The Postdoc App: How It’s Different and Why

For the next few months I will be posting the “best of the best” Professor is in blog posts on the job market, for the benefit of all those girding their loins for the 2013-2014 market.  Today’s post was originally published in 2011.


It has come to my attention that many junior people do not have a clear picture in their minds of the requirements of a postdoc application.

Some treat it too much like the job application. And some treat it too differently from the job application. The fact is, it falls somewhere in the middle. It’s quite different from a job application…..and yet many of the same principles apply.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that the postdoc application is requiring a cover letter, a 4 page research proposal, a description of a proposed course, and a brief statement articulating how you will participate in the scholarly community of the campus. While not all postdocs will require this exact set of documents, by discussing these here, we can address the major requirements, expectations, and potential pitfalls of the typical postdoc application effort. I will take them in order.

Cover Letter

This cover letter will be very similar to your job cover letter as explained in this post. It will contain the standard set of paragraphs to start: introduction, dissertation, dissertation import, publications.  In all of this first part, the relevance of your work to the stated mission of the postdoc will be emphasized clearly.  This requires carefully tailoring the cover letter materials. It’s difficult but it must be done.  If your topic is Mexican women immigrant workers, then for a gender postdoc, you will emphasize how the phenomenon reflects changing gender relations at home or abroad; for a globalization postdoc, you will emphasize how the phenomenon reflects changing labor mobility globally; for a Latin American Studies postdoc, you will emphasize how the phenomenon reflects new economic circumstances in Mexico.  This tailoring requires an original recasting or reframing of your work to meet the mission of the postdoc!  Failure to do this reframing means failure to get the postdoc.

After the discussion of research, the postdoc app letter will specifically discuss the plan of work for the postdoc year–ie, month by month, what new research and revisions will be made.

It will then include a very brief discussion of teaching experience (much shorter than for a regular job cover letter), followed by a discussion of the proposed class required by the postdoc, and how the proposed class will also advance the mission of the postdoc.

Lastly, in place of the typical tailoring paragraph, the letter will conclude with a brief paragraph explaining how the research and writing time of the postdoc will be used, how the scholarly community on campus will advance the project, and how the candidate will participate in said scholarly community.  The letter will be no more than 2 pages long.

The principle in operation here—and the one that too many applicants don’t seem to grasp—is that the campus is funding this expensive postdoc not so some random academic can come and sit in an office and write for a year, but rather, to “buy” the energy, contributions, and participation of an additional world-class scholar to their campus community for the period of that year. The postdoc, dear readers, is not meant to serve YOU. Rather, you are meant to serve the postdoc. That means, that in every document, you articulate how you will PARTICIPATE in campus/departmental scholarly life. You do this, however, as in all professional documents, without flattering, pandering, or begging. Rather, you identify faculty on campus with whom you would collaborate, and initiatives and programs on campus that are likely to house interdisciplinary conversations and debates to which your project relates, and you articulate clearly your interest in engaging with them in substantive ways.

4-Page Research Proposal

This research proposal looks very much like a grant application, and Dr. Karen’s Foolproof Grant Template will serve you well here, at least for the opening paragraphs. As in all research proposals you will want to open by proving the importance and urgency of your topic. Following the standard Dr. Karen template, you will construct the Proposal As Hero Narrative, with yourself in the role of Hero.

You may follow the Foolproof Grant Template all the way through to the point where it breaks off into things like budget and methodology. In place of those sections, you will focus entirely on timeline. The point of a postdoc research proposal is to, first, articulate an important and significant project, and second, articulate a coherent and feasible plan of work. It is this second element that most applicants fail to grasp.

Remember: the postdoc is not there to serve you, you are there to serve the postdoc. What does that mean? It means that the postdoc wants to see publications result from your time there. The postdoc wants to be mentioned in the acknowledgments of your book. The postdoc wants to be in the line, in the footnote, “this research was supported by generous funding from xxxxx.” The postdoc committee is going to judge the applications based on how likely it is that the applicant is going to efficiently and effectively use the time on campus to complete a specified set of publications. You will impress them when you include a month-by-month timeline/plan of work that shows explicitly what new archival/etc. research you will conduct, and when, what book chapters you will complete, and when, and what journal articles you will finish and submit, and when.

You will conclude this document with a strong and expansive conclusion that clearly shows how the postdoc year will play into your larger scholarly and career trajectory as a world-class scholar. Why? Because the postdoc wants to get part of the fame and glory that attaches to you as you move ahead in the world.

Postdocs are in the business of supporting the next generation of leaders in the scholarly world. To the extent that you represent yourself as a leader, you will do well. To the extent that you represent yourself as a little lost sheep desperately looking for a chance to get out of teaching for a year while you try and figure out what your book is about, you will do poorly. Be aware that the vast majority of postdoc applications are written by the latter.

Proposed Class Description

A point of vast confusion among postdoc applicants seems to be how to pitch the required class. Many applicants do not clearly grasp the difference between the postdoc and an adjunct. As such, the class they propose is one that is adjunct-level. Basically, applicants too often envision a course that is generic and basic. This is a mistake.

Postdocs are very expensive. If a campus wanted a generic and basic course, it would hire a cheap adjunct. There are many available. Instead, however, they are advertising for a postdoc. That means, they want a highly specialized course, that reflects the postdoc’s unique and distinctive scholarly program. The class can’t be absurdly specialized, of course. If the applicant’s specialization is the emerging gay male community in Jakarta, the course cannot be “Emerging Gay Male Communities in Jakarta.” Too narrow. Neither should it be “Introduction to Indonesia,” or “Gender and Sexuality.” Too broad. Rather, it should be pitched somewhere around, “Global Sexualities,” or “Gender and Sexuality in Southeast Asia,” or “Queer Globalizations.” The final choice for how to pitch the course will hinge on the climate of the department and the campus, and the postdoc mission itself—if it’s an Asian area studies postdoc, then you’d prioritize SE Asia, if it’s a gender postdoc, then you’d prioritize Global Sexualities, if it’s a transnational studies postdoc, then you’d prioritize Queer Globalizations. Get it? The tailoring happens here.

