What is a Postdoctoral Researcher?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 04 July 2019
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A postdoctoral researcher or postdoctoral fellow is someone who has obtained a doctorate degree and decided to continue conducting research. Postdoctoral researchers are especially common in the natural sciences, with many people who obtain doctorates in the sciences going on to conduct postdoctoral research. Scholars in the humanities can also conduct research after obtaining their doctorate degrees. For people who work in academia, postdoctoral research is usually critical for professional advancement, especially at prestigious institutions.

Classically, a postdoctoral researcher receives funding either from the institution he or she works for, or from an agency which is interested in the research being conducted. Institutions often fund postdoctoral researchers to add to their prestige, with the expectation that researchers who work for them will publish on a regular basis, thereby keeping the sponsoring institution in the public eye. Agencies which fund research can include the government as well as private organizations dedicated to various causes.

Some postdoctoral researchers work for academic institutions, while others may work for government agencies and other organizations which sponsor research. The choice of employer generally depends on the type of research being performed, and the professional aspirations of the researcher. For example, someone who wants a career with the National Institutes of Health might get a foot in the door by being a postdoctoral researcher first.


Postdoctoral researchers usually work under the supervision of a mentor. Mentors have typically completed postdoctoral research themselves, and they may involve their mentees in their own research, or encourage a postdoctoral researcher to explore a new area of interest. The level of autonomy available to postdoctoral researchers varies, with some being more closely supervised than others.

For people who intend to teach and gain a tenured position, performing postdoctoral research is critical. High profile institutions generally look for people who are pursuing continuing research opportunities when they seek out faculty members, because they want a faculty which is active in the academic community. For example, a historian would be expected to conduct research in his or her area of specialty in addition to teaching, and to publish findings periodically as well. Therefore, applicants with a history of being a postdoctoral researcher are more likely to be viewed in a positive light, as conducting postdoctoral research indicates a continuing interest in research.

In postdoctoral research, academics have an opportunity to deepen their qualifications and to choose a specialty area of interest which they can mark out as their own. On a personal level, pursuing research can be interesting and rewarding, and on a professional level, such research can be critical to respect in the field as well as professional advancement.



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