What is a Postdoctoral Fellowship?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Most times when people get a doctorate degree, it’s called a terminal degree. It means it is the highest degree someone can attain in a field or the end point of studies. Yet, earning a degree doesn’t necessarily mean that research or studies are over, and in order to continue research, there are many degrees, and especially colleges that offer something called a postdoctoral fellowship.

Research may be the principal focus in some fellowships.
Research may be the principal focus in some fellowships.

A postdoctoral fellowship might be offered in a vast variety of fields, and very often in departments like the straight sciences and the social sciences; however, there are some fellowships in the humanities too. It is usually a paid position, but not quite on par with being a professor. Sometimes people who want to work at a specific college as a professor will complete a postdoctoral fellowship in hopes of being offered a tenured teaching position thereafter. Other times, there is just a tempting area of research the student would like to pursue in more depth, and would have difficulty doing without some funding.

Postdoctoral fellows in the sciences may collect and analyze laboratory results on a specific topic.
Postdoctoral fellows in the sciences may collect and analyze laboratory results on a specific topic.

While research may be the principal focus in some fellowships, other students want to do or make something. For instance, a student could have evolved a way to integrate media in classroom studies and wants to try this out. Some fellowships are offered more for students who wish to teach certain types of classes or to take part in think tanks that bring together several departments.

Some postdoctoral fellowships may focus heavily on research.
Some postdoctoral fellowships may focus heavily on research.

There are a fair amount of postdoctoral fellowship positions, and at minimum people must have completed and been awarded a doctorate. There may be other requirements depending on the school. University of California (UC) has some postdoctoral studies that are limited to students who earned doctorates at one of their schools, for example. Fellowships typically aren’t like college admission to a graduate program. A department may only award one or two a year, if that. Length of the fellowships can vary too. Some can last four to five years and others are for only a couple of years long.

Perhaps the best way to start searching for a postdoctoral fellowship is by asking graduate teachers or advisors which ones they recommend. Online searching is also not a bad choice, since this may quickly bring up quite a few options. To limit search returns, try searching in areas of interest only, otherwise there is a good chance of not being able to wade through all the potential postdoc fellowships that exist. People can search for fellowships internationally too, if research in another country would make more sense or sounds attractive.

Sometimes individuals seeking to work as professors at specific universities will complete a postdoctoral fellowship in hopes of being offered a tenured position afterwards.
Sometimes individuals seeking to work as professors at specific universities will complete a postdoctoral fellowship in hopes of being offered a tenured position afterwards.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


A post doctoral position in physical education is not easy to come by. In Africa, very few universities have provisions for post-doctoral programs.


It's not easy to find a postdoc in finance scholarship program anywhere in the world.


I must not be an academic at heart, but I can't imagine why anyone would want to take a postdoctoral fellowship. After spending years and years in school getting a doctorate degree, wouldn't you want to actually get out into the world and work in your field?


@KaBoom - When you say it like that, it sounds pretty sneaky of the universities, doesn't it? They basically get to audition professors while paying them less and not committing to anything.

Although the article did point out some benefits for postdoctoral fellows. I can imagine some people aren't really interested in being professors and they just want to do research or a project. As the article said, schools have access to a lot of equipment and other things the average person could never afford!


I've actually never heard of a postdoctoral fellowship before, but I only have a bachelor's degree. If I decided to go back to school, I would have a long way to go before getting a doctorate, let alone doing a postdoctoral fellowship.

However, I can definitely see the benefits of doing a postdoctoral fellowship for someone with their doctorate. I feel like doing a science postdoctoral fellowship at a university, and doing well, would be a great way to get a job as a professor.

And there is a benefit for the schools too. They get to "try out" professors before committing to hiring them as full-time faculty.


My cousin has her PhD in psychology and is currently a professor at a college university. She is 5 years younger than me, and it seemed like she was in school forever.

Once she graduated with her PhD, she took part in a postdoctoral fellowship program for a couple of years.

Even though she was anxious to begin teaching, this was probably one of the best things she could have done. It gave her that much more experience.

She was then hired on as a full time professor for the college where she did her postdoctoral fellowship. This is the same college where she still teaches, so this turned out to be very beneficial for her.


@wavy58 - I have also been seen by a few fellowship doctors from time to time. For me it depends on the nature of my problem if I am seen by the regular doctor or one in a fellowship program.

If I am being seen for something that is routine, I don't mind because I know they have had many years of education and training. Most of the time, the regular doctor is with them anyway.

If this was for something more serious, I would always prefer to have the specialist in the room.


I had no idea that postdoctoral fellowships were available in such a wide range of fields. I had only ever heard of one type, and I thought that was the only kind in existence.

I watch a lot of medical television shows, and hospitals are always taking on new doctors through fellowships. Also, I participate in a clinical trial for a new type of drug to treat kidney disease, and when I go in for an exam, sometimes one of the “fellows,” as they call him, will meet with me instead of the study doctor.

To me, he seems even more thorough and concerned about my case than the official study doctor. Maybe he feels he has something to prove, or maybe he has fresh enthusiasm, since he hasn’t been doing this for decades yet.


I have a friend who has a postdoctoral fellowship in chemistry. She stayed in school until she was thirty, and she got one of the only jobs she could have gotten without having to leave the state.

There are not a whole lot of positions for chemists around here, so she really got in on a good thing. In her position, she works with other researchers to develop new medicines. She got to work with a team to develop a cure for poison ivy, and that was pretty cool.

The position doesn’t pay what you would expect a chemist to make, but it does give her the opportunity to stay in her home state. I know she is attached to her family and doesn’t want to move far away.


I have never heard of anyone getting a postdoctoral fellowship in English. How common is it really to get a fellowship in the humanities?


I have a friend that is currently a postdoc in physics at Washington University in St. Louis. It is a great gig and she loves it. It allows her to continue her research in an academic setting using equipment and resources that she would not have access to anywhere else. On the flip side, the university gets to keep bright young talent on campus even after they have graduated.


I think that postdoctoral fellowship opportunities are becoming more and more common as college try to cut costs (with hirings that cost less than full professors) and to keep recent PhD graduates busy. There just aren't enough tenure-track jobs to go around, and a fellowship is a respectable way to stay busy, build your resume, and pay the rent if you do not get one at first.

The disadvantage, of course, is for grads who are ready to settle down, as many of them are. They have been in grad school for anywhere from four to seven years and most are nearing 30 or in their 30s. They may want to find a permanent home and start a family. A postdoc fellowship may require a cross-country move, just to be followed by another move a year or two later.

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