Statement of Participation in Campus Community

Here’s what the postdoc committee does not want: someone who arrives, walks into their allotted office, and is never seen again for the rest of the year. Here’s what they do want: someone who arrives and dives into the scholarly work of the department and the campus community. A postdoc is (should be) exempted from all service work on campus. However, the postdoc should make herself visible as an involved and interested departmental member. She should show up for brown bags and talks, symposia and conferences, and coffee and lunch with colleagues. In this statement, you articulate your orientation in that direction. Identify programs and initiatives in the department and on campus, by name, and discuss how you anticipate participating. Mention two or three faculty members by name, and how you look forward to engaging with them.

In all things, however, do NOT fall back into graduate student habits. You are NOT on campus to “learn from” or “study with” the scholars there. Rather, you ARE one of the scholars there. They may well learn from you. The proper stance here is that of a colleague who brings her own dynamic field of expertise to the campus, and who looks forward to energetic and innovative interactions with the colleagues there.

In sum, remember that, no matter how much you need that postdoc to get your book written, the postdoc is not there to serve you. You are there to serve the postdoc, but as a first-rank, world-class scholar and specialist in your field whose work speaks directly—DIRECTLY—to the mission of the postdoc. By virtue of your energy and brilliance, you cause the postdoc committee to pick you, out of all the competitors, to spend the year on their campus, sharing your work, and augmenting their teaching and intellectual profile and advancing their scholarly cause. Remember, make them want you.

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The Postdoc App: How It’s Different and Why — 125 Comments

  1. Great advice!

    One little thing — are the font shifts in you posts intentional? I find them somewhat hard on my eyes and more difficult to read than they should be. If it’s intentional and for a good reason, by all means make my eyes work a little harder, but otherwise, a standard font and size would be much appreciated. Thanks!

    • what degree of font shifts are you seeing?? I type up the posts in word and then paste into the blog. I don’t use any font shifts in my docs, but I have noticed that after pasting into the blog, there is a very very subtle shifting of fonts, paragraph by paragraph. The fonts are so similar, on my monitor, as to be virtually indistinguishable, so I have never dealt with the issue. Is that not the case for you?

      • Hi Karen,

        I think the problem might be in the blog software that’s being used to generate your HTML for the site here – when I have a quick look at the source for the page the first paragraph block has both a font and a size specified, e.g. , whereas the second paragraph has only the font size specified.

        My guess is that Firefox or Safari are using the specified font for the paragraphs where it is specified, and then defaulting to whatever the browser has set internally for the paragraphs where it is not. This is probably a problem with the HTML that Word is generating (if that’s how you’re doing it).

        Perhaps one way to do it might be to put everything in in plain text? The other option would be to learn to use something like Markdown (it’s really easy – here’s a link to its article on Wikipedia) and then generate the HTML from that. Most blog software will be able to handle Markdown.

        P.S. Thanks for the pointers. I’m currently applying for postdocs here in Australia, and your tips have been really useful so far!

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post!

    P.S. I also wondered whether the font shift was intentional. It is a small issue, but it is a bit distracting.

    • If i understood why the font shift was happening, I’d take steps to make it stop, but I have absolutely no idea why a doc that is cut and pasted en masse from word would end up with different fonts in it in the blog! it’s a total mystery to me. if anyone has an idea, please do let me know.

      • Hi Karen,

        Perhaps you’ve already solved this problem, but Word is notorious for including lots of hidden styles and junk code when pasted into web interfaces. One solution is to write your pieces in a plain text editor (such as Notepad), then do your formatting in the blog interface after pasting.

        Thanks for your excellent site!

  3. Dear Professor:

    I was wondering if you could comment specifically on how to pitch the research proposal aspect of the postdoc in a way that is both different from but still speaks to your dissertation research. I am having trouble understanding how to manage the fact that I still will be publishing articles and working on turning my dissertation into a book, and yet they are asking for a research proposal that is distinct from that. Would it be something like researching the historical background of phenomena that you didn’t get to fully analyze in your dissertation? Especially for a field like anthropology where “research” typically means a fieldwork project (yet postdocs aren’t fieldwork grants) I’m curious about what to say. I find myself re-explaining my dissertation research and I’m worried I’m not making enough of a distinction between dissertation and postdoc research. Is it okay to do phrase it as a continuation of the dissertation project, as long as you highlight the work you will be doing, stating it as “new research” rather than what I would otherwise consider revisions to and expansions upon my dissertation? Or is it really supposed to be an entirely new project?

    Thanks so much!

    • I wonder this as well, is it understood that most people don’t tackle the “next project” until later in the post doc as they are still dealing with their first project even thoug that was the project they pitched?

    • Nicholas, first off, I sincerely apologize for taking so long to respond. I sometimes lose track of comments and queries on the blog, when a large number come for different posts at the same time.

      Here is the answer. In most cases, in the humanities and social sciences, what a one year postdoc calls “research” is in fact the transformation of your dissertation into a book or series of articles. This is NOT the case for science postdocs, so for information on those, please seek advice of specialists in your field. But when they ask for a statement of research, what they mean is that you articulate the dissertation research in terms of its topic, its methods, and its significance, and you then describe its individual chapters. You follow that by a timeline that articulates exactly how you will revise each individual chapter into an appropriate book chapter or article, as well as write any new chapters/articles that are required by the project once it is launched in the public sphere. Many postdocs have a light teaching load and some limited research funding precisely to offer you the opportunity to do a bit more research in the archives or your field site, perhaps over winter break or a short visit, but it is understood that this is merely to augment the research you have already done for the dissertation. You will mention this in the 4-page proposal as precisely that—a short-term research stint to provide you with needed materials to complete your revisions of Chapter 4, for example, or to form the basis of a new final chapter, etc.

      If the postdoc is a two year postdoc, then the situation changes to some extent. Then, typically, your research proposal will clearly articulate a plan not merely for completing the new manuscript(s), but also submitting them to presses/journals. That is typically planned to occur at the end of the first year. The second year is then to be spent developing ideas and materials for a second major project. Nobody expects the project to be finished in one year, but the second year provides the opportunity to write perhaps one major article on the topic, attend a couple of conferences, begin the archival work, etc. to launch the second major project of your career.

  4. I’m not sure what platform you’re using for the blog, but I *think* the easiest thing to do would be to copy and paste, and then “select all” and pick the font + size you want. Weird things happen when cutting and pasting, so I find handling it post-paste is often the simplest solution.

