The European Project-Based Postdoc

I’ve worked with a handful of clients applying to project-based postdocs in Europe.  We’ve had some bumps in the road, as I had to learn the expectations of these postdocs.  A successful reader recently gave me a few pointers, which are below.  The most important is, these postdocs–although often in the humanities or social sciences —  require the applicant to fit into a larger pre-existing project (similar to lab-based science postdocs).  Also, they emphatically do NOT cover the revision of the dissertation into a book.  In these matters they are quite different from the typical North American social science or humanities postdoc, which typically exists to support the production of a first book or series of articles based on the dissertation.  Proceed with caution!


In Europe, especially as a result of the increasing importance of grant programs such as Marie Curie, they are the most common type of post-docs. The project’s over-arching topic is defined by the original team, and usually staff (post-doctoral and doctoral researchers) are hired only after the grant is awarded. This means that particular attention should be given to the fit of one’s research with the general goal of the project. I think that your suggestions on “how to tailor” are particularly useful in this stage: one should remain true to his/her interests and adapt them to the context at the same time. However, understanding the project’s nuances from the one-page published in the call for applications can be tricky. I found it useful to research the profiles of the team members, and see what their interest in the project may be and then pitch the proposal accordingly.

It is important to note that in these cases the applicant’s dissertation really belongs to the past: although it may be discussed in the interview (it was in my case) and must be mentioned in the letter, the goal of the post-doc is to develop new research on a new topic (which obviously may stem from the dissertation or build on some of its findings). In these post-doc there is no space for dissertation publishing, therefore the focus must be on the new project, which needs to be relatively developed and not just a vague idea.

Materials-wise, this spring I have applied to two project-related post-docs and both required:

– a CV

– a cover letter

– a project proposal (in one case the page limit was 2 (!!!), in the other 5 pages (2.500 characters) plus

– a writing sample
– only one required recommendations letters (two)

Your grant writing template works great as a template for the proposal (it was fine also for the shorter one), the difficult thing is to find that golden balance between the applicant’s research interests and the project’s scope and general goals.Sometimes the post-doc is expected to take additional tasks: one of the positions was for a post-doctoral researcher/network coordinator. Accordingly, things like international research experience and the coordination aspects of other service and job activities should be emphasized.

The interview covered the following topics: profile and research interests in general, dissertation, current research, project proposal (a lot and in depth – both theory, methodology and practical issues like organization of fieldwork and context specifics), future plans, availability to move to the particular country, and so on.

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The European Project-Based Postdoc — 8 Comments

  1. I have a project-based postdoc in Europe and this all rings true. on an unofficial level, some supervisors are more giving than others in terms of the dissertation. I had a positive experience in this respect. I was hired as a post-doc before I defended. Although the dissertation manuscript was accepted by the committee, I still needed to do layout and printing (required at my university), arrange the defense, etc. My new supervisor was understanding, as it was my focus for a few months, even though officially it wasn’t part of the job. In terms of publishing, it can be the same, where some supervisors allow for more time working on publishing the dissertation than others. So articles might be possible (since anyway it counts as publications for your post-doc institution), if not a full book right away. That said, it’s true, in my experience, that there is no official expectation that turning the dissertation into a book would be the main goal of the position.

  2. Also a European postdoc here, although not a project-based one. I am focusing on turning my dissertation into a book, and to my surprise, people have told me nobody does this in Europe. At least where I am, once people get their PhDs, they move on. They might work on a habilitation (2nd and more difficult thesis) or seperate publications unrelated to their dissertations. According to my colleagues, this is because dissertations are considered “published manuscripts”, not “unpublished” like in the US.

    • I’m not sure what country you’re in, but this is definitely not the case for the UK (at least in the humanities), where it is most definitely expected that you’ll turn the dissertation (or thesis, as we call it here) into a book.

    • I’ve studied/worked in 3 European countries and I’d say that in the Humanities (or at least, in my part of it) it’s very much the norm to publish the thesis as a book. It’s my understanding that in some German Universities the awarding of the doctorate may be considered provisional pending thesis publication.

  3. Netherlands faculty here – three things that might be helpful for understanding the differences: 1) people pay to self-publish dissertations at the time of defense, 2) peer reviewed articles are much more valued than books, in a lot of humanities disciplines, because funders value them more, and 3) there is hardly any funding for PhD students internally anymore, so Marie Curie and other big project grants are becoming the only way to bring in PhD students/postdocs.

  4. European project-based PhD student here: in the Netherlands at least, most PhDs are actually employees of the university (up to the point that now it feels weird to me to refer to myself as a PhD “student”). The thesis is an actual book, the previous poster mentioned it is a self-published one, but it is always a part of university X dissertation series.

    Nowadays more and more PhDs, even in the humanities, choose to publish their thesis as a series of articles that have already been at least submitted, if not published in journals or edited volumes. This means that some people never wrote the typical monograph-type thesis that would eventually become a book and probably never will. As for postdoc positions, as you mentioned, they generally involve working on a completely new topic, and again, publishing articles. One might use the time to tie some loose ends from the PhD project, but definitely not for turning the thesis into a book.

  5. I am a British Academy postdoc – it is stated when you apply that the project should move beyond the dissertation. That being said, this is an early-career fellowship so it looks unrealistic if you embark on a project that is totally unrelated to your dissertation. So in the project proposal it’s a good idea to state how the project goes beyond the diss yet is related to your overall research goals (your broader project, which the diss is part of). A difficult balancing exercise. BTW, Karen’s project template – the Hero narrative – works very well for this kind of fellowship.

  6. I’m applying for several postdocs that require 2 page/1000-word proposals or research statements (US and EU). What kind of structure would you recommend for these? The hero narrative opening would take up the entire first page, which is half of the proposal… any suggestions?

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