Nationally competitive postdoctoral fellowships are a logical next-step for many graduate students, especially those pursuing a tenure-track career. These awards typically fall into two basic categories: those with an emphasis on teaching, and those with an emphasis on research. As a dissertating graduate student beginning to think about applying for postdoctoral fellowships, it will be important to consider the ways in which these two different emphases suggest different strategies for a competitive application.
Postdoctoral fellowships with an emphasis on teaching are commonly available in the humanities and social sciences, and less often in the physical or natural sciences. These positions may require fellows to teach three to four courses per semester, allowing fellows to gain valuable teaching experience and sometimes develop courses of their own. Writing an application for this type of award involves emphasizing your previous teaching experience through your application letter, reference letters, CV, as well as teaching evaluations, syllabi, and sample assignments. In addition, your application should highlight the ways in which the topics you are qualified to teach will complement the department’s existing courses.
Research-oriented postdocs are most often available to Ph.D.s in the natural and physical sciences, biomedical sciences, engineering, and social sciences. These positions may require fellows to devote all, or nearly all, of their time to a new research project with an advisor at the new institution. This type of award allows fellows to expand and deepen their research skills and network, and sometimes provides opportunities to mentor undergraduate or graduate student researcher. Applications for research postdocs should propose a new research project that deviates significantly from the applicant’s graduate research, including a new research question, hypothesis, literature review, methodology, etc. The development of the second project should be guided by both the current (dissertation) advisor and the new (postdoctoral) advisor, both of whom may be asked to speak for the proposal in letters of support or recommendation. Furthermore, the proposal should demonstrate that the fellow’s new institution is critical to the success of the second project, and that the new skills and contacts the fellow makes there will be fundamental to future research success.
Beyond these two basic categories, postdocs can cover a spectrum of variable balances between teaching and research. A good rule-of-thumb is that if the postdoctoral appointment is more than one year long, or involves teaching fewer than two classes per semester, reviewers usually expect successful candidates to pitch at least the initial phases of a second project (rather than emphasizing the development of a book manuscript, for example). However, once you have selected the postdoctoral fellowship that seems to have the right balance for you, contact the program officer or program administrator to learn more about the review process, criteria, and characteristics of a successful application!