  5. this (as always) sounds like great advice!

    One thing you said made me think of a tangential question: How should a postdoc initiate casual meetings to get to know individual faculty members? Something like: “I would like to chat with you over coffee about subject X?” Is it necessary to have read something by that person before the meeting? Or can it just be more casual than that? –Forgive me, I know I am acting like a grad student here…

    • No apologies necessary HERE! This is where you ask the grad student questions so that you don’t act like one out THERE!

      So yes, it goes like this: “would you be free for coffee one day next week? I’d love to hear more about your work. It sounds fascinating!” And then, maybe try and skim something ahead of time, or at least visit their website. They’re flattered, and you think about ways that your work and theirs might have some productive connections. But don’t treat the coffee like an interview! Just a nice casual talk, starting with a bit of small talk about families and settling in, and so on, and then, “so, I saw that you’re working on/giving a talk on xxx. That is so fascinating! How is it going?” They talk. Eventually they’ll say, “So, enough about me. Tell me about YOUR work. I was so intrigued when I read your application, and I’m really glad you’re here.” Then you answer in a relatively brief and conversational (non-interview) way. And then it goes from there.

  6. I am applying for a postdoc at an R1. The postdoc announcement calls for “a statement of interest, curriculum vitae, sample publications, and three letters of recommendation.” Would
    including a research proposal be too much to include with the standard 2-page cover letter? Since they didn’t ask for it, I don’t want to send too much; on the other hand, I don’t want to send too little. Your thoughts?

    • the phrase “statement of interest” is ambiguous here. It is not a “letter of interest” and it is not a “research statement.” I’d strongly advise that you contact them and ask which they want. And send that, and nothing else! Nothing alienates a committee more than extra materials that they don’t want.

  7. Hi Karen,
    I have decided to go back on the job market after four years in a tenure-track assistant professor position. My department changed leadership and the department is headed in a new direction, which does not suit my strengths. I plan to apply for postdocs, but I am in research transition and my new research is not related at all to my past research. My past research is purely scientific and my new research is headed towards science education. Although I have worked with people in the new field, gotten grants, presented at conferences, I have no science education publications. How can I make my application more competitive for a science education postdoc?

    • I think you should seriously rethink this decision. I don’t know the details of your case, obviously, but it seems to me you’re about to completely derail your career. I’d suggest you stay at the current place and get tenure. Then move to a tenured position. Postdocs go to more junior people, typically, and you’d be unlikely to get one. If you did, once you took one, you’d be very unlikely to read tenure track land again afterward.

      • Hello Karen,

        I am in a similar boat. 4th year TT at an R4 in a department in the humanities. My research has steadily become more science-y in nature and I am not at all content with my current job. Because there are very few jobs in my area and I would like to work in a related, but different, discipline, I am considering a postdoc to get the training that I would need to do so. Is this categorically a bad idea? What does someone in this situation have to gain by getting tenured, getting loaded up with service so they can’t publish much and ultimately getting stuck in a job that makes them unhappy?


  8. Hi Karen,

    I am curious how you would adjust the postdoc cover letter to cater for a postdoc fellowship that is working on someone else’s project. It would seem logical to dispense with the month by month plan, but can I replace this with a paragraph addressing the specific skills the job ad mentions? This seems to not fit with the tone of the cover letter, but I’m not sure how else to pitch the letter.


    • good question. I’d still be specific–if the other project has a timeline, reveal that you are familiar with it. If not, then as you say, speak to the specific skills required by the job.

  9. Hello Karen,

    I’m a lecturer in computer science department, got my PhD in April 2011.
    I was accepted as an academic visitor (3-12 months) in Warwick by a professor there who asked me to propose my own idea, secure my own funding and he will supervise and support my research.
    My government offers postdoc fellowships and I’m supposed to submit a proposal, get Warwick approval, then send it to them to get the funding.
    I never wrote a postdoctoral proposal before and made a lot of research and came to the conclusion that it ranges from something like a graduate research proposal, to something with cover letter, and budget. Then I came across your above post, which is by the way, very helpful.
    I think in my case it’s sufficient to have a 4-page research proposal, including the abstract, intro (state-of-the-art, limitations), objectives, work plan (methodology, timeline), and references. No?
    One more thing please. I’ve read the comments and questions above, some imply that postdoc is intended as a continuation of parts of the PhD work into books chapters and articles. Does that mean my proposal can include my future plans I had in my thesis?

    Thank you!

    • Your understanding seems to be accurate—but generally any postdoc competition will be very clear about the required docs and their length! So check that thoroughly and don’t hesitate to call someone at the agency to ask.

      Your proposal must reflect the work you’ll actually do during the funded period. If your previous phd work can be brought to completion with time left over, then the proposal should clearly indicate what new research you’ll be doing.

  10. Hi Karen,
    One of the post-docs I’m applying to requires the following application materials:
    a curriculum vitae
    a detailed statement of research interests and teaching methods
    a writing sample of 20-30 pages
    detailed proposals for the two courses mentioned above
    three letters of recommendation

    What is the “detailed statement of research interests and teaching methods”? A cover letter or a combination of research statement + teaching philosophy?
    Thanks !

    • Ah, I’m asked this so often I should write a blog post! The ‘detailed statement’ may be understood as a way of saying “cover letter.” It is ambiguous enough, however, that you would be justified in appending your RS and TS to the package as well, as optional additions.

      • There’s no “research project” mentioned among the required documents so I’ll just assume this is more than the usual cover letter; I did a 3-page document following the structure you suggested for the research statement + 1 page teaching philosophy. BTW, thanks for all the blog posts, I really appreciate what you’re doing.

      • Dear Dr. Kelsky, I am applying for a post-doc that asks for 40 page writing sample. The best piece of writing I have that directly relates to my research proposal and is under the 40 page limit is a combination of two chapters of my dissertation. Is it appropriate in this (or any other) case to include a note at the top of one’s writing sample that contextualizes the piece?

        • i should clarify that by combination of two chapters of my dissertation, I do not mean that one chapter simply follows on anther. I mean that I blend the concepts of two chapters into one shorter piece of writing. It is, frankly, somewhere between an article manuscript and short dissertation chapter.

