Oxbridge JRF Applications – A Brief How-To

Application season for the Oxbridge JRFs has just rolled around (in fact, the first deadline, Trinity, seems to be on Friday, so this post is a little late). A common complaint about these jobs is that their application procedure is difficult to access and poorly explained – and this complaint is often pretty fair. In the spirit of de-mystification, I’d like to share some of the basics of JRF applications. This post is, of course, based on my own experiences and knowledge of the process, and shouldn’t be taken as official guidance. I’m currently a JRF at Gonville and Caius, Cambridge, and applied for about 17 of these jobs in 2012 before getting my current job.

Who are JRFs for?

JRFs are early-career research positions, usually at Oxford and Cambridge (other universities run similar schemes, but I cannot speak from experience about applying to them). They usually last between two and five years, though the majority are three-year positions. Most are research-only posts, though a few include some compulsory teaching or pastoral work in the college.

There are two main kinds of JRF: stipendiary (i.e. paid) and non-stipendiary (unpaid). For stipendiary JRFs, the pay ranges from about £18,000 to £27,000, with many also offering free meals and free (or cheap) accommodation. Non-stipendiary JRFs are usually intended to give a college affiliation, including free meals and other benefits, to people with another paid post in the university (e.g. people who work in a lab, on a research project or who have a British Academy or Leverhume Fellowship). Non-stipendiary JRFs are not intended to be anyone’s main job – don’t apply for them unless you have another job or source of funding.

JRFs can be subject-specific (e.g. Classics), intended for people in a small group of subjects (Languages and Literature), or open to a very wide range of people (Arts and Humanities, or Arts/Humanities/Sciences). You don’t always know what will come along in any given year, but many each year are open to all subjects. People generally apply to all the JRFs they are eligible for – as many as 20 of them in a given year.

When should I apply?

All the various colleges have their own deadlines, but in general the deadlines will fall between August 2015 and February 2016 for positions starting in October 2016. Yes – sometimes you can apply over a year in advance for a JRF. This can be very inconvenient – those who haven’t finished their PhD yet may feel unprepared, while those who have recently finished could get stuck with an in-between year without employment. Don’t let either of these things worry you too much – some colleges will allow you to start early if you have already finished, or allow you to start late if you haven’t finished your PhD (or will accept that you’ll spend part of your JRF finishing your thesis).

Should I apply with my PhD in hand?

As far as I can tell, there’s no particular advantage either way. Some colleges like to feel that they’re snatching up future research stars before they finish their PhD, others prefer to hire mostly those who have finished and have more of a track record. Since people are hired both pre- and post-PhD, it’s possible to apply to JRFs for several years in a row, and this is pretty common.

If you’ve not already finished your PhD when you apply, though, I’d strongly recommend including a timetable for completion somewhere on your application – a list of what you still need to complete, with achievable dates for completing each chapter and a final hand-in date. No one will hold you to this, but it will support the idea that you can finish in time to start a new project in a few months time, and that you can manage your own research in future.

If you are thinking of waiting to apply after your PhD, you should also be aware of the eligibility criteria for JRFs. Many specify that applicants must have no more than 4 years of research behind them by a particular date – so it is very easy to time out of eligibility by the time you have your PhD in hand.

How do I find out about vacancies?

It’s hard to stay on top of the vacancies and deadlines. You may want to sign up to the jobs.ac.uk notifications, but not every JRF will show up there in a timely manner (though most will). The most reliable sources of information on the JRF job adverts are the Cambridge Reporter and the Oxford Gazette – you can read these online or get them sent to you by email each week. You can also use (and contribute to) resources like the Humanities and Social Sciences Post-Doc Wiki, though this is often focussed on jobs in the USA.

If you really want to plan ahead, you can also spend some time checking each college’s website (or last year’s job adverts) to get a vague idea of when each college has its deadline.

What will I need to provide?

This could be a post in itself. In general, you will need (a) CV type information, (b) a research statement, (c) two to three supportive referees and (d) some work that you are prepared to submit.

The difficulty is that every JRF application will require slightly different things. Research statements will be of different lengths, from one page to several thousand words; some colleges will ask only about your past research, or only about your future research, while others will want to know about both. Some will ask for a sample of work (anything from 10,000 to 80,000 words) with the initial application, others will only ask for work at a later short-listing stage.

There are many sites out there on writing research proposals, though make sure to consult your colleagues too. Your proposal needs to be seen by plenty of pairs eyes before you press “send” – so where you can, get your colleagues and friends to read your stuff and give you advice and edits.

