your PhD is not yet published, specify time and outcome for this.
  • Focus on your achievements so far.
  • In your research statement / proposal give detail on which journals you plan to submit to. Specify concrete outcomes (book? Articles?), preferably with a temporal structure.
  • Should be comprehensible to academics not in your field, i.e. only semi-technical. Get someone else not in your field to read it, and make it very clear why your research is extra special. Use key words to ring bells with different interest groups.
  • Ask friends, colleagues etc to read over the proposal and give you honest blunt feedback.
  • It is useful (as a researcher in English) to suggest you’re a historian; scientists can understand that better than literary criticism or literary theory.

Writing sample

  • Requirements will depend on your subject; could be parts of your Thesis; could be publications (you will be asked to specify your contribution)
  • A trick: if you have more good work than they asked to see, send in the lot and say ‘please read portions X, Y and Z’
  • For scientists, sending stand-alone journal articles is relatively straightforward. For arts researchers, you will have to chop bits out of your PhD / book, which is much harder; you probably need a short prefatory explanation to put it in context. Get friends, family to read your writing sample.

CV

  • Keep it mostly academic
  • Include any prizes and publications in preparation; publications are important
  • Show that you’re a workhorse, not a navel-gazer
  • Include a few interests to demonstrate how you might contribute to college life
  • No need to itemise the tripos papers you supervise more than once
Referees and readers

Applying for JRFs - referees/readers

  • 2-3 referees, of whom one can be your PhD supervisor. It's the referees' role to suggest readers to college.
  • Referees are very important - choose them carefully. Some Colleges will immediately disregard any candidate without strong references. Unclear at what stage colleges obtain references.
  • Locate allies in UK academia – this takes time.
  • Remember to keep those who aren’t your supervisor informed about your PhD’s progress.
  • Ask referees’ advice about what of your written work to submit.
  • Readers are very important. Should include people outside of Cambridge. Make sure (via your referees, or direct, if your referees take suggestions of readers from you) that they understand what a JRF is. You need readers who are sympathetic to your work.
  • Longlisted only and your supervisor surprised you’re making no more progress? Consider changing your non-supervisor referees. They may be too busy to read you properly, especially if they’re much in demand because known as a good referee. Or – one of your referees may be recommending the wrong reader.
  • If not shortlisted in your own colleges: consult fellows in your subject in your college.

Give your referees:

  • A list of deadlines, arranged in temporal sequence (update and re-send the list as necessary)
  • Your CV
  • Your research proposal(s)
  • Plenty of advance warning!
  • Sometimes, despite all the reminders, referees FORGET to send references. Make sure this doesn’t happen to you!! For online applications, referees are sent automatic reminders; you can track whether they have submitted your reference.
  • Colleges may not give referees much instruction. Check what your referees want, but it’s good to send them the advert and flag up any salient points, e.g. teaching experience is / is not required in this competition.
Interviews and presentations

Interviews

  • are usually around 30 mins.
  • can include a 5 minute presentation with handouts.
  • Giving a presentation is NOT like reading out an article. If you memorise your presentation, this should not be obvious!

What a college wants from an interview

  • Some colleges interview and some don't. On the whole, those that do want to know "what can you contribute to college", those that don’t tend to be more concerned purely with your research.
  • Research the college – they may ask you what you will contribute to college life. Look for gaps in the subjects covered by college. Talk to current JRFs at different colleges.
  • If possible, find out who your interviewers are in advance, read their research profiles. Read the profiles of other researchers in college: how would you fit in?
  • If you are being interviewed, you are academically excellent; so part of the aim is to see what you are like as a person.
  • Teaching may or may not come up in discussion. It is good to ask for teaching opportunities, e.g. lecturing, teaching masters students – you will need experience for lectureship applications. Provide a list of papers you can teach for.
  • Questions on longer term future plans – how you would use your JRF, publishing plans.

Preparing for an interview or presentation

  • Do practice interviews / go over your CV.
  • Practice soundbites describing your work – 1 min, 5 mins, 10 mins. This is useful both for interviews and networking. Don’t sound pre-programmed.
  • Panels are often mixed specialist / general. Include names of well-known people (or concepts) in your presentation, so that the generalists can connect to your work. Subject-specific competitions still have a generalist interview panel. When an interviewer in a mixed panel asks a specialist question, it’s ok to give two answers: first answer the specialist, then "allow me to rephrase this in more general terms".
  • Usually includes a short technical interview with an expert.
  • Non-specialists often unwittingly ask very difficult questions. Remember: audiences absorb new information slowly. Use analogies the audience can relate to. Whenever you have to present yourself (whether orally or in writing), consult with friends from a different field.

See also the section on JRFs from our guide on Interview Skills for Academia.