  11. Hi,
    I am trying to prepare a postdoc research proposal and my discipline is Education. I am a bit con fused that shall my proposal aim at doing something new or i aim or concentarte on the aspect of my research which i think needs further unfolding. For example, creating an educational model ina specific context. Can you pleae guide me in this respect.
    Furthermore, the template link in the above blog has not worked for me is there any other way of getting it. Pleae let me know.
    Many thanks the blog has cleared many other confusions i had in mymind.

  12. Great post!!! I am trying to write a proposal and tried the link above for the template to sort of get me started but it is not working. Can you kindly send me the working link or the template? Thanks

  13. HI Karen,

    Thanks a lot to the effort you have invested here.
    I am nearing the end of my PhD (in Germany) and I was brought in contact by my Prof with a Prof at Standford. He is looking for a postdoc and we have had a very nice chat, so after experssing my interest in his work he asked me to submit a detailed CV and a (statement of work).
    What I came to understand from him is that I should submit a project proposal, provide a summar of my skills and explain how would I fit in their group.

    My question is how detailed should the statement of work be? I have looked on the web and I have found recommendations ranging from 2 pages to 15 pages. I am confused, in particular that I wont be applying for funding for example, since he has the funding already.

    thank you again,


    • This is not a standard document, so we have to judge by what’s being asked. If you’re putting a project proposal, summary of skills, and a brief statement of fit, then that could certainly be 4-5 doublespaced pages long.

      • Hi Karen,

        Thank you again for the speedy reply.
        Well I honestly do not know if I should submit a detailed proposal, since the Prof. has already a project he wants to hire someone to work on and we have discussed that project actually.
        Also, I have seen on the web that its recommended for (statement of work) to use the (bullets) style, does that apply for such a case as mine?


  14. Hello Karen,

    thank you for your interesting description of Postdoc application requirements.
    I am just wondering what
    “A cover letter with an indication of (and justification for) the level of support requested” means (the application is for a Visiting Scholar Fellowship, suitable also for Postdocs) ?
    Should one write the “exact” amount of financial resources needed? Or simple the months (5 or 10) needed for your research?


    • This should represent both the months of support you need, as well as the amount requested per month—in other words, the total amount needed and why—this would cover cases such as replacing a salary you currently get, supporting a family, paying for research…whatever your circumstances are. Presented without drama, self-pity, or rhetorical flourish–just the facts.

  15. Hi Karen

    Thanks for the great post. I have some question regarding post doc app. In Europe, most of postdoc app require the candidate to demonstrate “how you meet the criteria of the post” (generally there is a list of essential and desire criteria), rather than a research proposal, or teaching statement etc.

    Do I still need to do project and teaching plan or I can just “show” them how I have met the criteria.

    In general, the postdoc/direction topic is already given when they advertised the job.

    Any advice for this type of application?

  16. Hi Karen,
    I’m applying for a post-doc that specifically asks for a bibliography as part of the (3,000 word) research statement. How much of a bibliography should it be? I suspect that more than 1-2 pages is over the top. I’m a literature scholar, so the bibliography could be quite long…

      • Hi Karen,

        Thank you so much for your post. I have a bibliography-related question as well. The ad for the postdoc I’m applying to asks for a Research Statement of no more than 2000 words, without specifying whether or not I should include bibliography in those 2000 words. What is the usual praxis? Could I write a 2000 word statement and then append a bibliography?

        Thank you in advance!!

  17. Hi!
    Thanks for the information here, it has really been helpful in getting my post-doc applications together . I still have a couple of doubts:
    1) I’m interested in labs which are not directly related to my field of work (I’m from a biochemistry/signal transduction background, but the position is in immunology). They always “prefer graduates with a micriobiology/immunology background”. In my cover letter, after I outline my research ideas, should I still justify why I should be considered? Or will my research plan speak for itself?

    2) It’s getting close to the holidays! Will it be sensible to send my applications now (by the 18th of Dec, latest) or wait until Jan? There are no deadlines per se, the lab websites only request post-doc applicants to write to the PI.

    Thanks a lot!

  18. I appreciate your post and have an atypical query I was wondering if you could answer? I earned a BS, MS, and Phd in molecular biology (5 1/2 year)s at UGA after a BS in psyhology and MS in neuroscience. I then did a post doc from 2006-11 but finances cut so my position was eliminated…that would be fine but my marraige was going south as we had a new child an I was working hard to save that, had a trauma based degenerative issue requiring several surgeries, my father died at 59 in a protracted death in 2011 which I spent with him blah blah. So in trying to be with my daughter after his death, I started a business that the humerous period continued (details if needed). SO HOW should I approach my letter and statements? My references are all solid, I am reasonably published, have comments extolling a great skill in research design and work ethic. But I REMAIN flummoxed as to how to assemble a professional letter when personal elements encroached on my tenure and I have been away for year (to be close to my daughter…a tough wrong move). Anything you can suggest would be most appreciated. Warm regards, Rich

    • When circumstances are this distinctive, only individualized work will help. I suggest you get in touch with me. However, to give a general rule: the most important thing in any job doc is to simply focus on what you’ve done, with no mention at all of what you haven’t, with no detailed explanations/justifications/excuses for any supposed “gaps.” At most you might say, after a substantive and factual description of your research and pubs, “A deaht in the family/a health issue required me to take a year’s hiatus in 2011. I am now returned to active research, and will be publishing….”

  19. Hi Karen,

    I’ve just discovered you’re website. It’s so helpful!

    I’m currently applying for a three year UK post doc. You specify the differences for a one year and two year position, how would a three year position differ further?

    The position is interdisciplinary, but I’m an anthropologist (researching ‘at home’), would it be appropriate to propose further significant ethnographic research?

    Also have you written anywhere about realistic time periods to propose for chapter revision, article submission etc?

    Thank you,


  20. Hi Karen,

    Thanks for the tips. The post doc position I am applying for includes a question of “advantages of doing post doc at the University”. Do you think it is reasonable to write that the position will provide a basis to revise my thesis and the opportunity to publish it as a book? Or do you think it sounds selfish?

  21. I wonder if there is any difference in applying for so-called “Teaching Post-Docs,” where the aim is to support the post-doc as s/he increases his/her teaching experience, with some research being expected but not specified… in fact, the one I’m thinking of doesn’t even want a research outline, just a cover letter and CV!