In general: check very carefully what each college wants before you press “submit”. The endless variety is incredibly tedious at first, but eventually you’ll have your research statement prepared in every possible length, and things will start to get easier. The most common length for the initial submitted work is around 10,000 words – so it’s a good idea to have a PhD chapter or a published article article around this length ready to go.

Is it true that only Oxbridge people get JRFs?

This is a tough question, and probably not one I’m qualified to answer. In my experience, somewhere around 75% of JRFs have some Oxbridge connection themselves, either at undergrad or grad level. The other 25% or so do not. But (again, in my own personal anecdotal experience) those 25% very often have a supervisor, advisor or mentor who has an Oxbridge connection, though I also know a few without any connection at all.

The JRF process is a long and tough one, and it seems to be a real advantage to have someone familiar with the process to guide you and spend time with you on your application. People who have been at Oxbridge are clearly over-represented in these jobs – but it definitely is possible to get one from elsewhere with the right preparation, and being at Oxbridge is no guarantee of success.

What happens next?

Most colleges have a short-listing stage, and then an interview stage. Though some have only one, or neither. If you have applied to jobs which will be asking for work at a later date, make sure you’ll have it ready in time for their short-listing date, as they probably won’t give you much time to give it in. Laura Tisdall has recently written more about the interview stage, with some advice for interviews for other kinds of jobs too.

Final thoughts

The process of applying for academic jobs takes a huge amount of self-belief. This isn’t always easy to summon up – but I’m here to tell you that if you are getting towards the end of your PhD and already have some ideas for your next project, then you definitely SHOULD believe in yourself and your potential. Writing a research proposal using words like “cutting-edge” and “ground-breaking” can feel ridiculously over-confident – but use those words. Because no one will know how great your research is unless you tell them (keep in mind that there will be people from all disciplines, not just your own, assessing your application).

In general, the rejections will begin to trickle in before the short-listings and interview offers, which is very discouraging – but it’s important to keep applying, and to understand that this is partly just a timing issue. Everyone who eventually gets a JRFs has had lots of rejections too. Stay positive, see friends, keep up your hobbies, and carry on doing your fantastic research too. Remember too that JRFs are far from the only way into an academic career – there are many kinds of opportunites out there. But if you are interested in applying, feel free to reach out to me or other JRFs on twitter or by email – I know we’ll all do our best to offer help and advice where we can. Good luck!

29 thoughts on “Oxbridge JRF Applications – A Brief How-To

Add yours

  1. Hi Katherine,

    Thank you for your helpful post.
    I’m going to apply for a JRFs in Math and Engineering at King’s College, Cambridge. They required a research statement with current and future research. Would it be possible to propose research in collaboration with other researchers from my country (Vietnam)? Most of my works are lab works and one of the materials in my research proposal is not available in the UK.
    Also, they have asked for 3 academics referees, each of them has to provide two further readers. I would like to ask if they should be expert in my fields?

    Thank you.


  2. Hi Katherine,

    Many thanks for responding to my earlier comment. I wanted to give an update as to how things went for me, also for anyone who comes across this blog post in the future. I ended up applying to 14 Oxbridge JRF posts in total, a few of which were subject-specific. I ended up getting longlisted for 6 of those and, of those, interviewed for 3. I wasn’t successful for the first two interviews (in both, I was competing against people from other Humanities subjects). The first college gave me good, if slightly confusing, feedback and the second didn’t bother getting back to me at all. I actually ended up getting the job after the third interview which was a huge relief and complete surprise. The JRF was for one subject only and is not actually attached to a college but to a research centre. I think the niche nature of the role worked to my advantage as, in the wider competitions, I feel that my subject seemed a bit ‘weird’ to the selection committees. I was very lucky that the role was available.

    I’m not sure if I gained any amazing insights following my experience as an applicant. I would say that having spoken to senior people in my field, they regard the whole JRF thing as extremely subjective and not necessarily about who’s the best but more about who the committee like the most. I’m not sure that really made me feel better! I suppose it helped me to accept my rejections with a little less bitterness 🙂


  3. Hi Nesrine,

    Four long-listings out of 12 would be very encouraging – but of course it’s frustrating not to get interviews. Colleges don’t typically offer feedback for these posts, unfortunately – in fact, most academic jobs are unlikely to give feedback unless you have an interview. Some still don’t contact unsuccessful applicants, which is terrible and really not justifiable.

    Good luck with any applications for this year.


