Applying for PostDocs

General Notes on Postdocs

By Robin Wolfe Scheffler (Yale) Money

Reflecting our field’s proximity to the sciences, HSTM has always enjoyed more postdoctoral opportunities than history as a whole. These options can be welcome chances to conduct more research, develop courses, or begin the wrenching process of converting your dissertation into an academic monograph.

Postdoctoral applications generally consist of the following parts: CV, cover letter/research statement, dissertation abstract; and writing sample. The scale of research statements may vary dramatically—from two to ten pages—so remember that writing and re-writing these statements will take a considerable time commitment. Depending on the mission of the post-doc you may also be expected to submit syllabi and teaching philosophies.

Materials for your application packet generally follow the same form and style of job letters. A letter for a post-doc, however, is generally shorter. You should explain your current and future work in ways that demonstrate expertise. More importantly, you must discuss your work in a manner which is clear and comprehensible to a reviewer who has five minutes or less for your writing and only passing familiarity with your topic our field. Use jargon and technical terms sparingly (if at all)—as empowering as they may sound as you write their use entails the substantial risk that your readers will not understand the terms in the way you do, if they are familiar with them at all. As a result, your final letter may sound more “simple” than the writing that you’re doing for your dissertation—this is to be expected.

As you compose your cover letter you should make sure your letter exactly addresses the fellowship call. Make it clear how your research. One effective way of doing this is to pluck “keywords” from either the fellowship sponsor or the call for applications and work them into the paragraphs that describe your project and research interests. Demonstrate enthusiasm for the mission of the fellowship. If it’s a teaching fellowship, play up your teaching credentials, if it’s a fellowship focusing on theme X, make sure you discuss your work in a way which emphasizes its contributions to X. The time spent tailoring letters and statements will pay off in helping your application stand out from a crowded field of applicants, many of which will not have taken this step.

Dossier Services and Reference Letters

By necessity, postdoctoral applications are a “spaghetti on the wall” application process. Unlike the job application process, submitting a more generic reference letter is unlikely to hurt your application. Once you have a sense of the kinds of post-docs you will be applying for (research versus teaching, dissertation plus second project versus just dissertation) consider talking with your references about developing reference letters for each category, which you can then dispatch through a dossier service—this will enable you to apply to more postdocs, as well as respond quickly to late-breaking opportunities.

Hypothetical Application Timeline:

Previous year:

start to browse listings in HSS, AAHM, SHOT and other professional newsletters and postings (HNET Jobs, academicjobs wiki, Chronicle for Higher Education)—identify possible options, especially post-docs which have a rotating theme. In the early stages of your search, the academicjobs wiki, as stressful as it becomes later in the season, is a useful “time machine” for what fellowships occur regularly. Begin to consider different ways of framing your project. Look at who has been awarded these fellowships in the past, and consider reaching out to previous awardees (especially if they’re people you know!).

Perennial options for HSTM include: The Philadelphia Area Committee for the History of Science (PACHS), The Chemical Heritage Foundation, The Smithsonian Museum of American History,  UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics, the Huntington Museum, the Hagely Library, Max-Planck Institute for the History of Science, NIH Office of History DeWitt Setten Program (possibly canceled), Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholars Program, American Association for the Advancement of Science Postdocs in Science and Technology Policy, Harvard STS program, and the Northwestern Science in Human Culture fellowship.

Other lottery tickets for postdoctoral fellowships are at the Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Michigan, MIT, University of Pennsylvania, Chicago, Stanford, and Cornell Societies of Fellows. Writing programs at various Universities tend to enjoy employing HSTM grads because of our ability to teach interdisciplinary courses. Oxbridge Junior Research Fellowships are also an option, and due very early!

Many universities also run diversity-related postdoctoral opportunities. Aside for particular diversity criteria, these fellowships generally have the same form as any other, so if you qualify they can be an excellent set of opportunities as well.


*Start writing your research statement. Like job applications, this may also include starting to design syllabi and framing a second project beyond your dissertation. Start circulating drafts of this early.

*Contact your references and discuss your application plans. Alert them of any particularly early deadlines to avoid last minute maneuvering in September.

*Establish if any of your targets require nominations to be submitted.


-First fellowship applications are due, generally for Society of Fellows-type gigs.


*Applications will be fast and furious during these months, be sure to budget time for the fact that revising research statements to fit the specific requirements of each application can be time consuming.


*Generally, more field-specific fellowships are due here—it’s important to stay strong in getting applications out because these are often more specific to your interest area (and therefore have smaller application pools).

March & Beyond

*It’s still possible for postdocs to break during these months, so keep applying!


Robin Wolfe Scheffler is a doctoral candidate at Yale’s Program of History of Science and Medicine. His research interests include the history of molecular biology, biotechnology, political economy, environmental health, and the politics of memory. He is currently completing his dissertation – “Cancer Viruses and the Construction of Biomedicine in the United States from 1900-1980″, after teaching last semester  “The Long War against Cancer and the History of Biomedicine.”