National, Annual Postdoctoral Fellowship Competitions

As a doctoral student, eventually, you will need an answer to the question, “what will I do when I am done with my degree?” For many scientist and engineers on their way to a tenure-track academic job, a postdoctoral position is the next logical step. Scholars in the humanities and social sciences are also increasingly realizing the value of postdoctoral experience before going on the tenure-track job market. Applying for a postdoctoral fellowship requires careful planning and a substantial amount of time and work to craft a competitive application. Think about your postdoctoral fellowship options and how they would benefit your scholarly career, and talk with your mentors about your career plans and how to best approach your postdoctoral experience.

GradFund is able to help doctoral students learn about and apply for annual, nationally-competitive postdoctoral fellowships. Temporary positions (available one year but not the next) funded by research grants in laboratories or research groups are also important postdoctoral experiences, but they do not fall within GradFund’s purview and are not the focus of this discussion.

Like writing/completion fellowships, postdoctoral fellowships are typically either portable (meaning that you are able to receive support and work at whatever institution or research site best advances your goals) or in-residence (meaning that you are required to be physically located at the funding institution for the duration of the award). Postdoctoral fellowships may also include variable requirements for how you use your time, with some requiring full devotion to research and others obligating a significant amount of teaching.

Timing of Eligibility

Postdoctoral fellowships nearly always require doctoral students to have advanced to candidacy in order to apply, though you should verify this and other eligibility and timing details with your specific funder.

Timing of Application

Many postdoctoral fellowships have deadlines in June to January, and some require nomination processes that must be initiated several months in advance of the actual application deadline. Funding for a successful application may not arrive for 9-12 months after the application deadline, and students who have won postdoctoral fellowships in the past have often invested at least 4-6 months into the application-writing process. Therefore, we strongly suggest students begin considering postdoctoral fellowships at least a year before defending the dissertation, and apply as they complete the Ph.D. or soon after.


Postdoctoral fellowships offer researchers a great deal of autonomy and flexibility in their research, and bring important distinction at an early stage of career development. As a result, national, annual postdoctoral fellowships are often extremely competitive, sometimes with funding rates below 1%. With a significant long-term investment in application development, Rutgers students have successfully garnered support from some of the most prestigious postdoctoral funders in the past.

Finding a Funder

When thinking about applying for postdoctoral funding, ask yourself the following questions:

As always when exploring funding options, GradFund encourages you to carefully consider the mission and goals of the funder. For example, some postdoctoral fellowship funders seek to increase diversity in academia, while others are set up to advance specific research topics or disciplines. Your ideal funder is one for which you and your postdoctoral research goals are a good match with the intentions and interests of the funding program, regardless of the level of competitiveness.

Fellowship funders tend to be most interested in you as an applicant, and they will want to know how you advance their agenda through your postdoctoral training and research.

To search for available postdoctoral fellowships, visit the Pivot Database.

Characteristics of a Successful Application

Postdoctoral fellowship applications should be carefully constructed to advance two central arguments: First, this particular postdoctoral fellowship is the ideal opportunity for you to advance your research and career, and second, that you are the best candidate for the position, through your specific talents and ideas, and you will contribute to the goals of the organization in clearly defined ways. Whether the fellowship is portable or in-residence, your plans to work in a specific place should be a critical component of both arguments, demonstrating that tenure at that institution will best advance your research and create an ideal environment for you to contribute to the program goals.

One of the most challenging aspects of writing a competitive postdoctoral fellowship application is that many require the applicant to develop a second project that will move their work as a scholar and researcher well beyond the dissertation. This may include identifying new questions and hypotheses or arguments, investigating new bodies of literature, selecting new methodologies or approaches, and networking with new faculty advisors at other institutions.

While each application is different, common elements in postdoctoral applications include:

How GradFund Can Help

Consider participating in one of our Graduate Funding Mentoring Programs, which offer a structured and intensive platform that is ideal to help graduate students develop their applications for competitive, dissertation-level funding. Throughout the calendar year we provide individual meetings to help you select a funder and develop and hone your application materials. Finally, participation in one of our upcoming events may help you through the application process as well.

Once you have selected one or more specific dissertation writing/completion awards, be sure to visit the Funder Profiles on the GradFund Knowledgebase to learn more about some of these awards from different perspectives and to view sample applications. To get started on writing your application, visit the Proposal Writing Tools page of the Knowledgebase for workbooks and activities that will help you on your way!