practical phd

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Throughout my time as a PhD student, I heard about “postdoctoral fellowships” as an option after graduating.  No one ever directly explained what they meant when they mentioned that so-and-so got a “postdoc” or there’s a new “postdoc” program, but there seemed to be an underlying assumption that postdocs provided an opportunity to focus solely on your research before being in a tenure-track position.  I didn’t realize until I was on the job market and applying to jobs and postdocs that the term “postdoctoral fellowship” is actually used to describe a much wider range of opportunities for social scientists. Below is my attempt to classify (yes, I’m a sociologist) the different types of postdocs to help graduate students in the social sciences better understand their options.  The categories I describe are not meant to be mutually exclusive, as you’ll see by a few examples I include at the end, but capture the range of what you might find. Those of you looking towards the job market may find that you want to pursue a postdoc that goes beyond the commonly assumed definition of the term based on some of the benefits I describe below.

The Basic Model

This is the postdoc most people think of when they hear the word.  It is also the base model to which other postdocs add some other element.  The basic model includes funding and access to resources to work on your research with no other (required) responsibilities.  The goal of the postdoc program is to support junior scholars’ intellectual development. Postdocs are provided office space, a salary, health insurance, and access to the host university’s resources.  You might apply for this type of postdoc directly, but some private universities are able to offer Assistant Professors a basic model postdoc as part of a job offer. There seem to be very few postdocs like this, as you’ll see in the examples below.  More often postdocs build on this model to provide postdocs with some support, justify the expense of paying for the postdoc, and cover funding for the position through some other funding stream.  

The Mentored Postdoc

Some postdocs include a faculty mentor with the goal of providing postdocs with support and advice in advancing their career.  This can include help with setting goals, regular check in meetings, feedback on papers and presentations, and reference letters for job and grant applications.  Some of these programs require identifying a mentor before applying and getting a commitment letter from the mentor, while others match accepted applicants with mentors based on availability and interests.  Be sure to read the application requirements carefully to determine if it’s the former or the latter and contact potential mentors several months before if necessary and possible.

The Research Center Postdoc 

Some university-based research centers hire postdocs to work on their projects and programming.  While the prior two types allow the postdoc to focus 100% of their time on their own research, this type of postdoc often requires that 50-100% of the postdoc’s time be spent on work that benefits the research center directly.  This work can include data collection, analysis, and writing on what is usually team-based research projects, but might also include applying for grants for new projects.  

The Research Team Postdoc 

Similar to the research center postdoc, the research team postdoc integrates the postdoc into a larger research project and research team.  The main difference between this postdoc type and the prior is that these postdocs are with individual faculty members or small faculty teams rather than attached to a research center.  These are the types of opportunities you might only hear about by networking with faculty at conferences. Similar to the research center postdoc, these jobs often require that postdocs spend 50-100% of their time on the research project that is funding them.  

The Teaching Postdoc 

Some postdocs include a teaching requirement.  This is actually fairly common since teaching is a way to fund a postdoctoral position.  However, there is a wide range in teaching load from as little as one course in 3 years to as much as a 2-1 load.  The teaching load is usually less than what’s expected of tenure-track faculty, so positions at teaching institutions have a higher requirement than those at research institutions in general.  These positions don’t have as clear of a divide between the postdoc’s time for research and their time for teaching, but the assumption is often that when a postdoc is teaching they will still have time to do their research, thus the partial teaching load.  

The Diversity Postdoc

This final postdoc type is never a standalone category in this typology.  The diversity postdoc is a subtype based on the required characteristics of applicants.  These postdocs specifically target members of underrepresented groups for postdoctoral funding and many of them specifically target underrepresented racial/ethnic groups.  This focus is mostly about the priorities of the funding entity to provide opportunities to underrepresented groups in the academy and less about what the postdoc actually does during their postdoc.  

What Kind of Postdoc Do You Want?

These different postdoc opportunities are not all equal.  Having 100% of your time to focus on your research and whatever professional development and engagement you identify is going to yield different results than being in a postdoc where only 50% of your time is focused on your research.  That said, there are several reasons you might want a postdoc that includes required research or teaching. First, postdocs that include research with a team offer exposure to a different kind of research environment than many social science Ph.D. programs.  The team environment can be dynamic and fast-paced in comparison to sole-authored research, which may be appealing to you if you found research to be at all isolating as a graduate student. Even if you’ll be spending less time on your sole-authored projects, you could still end up with publications depending on the length of time you’re working with the team and what stage the project is in when you start your postdoc.  

Second, teaching a reduced teaching load during a postdoc is a good opportunity to ease into the demands of a tenure-track professor.  You’ll be forced to figure out how to balance your teaching responsibilities including course prep, grading, office hours, and administrative tasks with pushing forward your research projects.  You’ll also end your postdoc with at least one syllabus under your belt and classroom experience that you may not have gotten as a graduate student depending on your institution and funding package.  This experience will make starting a tenure-track job a little bit easier.  

A Few Examples

As I mentioned upfront, none of these types are mutually exclusive.  Below are a few examples with links for more information and a list of the types of postdocs they represent.  If you are using this list to look for potential postdocs, pay attention to when this post was written, as it is possible some of these opportunities no longer exist.  

Postdoctoral FellowshipTypes
Brown’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America Postdoctoral FellowshipBasic, Research Center, Teaching
Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty DiversityBasic, Diversity, Teaching
Cornell Presidential Postdoctoral FellowshipBasic, Mentored
Dartmouth Society of FellowsBasic, Teaching
Indiana’s Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society Postdoctoral FellowshipBasic, Research Center, Teaching
NYU’s Provost PostdocBasic, Mentored, Diversity, Teaching
President’s Postdoc programBasic, Mentored, Diversity
Princeton Society of FellowsBasic, Teaching
U Michigan LSA Collegiate Postdoctoral Fellowship ProgramBasic, Diversity, Teaching

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