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Graduate Matters

A guide to securing four different types of postdoc positions

Choosing the right one depends on your specific academic background, lived experience, personal interests and career goals.


There are many paths to securing a post-doctoral position at a university. Before we explore some of them, let’s start by defining the job. Postdoctoral fellowships are temporary academic appointments that take place during the first five years after completing your doctoral degree. This is a time when you become an independent leader in your field while receiving mentorship and professional training.

While the four most common categories presented here are not a comprehensive list, they may help you find the best fit when searching for a postdoc in the social sciences and humanities.

Type 1: Funding your own postdoc

One pathway to being a postdoc is to apply for funding yourself through an agency, foundation, or university. For example, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) awards 180 postdocs annually through the Banting and SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship competitions. In the U.S., the National Science Foundation awards 15 to 20 postdoctoral fellowships in the social, behavioral and economic sciences. Also competitive, but often more broad in the fields of research they fund, the American Association of University Women offers the postdoctoral research leave fellowships to women in tenure-track positions, and the American Council of Learned Societies funds full-time research and/or writing to untenured scholars. Though the application process for these and similar postdocs differ slightly, they all require that you write a proposal that details what you will do during the postdoc and how it will support achieving your professional goals. Some competitions require a faculty nomination or university endorsement in addition to identifying a postdoctoral supervisor.

Type 2: Become a postdoc for a principal investigator (PI)

A second pathway is to look at university job postings in your field. Faculty often hire postdocs to contribute to long-term projects – particularly to conduct fieldwork and data analysis and to contribute to writing research outputs. This reflects my own experience working with three other postdocs on the SSHRC-funded project Urbanization, Gender and the Global South: a transformative knowledge network with our PI, Linda Peake, at the City Institute of York University. Similarly, the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) and the SSHRC-funded project Gender, Health & Caregiver Friendly Workplaces employ postdocs at McMaster University. Much like postdoc positions that you apply for, these opportunities are often funded by research agencies, but the main difference is that the project is being led by the PI, or your employer. While you may not lead your own research in these kinds of postdocs, you will be able to expand your knowledge and skillsets by working closely with others and being mentored by experts in your field. Ideally, the research project you are hired for contributes and aligns with your interests so that you continue to build a career profile.

Type 3: Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) postdocs

A third possibility for becoming a postdoc is through fellowships that support scholars who contribute to EDI in higher education. For example, the Associated Colleges of the Midwest coordinates Mellon faculty fellowships for candidates whose backgrounds and life experiences enhance diversity. For over a decade, the Partnership for Faculty Diversity has offered postdoctoral programs at over a dozen universities in the U.S. Called president’s postdoctoral fellowships or chancellor’s postdoctoral fellowships, these programs offer postdocs support to pursue their own research agenda with faculty mentoring, professional development and networking opportunities. At the end of the term, postdocs may be hired to tenure-track positions. While president’s and chancellor’s postdocs exist in many fields, research agencies and universities offer more specific opportunities such the Burroughs Wellcome Fund postdoctoral diversity enrichment program and the Cancer Research Institute’s Irvington postdoctoral fellowship to promote racial diversity for scholars in medical research.

Type 4: Professional postdocs

The fourth type of postdoc involves professional training in a strategic area. For example, the McCall MacBain postdoctoral fellows teaching and leadership program is designed to increase teaching and leadership skills. The Government of Canada postdoctoral research program is aimed at recruiting recent doctorate graduates to public service at various federal departments and agencies such as Natural Resources Canada, Public Health Agency of Canada, and Environment and Climate Change Canada. Many, like the Cadieux-Léger fellowship, provide doctoral students or recent graduates with direct experience in policy development and research. If a career at a federal department, government agency, or teaching at the high school or university level is your priority, then pursuing a postdoc focused on professional training is an excellent fit.

Whether you are pursuing your own research agenda, collaborating with others, enhancing the EDI of higher education, or preparing for a profession outside of academia, postdocs offer valuable experience. Choosing the right one depends on your specific academic background, lived experience, personal interests and career goals.

Tell us about your postdoc search or experience in the comment section below.

Araby Smyth
Araby Smyth is a feminist economic geographer and postdoctoral visitor at York University.
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  1. S.D. Chakrabarti / October 23, 2023 at 16:18

    #1 and #4 are great for one’s career, #2 is a recipe for exploitation and stagnating. No idea about the #2. Just my C$ 0.02 as a former (mostly funded through my own fellowships) postdoc.

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