What is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow?

D. Jeffress

A postdoctoral research fellow is a scientist who has completed an accredited Ph.D. program and is beginning his or her professional career. Fellowship programs are designed to provide extensive, hands-on training in a particular specialty to prepare an individual for professorships or permanent science jobs. A postdoctoral research fellow has the opportunity to engage in important studies under the supervision and guidance of established experts in the field. Many people complete their postdoctoral work in university labs, though some fellows are employed by private research institutions, government agencies, and engineering firms. Depending on the specific setting and career choice, a fellowship can last anywhere from one to three years.

Woman posing
Woman posing

Postdoctoral research is an important precursor to a career in academia or industry. Doctoral classes at a university provide detailed instruction in a particular field, but new graduates may not be fully prepared to undertake independent, original research projects right away. Participating in a fellowship allows a recent graduate to gain additional experience designing studies and conducting experiments. He or she learns firsthand how to apply for grant money, organize resources and set the parameters of a project.

A postdoctoral research fellow also has the chance to publish findings in respectable journals. Most fellows do not have other professional responsibilities, such as teaching courses, so they have ample time to engage in their research. They can potentially be very prolific with their writing, making names for themselves in their fields.

A new postdoctoral research fellow can make excellent use of his or her opportunity by beginning to focus on a particular topic or area of interest. A biology fellow, for example, might decide to concentrate on a very narrow topic, such as the evolution and development of a particular type of fruit fly. He or she probably did not have access to the tools and funds to conduct such specialized research as a student. With the aid of professors and career scientists, he or she may have the chance to travel to the flies' native region, collect samples, and bring them back to the lab.

A research fellowship is often required for individuals who want to become instructors at a university. By conducting studies at the school where a postdoctoral research fellow hopes to work, he or she can begin establishing strong relationships with administrators and professors. A well-liked, successful researcher is usually offered a full- or part-time teaching position upon completion of the fellowship program.

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