  22. Hi Karen,

    thank you for this great piece. I had no idea on how to apply for a post doc, but I followed your suggestions and not only did I get the job, my application was very complimented!
    Thank you so much!

  23. Hi Karen,

    Great advice, I appreciate your post.
    I have a question regarding IP and revealing an idea through a research proposal.
    I have a bad experience when I sent a comprehensive research proposal with full technical details of my own idea to one of the “great” professors in one of the top east coast universities. My application was rejected and the professor said he is not interested in my proposal. But, few months latter I found out one of his students is working on my idea with my proposed research methodology and technique!
    Now, I am considering applying for another lab, with another topic and proposal, but I afraid if the same experience happen.
    My question is, if I don’t send a proposal and just send a cover letter including my research interests would be workable?

    Many thanks

  24. Hi Karen,

    I have just come across this blog post as well as your previous one for crafting cover letters for academic positions. You mention the importance of tailoring your statements to the institution. Although you discuss the importance of mentioning specific faculty, how do you tailor your cover letter for different types of institutions, more specifically a research vs. a teaching one?

    I apologize if you’ve dealt with this in other comments, there are just so many comments because of the fantastic quality of your posts. Thank you for your time!

  25. Is it possible to sound too far along with turning your diss into a book for a postdoc? I’m applying for several 3-year postdocs, and they generally say that typically the first 2 years are devoted to turning the diss into a book and the 3rd year to a new book project. I finished my diss over a year ago, am in conversation with a major press about publication, and ideally plan to send them the manuscript for review next summer, before the postdoc would start. That may not happen, of course; maybe it will take me 2 years from now. And even if it does there would obviously be revisions based on the reviews from the press. So there are a number of ways I could lay out my 3-yr postdoc research plan. But are postdoc search committees more interested in your first than your second book, in terms of their place in your acknowledgments, etc? Or would the fact that an applicant is relatively far along with the first book be a plus?

  26. Hi Karen,

    I am curious about how ambitious a research proposal for a 3-year postdoc should be. I am ABD in Anthropology, finishing in June, and currently applying for two 3-year postdocs. Should I propose one year for submitting the book manuscript plus two years for new research? Also, because I’m an anthropologist, most new research would involve travel for data collection. Should I assume (and write into the proposal) that I can travel and collect data in the summer and analyze during the year? Thanks for your advice.

    • yes, what you’ve described here is good. It is also possible to spend 2 years on book 1. Whatever you do, be sure and articulate a clear term-by-term timeline of work.

  27. Hi Karen,

    This is incredibly helpful. Thank you! I’m currently applying for a post-doc that does *not* ask for a cover letter, but it does ask for a “personal statement” of 2000 words “outlining their completed research (including dissertation), work in progress, professional goals and plans for publication, and any other information relevant to their candidacy.” In this case, would you suggest combining the first few paragraphs of a standard job letter with a more detailed research proposal (as outlined above)? Many thanks for your help!

  28. Hi, Karen-
    Thank you for sharing your expertise!

    I’m applying for a writing program postdoc. Would you recommend changing the order, content, and length of my discussion about my research & teaching? I’ve been drafting a letter that goes into teaching for my 2nd & 3rd paragraphs, then goes on to discuss dissertation and research that I plan to pursue in the 4th paragraph.
    Thank you in advance for your response.

  29. Do I need different letters of recommendation for postdocs and job applications? It took me 2 months to get the job rec letters from my advisers and dissertation committee members, so I am reluctant to ask for additional letters…

  30. This is so helpful. I am late to the party but perhaps Dr. Karen has insight on the “Personal Statement,” which is required by many post-docs and dissertation year fellowships? I’m currently working on two post-doc applications, for example, that ask for statements of research, teaching philosophy, and a “personal statement.” as both of these are minority post-docs, I’m tempted to infer that they want applicants to tell them stories about overcoming racism/sexism, and how these struggles inform their research. But perhaps I’m wrong? Thank you for this blog, it is very helpful!

    • the personal statement is a constant headache, and I don’t yet have a post on it, although I definitely will when I’m back to blogging (or in the book that I’m writing). The critical thing with the PS is that it folds your background into a NARRATIVE OF RESEARCH FOCUS! In other words, just telling about your childhood and all your hopes and dreams and struggles —which is what EVERYONE defaults to for this wreteched doc—is unhelpful. It has to still be an academic document, which merelyties together your personal background with the work of scholarship and teaching that you hope to do.

      • Hi Karen: Have you addressed the personal statement yet. I showed a draft to my advisor & she indicated that I needed more specifics about what I expected out of the postdoc than the personal related narrative. Also, I received my doctorate in 1993. Since I have published a little but spent most time working in the public health field I am applying for – project managing, presenting, providing TA, conducting workshops, evaluating, consulting, conducting research – very actively engaged. But…how do I explain the many reasons for not going back into academia that will be acceptable & show I’m a valued candidate. Truth is, I wanted practical experience, had children, had to work, take care of my parents etc. & back then didn’t have a mentor to show me the value.

  31. I also have a quick question that is related to the PS or rather, via PS, to the diversity postdoc positions. I am seriously considering applying for one, I feel I can address the requirements very well but was wondering how much recruitment for these relies on candidates’ ethnicity. I am a white European from a former Eastern block country and not sure if I count as ‘diverse’ enough…? Any thoughts?

  32. Dear Karen:

    Thanks so much for this entry. It is extremely helpful. I am in my last year of a social science PhD program and was lucky enough to secure a tenure-track job for next year. One of the conditions I negotiated was being able to postpone my start date for a post-doc. I was wondering if you had any strong feelings about whether or not to include this new job in my post-doc application as I’ve received mixed advice from my dissertation committee and colleagues. If you do think mentioning it is a plus, how much emphasis should one give (i.e., list on the CV only, or also mention in the CL, PS, and/or RP)? Again, thanks for this and all your other posts!

  33. I stumbled across this website the other day while searching for tips on writing job and post doc applications. I can’t tell you how delighted I am to have found it because it is filled with heaps of useful advice. Thank you!

  34. Dear Karen:

    I am applying for a 3 year post-doc in history for recent PhDs. I finished my dissertation one year ago. My quandary: the application asks for a 500 word project description and a 2 page CV. In such a short proposal, what is the most essential information to include?

