Public sector research - core policy instruments - post-doctoral fellowships



Acquired after doctoral education, the post-doctoral experience is primarily a period of apprenticeship for early stage researchers to gain scientific and technological knowledge as well as professional skills that are necessary and sometimes indispensable for their future career, mainly in the public research sector. Post-doctoral fellowships and other related funding mechanisms offer post-doctoral researchers financial support over a fixed time period (typically 2-3 years) to undertake a period of supervised apprenticeship.


Broadly, what activities and outcomes do post-doctoral fellowships seek to influence?

Although they vary greatly by field and sector, post-doctoral positions are often seen as a precondition for academic careers and many other research positions in various fields of science and technology. They enable early stage researchers to broaden and deepen their cognitive knowledge in their field of science and technology, to engage in focused R&D activities, and to develop confidence and leadership skills. In many OECD countries, post-doctoral researchers contribute significantly to the scientific record of research universities and public research institutes and are essential to increase the stock of researchers. Post-doctoral fellowships offer financial support to PhD holders to acquire post-doctoral experience.


How do post-doctoral fellowships have an influence?

While they benefit from an employment premium, doctoral graduates encounter a number of difficulties on the labour market, notably in terms of working conditions. These difficulties are to some extent linked to the changes affecting research systems, where employment conditions have become less attractive. For example, over recent years, the labour market of researchers in research universities has witnessed a lower availability of tenured positions and an increase in less stable types of posts. This means that many doctorate holders are on temporary contracts for longer periods and the transition to full employment may take up to four or five years. Post-doctoral fellowships cannot overcome this structural shift to temporary contracts but can help to alleviate some of the uncertainty around funding. At the same time, different sources of funding can have implications for the status and conditions of post-doctoral positions:

  • Many post-doctoral researchers are supported on the grant of a principal investigator while a smaller number undertake post-doctoral research with their own funding, e.g. through the award of a post-doctoral fellowship. Consequently, post-doctoral researchers are paid by different funding sources, including policy-making organisations, public research funding organisations, research universities, public research institutes, industry, and third sector organisations. In fact, it is not unusual for a mix of funding sources to finance a single post-doctoral position.
  • Post-doctoral fellowships typically provide financial support to PhD holders to undertake post-doctoral research in research universities and public research institutes, but also occasionally in industry. However, the status and rights of post-doctoral researchers significantly vary according to the funding source, even though their experiences remain similar. While some post-doctoral researchers receive few social security or pension rights, others may receive benefits similar to those granted to employees such as health insurance, life insurance, and pension rights.
  • Post-doctoral fellowships also influence the experience of post-doctoral researchers because they orientate them to different sectors of performance. Post-doctoral researchers in research universities have usually opportunities to teach and mentor undergraduate and graduate students, although a significant part of their time is dedicated to research. Such teaching and mentoring experience is often valuable for academic careers. However, their status and salaries can be unfavourable. Post-doctoral researchers in industry often have a similar status to regular employees, focus on more applied research, and receive higher salaries. Finally those in public research institutes can benefit from having access to large-scale R&D infrastructures.


What factors should be considered when implementing post-doctoral fellowships?

Several factors should be considered when implementing post-doctoral fellowships:

  • PSR funding regimes: the extent to which existing PSR funding regimes already support the employment of post-doctoral graduates will be important to consider. For example, if it is already common practice to use parts of competitive R&D project grants to cover the costs of post-doctoral researchers or if discretionary organisational funding is used for this purpose, then the fit and additionality of a dedicated scheme to support post-doctoral fellowships should be considered carefully.
  • Academic career paths: in some countries, academic career paths are relatively fixed, with the acquisition of certain types of experiences and qualifications expected at key points of career development. The design of post-doctoral fellowship schemes should be sensitive to these conditions though can also be used as an opportunity to reform them.


Further resources

Auriol, L. (2010), Careers of doctorate holders: employment and mobility patterns, STI Working Paper 2010/4, Paris: OECD. Available at:

COSEPUP (2000), Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers, Washington D.C.: National Academies Press.

European Commission (2005), The European Charter for Researchers -The Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers, Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.


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