Alternatives to NIH Postdoctoral Fellowships

Feb 28, 2012

Last night we had a fantastic seminar at the Tufts Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences with an audience of talented doctoral students interested in postdoctoral fellowships. It was interesting to hear from these students that at end of their studies, they are generally expected to secure a position at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and then seek funding to support their postdoctoral research. The problem? NIH positions and funding are becoming more and more competitive. These students were very surprised to hear that there are alternative sources of funding, as well as alternative career paths after a doctorate.

Some alternatives to NIH postdoctoral positions include the Humboldt Research Fellowships in Germany, sponsored by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. These are for young researchers who have finished their doctorate in the past four years. Germany is the European hub for science and technology research, but one of the great perks of these fellowships is that you can spend up to 25% of your fellowship in other parts of Europe. AvH also offers the one-year German Chancellor Fellowship for professionals, which includes 3 months of intensive German language training (I’m an alumni – class of 2003-4).

Other postdoctoral fellowships include the Smithsonian Institution fellowships or the Pew Scholars Program in Biomedical Sciences. 

What I hear often from doctoral students is that they’re burnt-out after the intensity of completing a PhD, and they don’t necessarily want to begin a postdoc immediately after graduation. A professional fellowship is the perfect opportunity for a short-term paid position in something other than research. For example, a recent graduate could pursue a science policy fellowship and spend a year in Washington, DC, or consider a fellowship in K-12 teaching. There are a number of teaching fellowships that support your transition directly into teaching and the simultaneous completion of your Master’s in Education, such as the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation program. The Knowles Science Teaching Foundation also offers teaching fellowships for individuals committed to teaching high school mathematics, physical sciences or biological sciences.

If you’re interested in fellowships whether postdoc or professional, one piece of advice I give to students is to begin looking for them early, ideally a year in advance of when you would like to begin a fellowship. Fellowships that begin in the summer or fall often have application deadlines as early as October of the previous year, and application preparation can be time-consuming. Often you need to secure reference letters and prepare an essay and/or project proposal. You should also allow yourself time to speak to former fellows and make contact with potential host institutions.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me. Good luck!