    (Writers of successful proposals will be asked to later submit a longer application that includes a
    writing sample–but not a more detailed proposal–for the final selection process)

    Thanks in advance for your advice!

  35. Hi Karen, I am a finalist for a postdoc and I have a Skype interview scheduled. Is there a major difference between preparing for a postdoc Skype interview and a tenure track one?

    • Yes and no. All the regular interviewing rules apply (read all my posts on interviewing) but you’ll be focused on the specific things to be accomplished during the postdoc term, and in terms of teaching–ONLY the course or courses that are required under the postdoc (if any).

  36. Hi KAREN,

    Thank you for the thoughtful advice and insights.
    I am writing my first cover letter to apply for a postdoc at MIT. I was pretty stressed that I dont have a chance to be accepted there, but reading your post helped me to make sure I have done my best in preparing a cover letter which speaks of my experience and presents my personality well. The rest is out of my control 😉


  37. Pingback: Links: The Postdoc Edition - IR Blog

  38. Dear Prof Karen
    Thanks for all the great informations. I am applying for the post-doc positions. Can you advise me on writing a cover letter to a post-doc positon, where its research is new for me, and not connected to my previous researches. I can quickly adapt to the new techniques.

    Thanks a lot in advance

  39. Thanks for the info. I was very interested in what you were saying about showing willingness to participate in the intellectual life of the university. I am currently writing an application for a Philosophy postdoc and find some parts of it rather difficult (BTW, it is a pure research position, which is a good thing because I do not have the people skills to be a teacher, even “participation” is a stretch for me). The research proposal is fine. I think the work plan is OK, even if a bit repetitive (I write a journal article on this, on that etc.) But methodology? I’m a philosopher — I read stuff, think about it a while, and write something. Benefits of the project to the host institution? Why don’t you ask them? Qualities of host organization? Somewhat at a loss I just went through the staff list and had a quick look at their lists of publications. Is this the way to go, or is it too obvious? Transfer of knowledge? Writing articles again.

  40. On the Cdn front postdocs are highly centralised (mostly done through the federal tri-council online application system). On this end proposals are evaluated independently (and paid from govt funds) and we can choose where to hold them (assuming that department is willing to host us).

    Two keys things I was told (and perhaps made the difference between an unsuccessful application last year and a successful one this year are: 1) to emphasis your suitability for a project and feasibility clearly (ie you’ve used this method, been to this country before, etc. etc.) 2) be very clear about outputs (how many articles, in what type of location?). Teaching is not usually required, but showing “fit” with the department you choose is important (list others doing related work, for example).

    Gauging the relative enthusiasm of the department that would host you is also important (and sussing out what kind of space they have for you, whether they will have other postdocs, what kinds of opportunities there may be).

    • This is really helpful to hear – I am in the process of preparing my SSHRC postdoc application and trying to understand what aspects seem to really count. The consensus definitely seems to be that feasibility and fit matter greatly.

      When you say gauging the enthusiasm of the department, do you mean this might be expressed in your own program of work or in the letter from your potential supervisor/the institutional nomination form?

  41. Hi Karen,
    Thank you for your post, which I find extremely helpful. I am applying for a one year postdoc in social sciences which puts particularly emphasis on the training it offers to develop skills for future academic career. A 2 pages “Academic Career Statement” and a 2 pages “Research Proposal” are among the requested documents. I am particularly puzzled by the statement which requires indicating (in this order): (i) why I think that the programme in general, and its academic practice training/activities in particular, will benefit me; (ii) my research and teaching interests and experience, and career plans. Is this statement a kind of cover letter that requires putting significant and particular emphasis on why and how the programme will benefit my career plans? How would you suggest I structure it?

    Thank you.

    • You’ll want to sketch your research, then discuss why the program, dept and campus will serve that research program (be specific, name names!), and then articulate the longer-term career plan you envision. Finish with a conclusion tying it all together.

  42. Hi, Karen.
    Thanks for this post. It was extremely helpful!
    I’m applying for a postdoc that requires both a research proposal (and assumes that you’ll be revising your dissertation into a book manuscript) and a dissertation abstract. My manuscript plans are to adapt my dissertation for an area studies audience, which will make the project less theoretically compelling but more marketable. With this in mind, I’m unsure of what “problem” I should highlight in the proposal–the one geared for the manuscript, or the one that drove the dissertation. Can I use the dissertation problem, but then explain how I’ll adapt it to an area studies audience?
    Thank you.

  43. Question about the cover letter for postdoc

    Mid cover letter you state: “After the discussion of research, the postdoc app letter will specifically discuss the plan of work for the postdoc year–ie, month by month, what new research and revisions will be made.”

    At the end of the letter you say: “Lastly, in place of the typical tailoring paragraph, the letter will conclude with a brief paragraph explaining how the research and writing time of the postdoc will be used, how the scholarly community on campus will advance the project, and how the candidate will participate in said scholarly community.”

    I am wondering if there is a distinction between “research and writing time” and plan for the postdoc year re: research and revisions? I assume that perhaps the later statement of yours is more of a summary statement? My postdoc CL has a limit of 1.5 pages so I’m trying my best to not be redundant. Any thoughts here?

    • Right, the latter, tailoring part is not a timeline per se, it’s just a general statement of ways you envision contributing to life on campus and/or drawing from the resources there.

  44. I am currently applying for a 3-year post-doc at a university with two faculty members whose research and theory has been very influential on my own. I know one of them very well and the other not at all. Is it appropriate in a research proposal to mention that I would welcome interaction with these scholars, or does that sound too grad-studenty? The online application does not accommodate a cover letter.

  45. The 3-yr. postdoc I am applying to requires just a single, 3,000 words or less personal statement that summarizes everything (it’s a nightmare to write). As for the future research section, how specific should I be on my timeline? I would imagine that a month-by-month summary would take up too much of the document. Should I do semester-by-semester?

    • I have a similar question. How should one structure the publication timeline over the course of three years? Paragraph form? A spreadsheet? I’m also asked to write 1 personal statement (2,000 words).

  46. Hi, and thank you for the post. I was wondering about whether it is appropriate to include chapter breakdowns for the book, and where they would go in terms of the breakdown you suggest. This was the advice I was given by a faculty member. The idea was that this would give some sense of the project as a whole, which could also be part of the timeline by including information about whether chapters had been published as articles, were still in draft form, needed to still be written, etc.