  4. Hi SW – you should definitely apply to any colleges where you’re eligible for the post, and not worry about the makeup of the current fellowship. In fact, when I got my job at Caius they had no Classics fellows (although they ended up hiring another soon afterwards). Sometimes they are looking to fill a gap – sometimes they are just looking for great research with no particular agenda on subjects. You have no way of knowing, so don’t count yourself out.

    Linguistics in Cambridge is split between Classics, English, Modern Languages and others, so you may find that there are fellows (or former fellows) with a research interest in Linguistics in more colleges than you think, too.

    Good luck with your applications!


  5. Hi,

    Thanks for this great post!

    You mentioned that the process is usually run by a committee of fellows. I was just wondering if it is at all worth a try to apply to a college when there is literally no fellow in the college working in the same field as you?

    For example, I’m a linguist and some colleges such as St. John’s at Cambridge have no linguist (linguistics is quite a small subject at Camb!) I know chances are that I will be rejected regardless, but if I applied to St. John’s, would the probability that I get short-listed/elected approximate zero?


  6. Hi Katherine! Thanks a lot for this insightful blog post. I hope you don’t mind if I ask you a question. I have applied to 12 Oxbridge JRFs so far (I’m an Oxbridge grad myself). Of the 9 that have responded, I’ve been long-listed for 4 but not asked for interview (2 are still deliberating). Does this sound encouraging to you? I have no idea how many/often people get long-listed or interviewed. I tried asking for feedback from colleges that rejected me but, unsurprisingly, none has been forthcoming. The whole process is so mysterious and I don’t know where I’m going wrong or how ‘well’ I’m doing. It’s pretty upsetting, as I’m sure you’re well aware. I’ve not been very successful in distracting myself from the whole process!


  7. Hi Anthony – different schemes will want different things. What do the instructions say for the application you’re looking at?


  8. Katherine, what exactly should the initial application include? The copy says 2000 words. Should this consist of informaton about my PhD, my proposed research, both, or something else?


  9. As far as I know, yes: travel and accommodation expenses for interviews are reimbursed, as they would be for other university job interviews. Some colleges may offer you accommodation in the college instead of reimbursing you.

    A few colleges don’t hold interviews, so this issue doesn’t come up.


  10. Thank you so much for this excellent piece of advice and your helpful replies to questions! You mentioned that invitations for interviews may only be sent a week before the interview date. For me this raises a rather practical question: Do colleges usually reimburse JRF interviewees for the cost of travelling (and, if necessary, accommodation)? I would honestly have to think twice about applying for Oxbridge JRFs if they don’t….


  11. I don’t disagree with you at all – a high level of academic achievement and a deep level of motivation are both important. But the vast majority of applicants to research fellowships possess both of those factors. So my advice here is really about how to get these qualities across in particular kinds of job applications, and the best way to go about surrounding some rather opaque application processes – I assume that anyone reading this is pretty academically excellent already.


  12. Excellent site Katherine and sound advise. I’ve worked on ONE letter of application for someone last year for entry to an undergraduate course who got offers for Leuven,St.Andrews, Durham and Exeter (they accepted Leuven).
    I’ve found the success lies primarily in the academic level of achievement of the applicant based on the deep level of motivation they possess for the subject.
    A previous poster highlighted their success in getting their work into recognised publications/journals. These are gold standard indicators of an objective level that any university would wish to see.
    Ultimately, what I’m saying is the quality of academic work that is relevant to the department that shows innovation and ability is more likely to be viewed in a positive light.
    The old saying about prior planning and preparation holds true for any application all through the academic sector.


  13. Hi SC – a good general rule of thumb for all job interviews in life is only to send what they ask for. If they haven’t asked for a CV, just a publications list (for example), then that’s what you should send. You can always highlight your conference experience later, or include it on your academia.edu page or your personal website, so the information is available if they want to look you up.

    If they’re requesting specific pieces of information instead of a CV, then it’s partly to make it easier for them to make a fair comparison across a large number of candidates. People sending in extra information is probably either annoying, or will just be disregarded.


  14. Hi, thank you so much for this article!

    I have a question: If the JRF application does not ask for some particular information, for instance conferences presented at (and also haven’t asked for a CV), is it still okay to submit a page containing this information along with the application, or will the information-overload not be welcome?

    Thank you!


  15. That’s a good question, and I don’t really know the answer. I think in general people don’t mention past job interviews on application forms, but I could be wrong – I’d maybe contact a more senior UK colleague to ask them.


