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What is a PostDoc? – An Introduction

A postdoctoral fellowship, or ‘PostDoc’ position, is fixed-term research post for PhD graduates. This is normally a bridge between completing a PhD and pursuing a career in academia, but you can also do a PostDoc to gain further skills and training for other careers.

This page explains how PostDocs work, what they offer and how to apply.

What is a PostDoc position?

PostDocs are generally temporary positions taken up by a PhD graduate to further their academic knowledge and acquire additional research training.

The research you carry out will usually be related to the work done during a PhD (as this is now your area of expertise!) but shouldn’t be on the exact same subject / problem as your doctoral research.

There are some exceptions to this however, for example when a PhD student is asked to do further studies that directly follow on from their PhD project, but at a postdoctoral level. This type of PostDoc is known as a transition PostDoc.

You can read about the different types of PostDoc in our guide.

What does a PostDoc do?

A PostDoc works on a specific research project outlined for their fellowship. In some ways this is similar to a shorter PhD, but the work you do may be more advanced and may not have a specific final outcome (such as a thesis). Instead you may help with one stage of an ongoing research project.

PostDocs are most common in STEM subjects, particularly Science and Engineering . You will be under the supervision of a principal investigator (PI) or mentor, assisting them with a common research interest. As a more confident and experienced researcher you have the freedom to delve into new things, techniques and equipment. This independence allows you take on projects of your own and explore new ideas that you think will benefit your field. In some ways this kind of PostDoc is a bit like being hired as an additional expert to help the PI and their team.

PostDocs are also available for Arts and Humanities or Social Sciences PhD graduates. These projects may be slightly more independent but will still be connected with existing academic work within a university department.

Unlike a PhD, a postdoctoral contract does not end with a thesis defence. Instead, your work is recognised through results and publications or, in the case of industrial research and development, improvement and / or launch of an effective product.

Example PostDoc projects

PostDocs can be just as varied as PhDs, but examples of the sort of thing you might do as a postdoctoral fellow include:

  • Assisting a digitisation project - helping convert print and manuscript sources into a form that can be used by other Arts and Humanities students and researchers, perhaps creating a published resource or service
  • Designing and / or carrying out large-scale qualitative research projects - ensuring data collected for Social Science research is accurate, ethically-compliant and useful
  • Contributing to ongoing laboratory studies - using the expert technical and methodological skills gained through a PhD to provide key input and assistance for Science and Engineering research groups
  • Carrying out public engagement work - helping researchers in all disciplines communicate their findings to the general public through media events, publications and collaborations with non-academic organisations

For other (real life) examples, browse the current PostDoc opportunities on our site.

Responsibilities outside of research

A PostDoc position isn’t all about the research. There are many other roles involved in a fellowship, using the skills and experience you have gained on your PhD. These include teaching, writing grants and funding proposals, presenting your findings to others and leading projects and other team members.

All of these are key skills for early-career academics and a PostDoc is an excellent way to gain them.

Teaching can be an essential requirement to progress further in your career and is also a part of postdoctoral work. This can involve lecturing, supervising undergraduate and Masters or assisting with the training of new PhD students. Gaining experience in applying for funding is also a key part of becoming a researcher and is another part of the PostDoc experience.

Doing a PostDoc can also prepare you for other careers as you will have more experience in managing ongoing research projects or achieving targeted research outcomes (in addition to your experience of completing a full PhD research project).

How long is a PostDoc?

A postdoctoral contract is usually about two or three years long, but this can depend on a number of things, such as the country of research, the area of research, the PI and the funding available. In general, a PostDoc is shorter than a PhD.

PhD graduates sometimes complete two or three PostDocs before applying for faculty positions or other, more permanent appointments outside of academia. On the other hand, a PostDoc is not always necessary for an academic job.

Most PostDocs take place soon after a PhD and are designed to fit the time in which doctoral graduates are still preparing to become early-career academics. University jobs designed for early-career academics will usually expect you to have earned your PhD in the last two-three years: this is the time in which you may have also completed a PostDoc.

PostDoc salary and funding

The average postdoctoral research salary in the UK is £31,990 and $48,825 in the United States*. You can see our guide to PostDocs in different countries to see the differences in salaries across the world.

How much you are paid on a PostDoc may depend on the type of position you apply for.

*From payscale.com

Postdoctoral employees

A PostDoc working at an industrial company or corporate body is paid like any other member of staff. You will be employed on a fixed-term basis with a regular salary and applicable employee benefits / other entitlements.

Postdoctoral fellowships

Fellowships are set grants or scholarships usually awarded to PostDocs at universities. You may be assigned to a pre-defined project, but could also have the freedom to pursue a specific research direction defined in your application.

This postdoctoral fellowship usually covers salary, relocation costs, travel costs and research expenses and is awarded to an individual based on merit.

Funding for fellowships may be provided by Research Councils, charities and trusts – similar to PhD studentships. There are different types of fellowships available, such as mobility schemes and travel fellowships that provide support for research to be done elsewhere in the world.

Organisations such as UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) often offer postdoctoral fellowships for European citizens. Other PostDoc funding bodies include the Leverhulme trust and Marie Curie fellowships, or the Max Weber programme which is an international PostDoc programme.

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