  47. Thank you Karen, very good tips! I have one question: the program I am applying ask to describe expected products. I expect to write a book manuscript during one year. It is sufficient? Or would be good to mention the submission of a paper to peer-reviewed journal also? Thanks!

  48. Hi Karen, thanks very much for the extremely useful website! I recently applied for a Mellon Post-Doc at UofT, I did not, however, know about this page before. From what I’ve read, I might have most of what you are describing here, in the sense that I TRIED to convey these things in the application, but the work plan (so, as you say, what most applications fail to do), is only divided into years (2), and not terms, let alone months. I was wondering whether you’d think this implies immediate rejection of the project by the Committee and if so, what do you suggest should be the level of detail in the plan, for future reference? Month – journal I wish to publish in/title or theme of the article + topic to be researched during that month?

    best wishes and thank you!

  49. Hi Karen,
    Thank you for writing this helpful article. I’m applying for a post-doc that is specifically focused on conducting archival research for a broader project (in the humanities). Basically, the professor in charge of the project needed additional support. This seems to be a lot different than many of the post-docs I’ve seen. Since the research is for a bigger project, I was thinking of writing my statement as such: 2 paragraphs on my current research; 2 paragraphs on how my research and experience ties into the overall project and its goals; 1-2 paragraphs on how I intend to become an active member of the scholarly community at the university; 1-2 paragraphs on my future research plans. Any thoughts?

  50. I have a question about writing the research proposal for a research postdoc in which the plan is to turn the dissertation into a book. I know you very helpfully outlined this already in your comments, but I’m trying to tease apart the differences in how the dissertation is presented in the cover letter and the research proposal in this case.

    I’m wondering whether it is (a) better to focus more heavily on the content of the dissertation in the paragraph in the cover letter and then refer to that in the research proposal, or (b) whether to be more brief in the cover letter and go into the details of the dissertation in regards to how it will be turned into a book in the research proposal. I guess what I’m asking is in this case, since the research proposal is about the dissertation + new/additional research for additional chapters, how do you recommend avoiding being too redundant when talking about the dissertation in both the cover letter & research proposal.
    Thanks so much!

  51. Dear Karen,
    I find your comments being very interesting and informative. Reading through them one can learn so much! I just completed my PhD in creative writing and am contemplating to apply for two year postdoctoral research in Europe. Would you be so kind as to advise what would be more beneficial for me:
    1. make a two year proposal and in the first year work on the publications from my theoretical PhD exegesis; then embark on creation of another novel in a second year?

    2. work on my Master of Arts by research book publication that has been in progress since 2009. Is it appropriate so to speak “step back” into the past study during the postgraduate research?
    3. make a fresh proposal for a new novel and the theoretical exegesis and start all over?

    Looking forward to hearing from you
    Many thanks
    Kind Regards

  52. One thing to keep in mind in 2014: A few departments (such as the one I am teaching in) have begun pitching the post-doc to the administration as the more humane alternative to an adjunct or series of adjuncts. Therefore we are seeing more post-docs expecting a 1/2 or 2/2 teaching load as well as research and publication requirements. If your post-doc ad wants you to teach more than the one course, it’s probably best to assume that you are replacing a lost tenure track line, and that teaching is really going to matter.

  53. Thank you for this very helpful post.

    I’m working on a postdoc application right now that asks only for a letter, CV, writing sample, and references. The postdoc is heavily focused on raising the department profile (so thanks for your discussion of that in your post!), so applicants are asked to include a discussion of the proposed research project — along with a discussion of how we meet each of the six requirements.

    In a case like this, would you still suggest sticking to two pages for the cover letter? It seems like quite a lot of information to squeeze into two pages, and I don’t want to shortchange any of the requirements or my research proposal. What do you think?

    • My guess is if we worked together we’d accomplish it in two pages. 🙂 But if it requires the res project, pubs, timeline, AND proposed course(s), as well as the six requirements, I can see it might edge onto a third page, but I’d stop it at 2.5 pages max.

  54. Hi Karen,
    I obtained my PhD in 2012. I’ve been self employed since then and doing ok. I also have 2 extra publications since my PhD and a book about to be published. I am told it is impossible to get a Post doc in North America due to the number of yours spent outside academics since 2012. Do you think it is still possible to get a post doc? I really want to return to academics.


  56. Dear Karen,
    I find your blog of much help and I am following your rules to tailor a good postdoc application. However, I am partecipating to a call for a postdoc position that requires a project of only three pages. I followed Dr. Karen’s Foolproof Grant Template and I think I achieved a good proposal but I do not have any space left for a proposed timetable/timeline. What you suggest to sort out this issue?
    Thank you

    • You have to reduce all parts after the first two intro paras so that you DO have room for the timeline! If you worked with me, that’s what we’d do.

      • Dear Karen
        thank you very much for your kind help and for your answer. Honestly, am thinking about working with you

  57. Hello Karen,

    I have a question about the Academic Career Statement that is required to apply for a post-doc. Should the career statement be written in a cover letter format of the kind “Dear Mr. x” ?
    Thank you!

    • i’m not sure what you mean by career statement, but docs for postdocs are not written as letters unless there is specifically a cover letter requested as part of the application.

  58. Pingback: Apply for a HEP Postdoc Position 2015 | ??'s Blog

  59. Dear Karen,

    I’ve searched your blog and read your book (thank you for both!), but I don’t see very much on crafting Personal Statements for postdocs. I’m working on one now that requires me to explain “why [I] should be selected for the program.” Following your general postdoc guidelines, I made a case for how my work both fits with what they already offer and injects some new blood. However, I’m finding a lot of advice about using the Personal Statement to “address strengths and weaknesses,” explain gaps in one’s CV, and “humanize” one’s application on other academic websites. For the sake of the insecure and broke, can you do some debunking and break down the Personal Statement the way you break down the Research Statement and Cover Letter?

    Many thanks,

  60. Dear Karen,
    Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. I completed my PhD in 2011, and supervisors too busy (and important h’mm!) to discuss next steps. So I worked from home to turn my thesis into a book and happily it will be published in 2016.
    I would really appreciate your views on how to approach a potential mentor for post-doctoral research under some form of affiliation if no funding available. One scholar I would like as a mentor is inviting potential PhD applicants with research ideas to make contact. I wonder what sort of cover letter is appropriate to ask for post-doc support and whether to include a detailed research proposal. I am prepared to research without any funds as I have struggled this far without support. It’s the intellectual input I need to take forward new research. Any suggestions welcome, thank you.