  16. Hi, great post. A question from an outsider to the UK academic field : I wondered if it is worth mentioning in a CV if one has been called for interview for such positions, even if not eventually elected, since this stage comes after the examination of several research papers and sometimes and entire thesis ? I was called thrice for Cambridge JRF interviews last year, albeit unsuccessfully, and I wondered if it was wise mentioning this when applying to other positions in the UK ?


  17. Thanks, that is very kind! Again, thanks a lot for your post and replying to our questions and clarifying the ‘hidden’ aspects of the JRFs’ election procedure!


  18. That’s fantastic news, congratulations! Looking forward to welcoming you in Cambridge – feel free to email me some time if you want to meet up with any one.


  19. Me again… I was finally elected at St Catharine, Cambridge! I would just share my experience if I might, it may be useful for those who will prepare applications in the future to make comparison. The discipline is history and I have no Oxbridge background whatsoever. However, in three years of my PhD, I managed to get 5 articles accepted in the highest ranked journals, which is quite rare and probably played a big role with me getting elected, since JRFs are primarily research posts. On top of that, I have quite international profile. I must admit that I am really happy it worked straight away and that I do not have to go through the application process next year again… Good luck to everyone!

    Liked by 2 people

  20. If I remember rightly, Caius contacts people to invite them to interview about a week before the interview. I’m not sure of the timeline for other colleges.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Hello. I’m curious about Caius too. Still no word and I now presume (given the proximity to Christmas) that I haven’t been put onto the longlist because (as you note) interviews take place on the 15th of January. That’s very soon. Let me know if/when you make the longlist so I can be removed from this misery!


  22. I don’t remember exactly how many colleges I was short-listed at – I’ve checked, but I didn’t keep a list on my computer. If I remember rightly, by early January 2013 I had applied for 17, been rejected from 6 or so, been shortlisted (and asked to send work) for maybe 2 or 3, and I had one invitation to interview (at Caius). I then got that job, and withdrew from the rest – so I don’t know exactly how many of the 17 would have shortlisted me anyway. It definitely made December a difficult time, as the rejections always come through before the shortlistings.

    What you have sent sounds fine – I sent Caius about half my PhD thesis and an article, I think (again, I can’t remember exactly, but it was something like that). Congratulations on getting shortlisted somewhere else too!


  23. Thank you very much for this post, it is kind of reassuring to know that even succesful candidates have to make 17 applications… I would just have two questions. Do you remember how many of them had you shortlisted and invited for interviews? I was for example shortlisted for one until now, and I sent them a PhD chapter based on two published articles. Also at Gonville & Caius (which is supposed to hold interviews on 15 January, so I hope that they will reply soon), they wanted 30000 words, so I sent one article and a 22000 words PhD chapter especially adapted for this competition. In my mind, I thought that they can see the list of publications in my CV anyway, and I sent them one chapter so that the commitee can in a way be sure that I will finish my PhD by next year. Would it have been better if I had sent them only articles, or it doesn’t really matter?


  24. Yes I think that’s fine – people you want to work with in the university are part of the reason why Cambridge is the right place for your project.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Thank you for this post. I have a question: is it expected that I would refer to professors I’d be excited to work alongside in my JRF proposal? Even/especially if they are not in the college in question?


  26. Yes – that’s great advice for all job and grant applications.
    Chances are no one reading the application will know the state of your field better that you, so you have to tell them why and how it’s groundbreaking and important, otherwise they simply won’t know.


  27. Great post. Another thing to remember – as with grant applications too – is that lots of perfectly interesting, valid proposals will get turned down. This is not because there is anything actually wrong with them, but rather because they do not stand out has having a potentially transformatory impact on (or beyond) the discipline concerned. In other words, what you have to do is show the wider relevance of your research – that is, address the key “why is this important” question.


  28. Yes, all JRFs (and actually many academic jobs) receive hundreds of applications. I don’t know whether a typo would count you out exactly, but certainly the selection choices are arbitrary to some extent when dealing with so many applications. Even candidates who go on to get a JRF get many many rejections first.

    The selection process is usually run by a committee of fellows, who each take a selection of the application loosely related to their own discipline – they then produce a short-list to be seen by the whole committee. Individual interests and preferences are definitely part of it, and that can end up being impossible to predict.

    The best cure for typos, though, is simply to get a LOT of people to read your application before sending it off, no matter how daunting that seems.


  29. Great post ! Another thing about JRF is how selective (random ?) they are. I heard (second hand from a student having a friend whose Professor sit on a JRF committee) that the most prestigious JRFs at Oxford ( the Christ Church/ Merton/St John’s trinity) receive hundreds of applications for each position. The selection is ruthless, a single typo being enough to strike you out of the process. A bit depressing…


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