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Careers Café

Planning ahead: post-doctoral fellowships


As you get closer to actually finishing the PhD, your thoughts turn to what’s next. In addition to reading blogs like this one, you are scanning the academic job ads, building a CV that might make you competitive and thinking about short term options.

While teaching experience is useful, if you are going to be competitive for a tenure-track position, you need research.

A post-doctoral fellowship is an ideal way to move on from your doctoral research, expand your networks, develop new skills and build your publications list. This is a normal career step in the hard sciences and becoming more common in the social sciences and humanities.

There are a variety of ways your post-doctoral research might be funded. You can secure a fellowship in your own right from the appropriate Tri-Council funding agency (SSHRC, NSERC, CIHR). You can be hired as a post-doctoral fellow by an established researcher, who will probably fund your fellowship through their grant or other funds. A university can put you forward for a Banting post-doctoral fellowship. (Be wary of anything called a post-doc that is really just teaching. Some teaching as part of a well-rounded post-doctoral fellowship makes sense. Using “post-doc” as a fancy name for a contractually limited appointment is misleading.)

In all cases you will be in a better position if you have solid ideas about where you want your research to go in the long term, what skills and knowledge you need, what a one to two year research project that would take you along that path might look like, and a good idea of who you might want to work with.

Use conferences and other networking opportunities to learn more about potential post-doctoral supervisors and even to meet with them and talk about your ideas informally. Remember to talk to others who have worked with a particular potential supervisor to find out if their work style and the workplace environment is likely to be a good fit for you.

Talk to your potential supervisor early in the process. Get feedback on your proposal. Their reference and the “fit” between your project and the institution and supervisor are likely to be important factors in the adjudication of any fellowship competition. Not only that, but they may have grant funds that could support you if you are not successful in the independent fellowship competition.

There is also the possibility that they are working on a grant proposal right now and can work your project into that bigger grant. They won’t be able to guarantee you anything but it may be worth your time and effort to help with that proposal. At minimum you will gain a better understanding of the granting process for faculty.

This is not an easy option. Post-doctoral research fellowships are competitive. If you are serious about an academic career, the work involved in securing such a position will position you well for future opportunities.

Jo VanEvery is a career coach who specializes in helping academics. Find her at
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