  61. Dear Karen,

    Thank you very much for this very useful and helpful blog post, and for your very useful book.

    I am currently finishing my PhD and applying to postdocs. For two applications, they request me to submit a CV and a research proposal, but no cover letter. I decided to ‘integrate’ a cover letter in the research proposal (400 words over the 1500 requested for the research proposal). Is it a good solution? what would be your advice in such situation?

    These two positions are fellowship where we can join as pre- or postdoc, and they main ‘obligation’ to the fellows is to publish/complete a writing over the year, either completing a chapter as pre-doc, or publishing the PhD as postdoc, or write and publish an article. They ask for a 1500 words research proposal, I allocated 500 words to the publication of my thesis, giving some details on its content but mainly focusing on why I should have it published and why this publication is needed and timely, and then 9 have about 700 words and on a new project, for which I clearly state that it will be a long-run project to be completed over several year and I intend solely to initiate it during the postdoc and participate in conferences to present it. First, do you think this is a good idea to say that i will ‘only’ initiate the project with them? may be i could argue this will then constitute a good asset for my future ‘world class career’ as you mentioned in the blog post? Also in such case, how detailed should be the work plan?

    Thank you very much in advance.

    I wish you a nice day.


  62. Hi Dr. Kelsky,

    Thank you so much for your work – it has been so helpful to me as I navigate the stressful job and postdoc application process.

    I have a specific question about how to format the documents for one postdoc in particular. This application asks for a “personal statement” of 1500 words max, which details “completed research, works in progress, professional goals and plans for publication, and other relevant iformation” in addition to a 500-word statement discussing (essentially) “what the institution can do for you and what you can do for the institution”.

    My question is this: Is the “personal statement” more like a research statement, or should it be written more like a cover letter? Incidentally, there is no cover letter requested with this appliacation.

    Thank you!

  63. Hi Dr.Kelsky.
    Thank you for the post, I found it useful. But I have specific question, what is an academic career statement? Is it different from cover letter or research statement?
    Thank you in advance

  64. Hi Karen,

    Thank you so much for this post. I’m not sure if you are checking comments on this post anymore, but just in case, I have a question. I am working on my application for a post-doc position that asks for a “a 3-5 page (double-spaced) statement of research interest/research proposal.” What kind of document do you imagine they are looking for here? The research proposal that you’ve outlined here, that sort of resembles a grant proposal? Or a more traditional research statement?

    Many thanks.

  65. Dear Karen, a word of thanks for the tips and advises on how to compile a postdoc application. I hope to apply for a postdoc and the tips you shared here have been helpful

  66. Hi Dr Karen,
    Brilliant post, edgy and very informative. Thank you so much!

    A couple of small suggestions:
    – the link to the ‘writing the cover letter’ post seems to be broken, though i found it through a site search.
    – I’d place this reply box before the other comments – since there have been many commenters (which is the best possible problem, isn’t it?! :D) scrolling to get here takes a while.

    I’m so glad you wrote this post since I’m about to write said proposal and have no idea. Now i have some idea how to position myself.

  67. Hi Karen! Thank you so much for this very helpful post.

    I have a question about pitching courses for the postdoc. I am applying to a humanities postdoc that asks for two courses: one, an introduction to a topic of my choice for first and second-year students from different fields, and the second, a more advanced seminar in my own discipline aimed at juniors and seniors in my host department.

    Your post above recommends designing a specific course that bears a clear relationship to your diss work, while speaking to a broader field. I have done this for the advanced course, but wonder if, in this case, it might be a nice complement to offer something more general for the introductory-level course. I am considering proposing an introductory lecture on film & media theory (my field), which I do not see offered in any of the university’s departments (but they do state film as one of the fields appropriate for the postdoc).

    My line of thought is that this could offer something new to the university, and since film is an inherently interdisciplinary field, it speaks to the call to offer a class that could draw students from different departments. (In my current university, we get tons of students from sciences and other humanities in our courses.) I have also already sole-taught a version of this course, which I am eager to develop further.

    Thanks for your input!

  68. I’m currently in the process of applying for a post-doc at a major R1 three years after the doctorate. I would like to use this time to convert my dissertation which I feel has strong publishing potential (and already has a chapter in the works with a major publisher)into a book. In the “project plan” description can I describe my dissertation, current publications, and my timeline for converting it into a contracted book, or do I need a whole new “study”? If the latter, is there any way that I can “connect” a “new” study to my underlying objective of publishing my dissertation manuscript into a book? My current position does not grant me the time or resources to commit to this project to the same degree a post-do would. THANK YOU!!

  69. Thank you all, especially Dr.Karen. I am writing postdoc RS and still learning about it.

    I have some questions: How do you calculate the budget that you need for turning of the dissertation into a book? Or budget for a future research? Also I read elsewhere “include potential funding partners”, is it requirement to find a funding source to apply a postdoc?

    Thank you

  70. Dear Dr. Kelsy,

    I learned a lot concerning postdoc applications thanks to your blog posts and your book.

    I do have a question though regarding certain postdoc fellowships that only demand a cover letter (and no research proposal or statement). How not to exceed two pages in that case, when you need to address past and future research as well as teaching experience and goals in one document?

    Any advice? Thank you in advance.

  71. This is amazing. Thank you very much. I had been looking for advice about a postdoc application and never found anything valid out there.

    Thank you so much for this post.


  72. I understand why it is important to present yourself as a colleague rather than a student. However, I’m seeing postdoc calls that ask applicants to identify a “faculty mentor” which, to me, suggests they’re thinking of the postdoc more like a student than a colleague. Is this a sign that an application written in the tone of a confident colleague would not be well received? Are they instead looking for sentences communicating sentiments like “I want/need mentorship?” Or should the language of “faculty mentor” just be disregarded as a quirk?

    • this is a v. good question. In this case, yes,they want youto imagine a mentorship relationship but even there, it should be less like: “I’m a studetn in need of teaching” and more, “I’m a junior scholar who will benefit from some conversation and support.”

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