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Social work and postdoctoral experience.

Doctoral education has been the primary conduit for social workers to develop research skills and is an important component in achieving a long-term research-based career genson, Briar-Lawson, & Flanzer, 2008). In social work, doctoral training affords students opportunities to identify and study meaningful substantive topics and acquire advanced methodological and analytical skills (Jenson et al., 2008). This preparation alone, however, may not be a sufficient foundation for all social workers to build a successful research career. Postdoctoral research training can help social workers strengthen their research skills and build a collaborative research agenda. Although postdoctoral training for social workers is not a new phenomenon, it is a pathway for social work research training that has not gained the momentum it has in other social science fields (for example, psychology). The limited experience with formal postdoctoral training within the field of social work may create challenges for students interested in postdoctoral research positions and the faculty members who are mentoring such students. Further, unfamiliarity with postdoctoral training presents challenges for graduates who pursue these positions as they may not fully understand their role, the role of postdoctoral mentors, and the opportunities available to them as trainees.

Although career development articles exist for students considering postdoctoral training in a variety of fields (for example, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy [COSEPUP], 2000; DeMets et al., 2006; Gennaro, Deatrick, Dobal, Jemmott, & Ball, 2007; Khalsa & Pearson, 2007), the linfited number of articles related to postdoctoral training for social workers have focused on individual experiences (for example, Fenster, 2006) and specific funding mechanisms (for example, Matthieu, Bellamy, Pena, & Scott, 2008). To help fill this gap in the social work literature, this article provides an overview of postdoctoral research training opportunities for a variety of substantive areas and describes the potential benefits of postdoctoral training. In addition, this article highlights some potential drawbacks that should be considered when deciding whether to complete a postdoctoral research position. This practical advice may be particularly helpful for students or junior scholars considering postdoctoral research training and doctoral faculty members who supervise students considering such training.


Although postdoctoral training has been a traditional step in the education process for the physical sciences, it has not played a similar role in the career of most social work scholars. As many fields grow more complex, the difficulty of familiarizing one's self with interesting and relevant material has increased, at least within the time limits of traditional graduate programs (COSEPUP, 2000; DeMets et al., 2006). Postdoctoral training is one way to balance the need to train students in new and evolving methodologies and ensure that they receive training in the basic core of theory, methods, and their substantive areas. Irrespective of discipline, the primary purpose of postdoctoral training is to expand research skills and grow intellectually (O'Mara & Bakos, 2003). Postdoctoral positions can help recent graduates expand their collaborative research base and develop independent research programs (COSEPUP, 2000; DeMets et al., 2006). Postdoctoral training also provides opportunities for early career researchers to interact intensively with senior investigators and establish collaborations with other junior researchers. In certain settings, this type of training can help promote interdisciplinary research that brings together different disciplines and combines their respective theoretical and methodological approaches.


Research capacity at the postgraduate level has been a relatively neglected part of the social work research training continuum (Fraser, Jenson, & Lewis, 1993; National Association of Deans and Directors Task Force, 1997). Although precise estimates of the number of social work PhD graduates who pursue postdoctoral training are not readily obtainable, there is some information available from the Survey of Earned Doctorates (National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, 2012). The Survey of Earned Doctorates groups Social Work with "Fields not Elsewhere Classified." This group also contains Architecture/Environmental Design, Family/ Consumer Science/Human Science, Law, Library Science, Parks/Sports/P, ec./Leisure/Fitness, and Public Administration. Findings from the 2011 survey indicate that in the category that included social work, just over 10% of the students with definite plans following graduation intended to enter postdoctoral training such as a fellowship or research associateship Rates of doctorate recipients (from the group including social work) with definite commitment for a postdoctoral position dropped consistently from 2008 through 2011. As the faculty job market has become increasingly competitive, scholarship and publication have moved to the forefront of graduate school administrators' priority lists and have become a primary focus of promotion and tenure decisions (Gibbs & Locke, 1989; Green & Baskind, 2007). With these changes, postdoctoral research positions have become increasingly appealing for social work researchers.

Postdoctoral training allows a junior scholar to establish a research program without the added pressures associated with the first years of employment as an assistant professor (Jenson et al., 2008), as it typically provides the opportunity to focus on research with relatively low expectations for teaching, service, and clinical work. This jump start to research and publishing can be particularly helpful for establishing a research pipeline with projects and manuscripts in various stages of development (for example, manuscripts in preparation, under review, and in press). This can help a candidate become more competitive on the faculty job market and can increase the likelihood of success during the initial years of a faculty position. The additional training and education provides a solid foundation to work independently and can increase understanding of the grant submission and funding process, particularly for federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Many social workers who complete postdoctoral research training frequently do so in another department (that is, psychiatry). This can provide a unique opportunity for social workers to collaborate with scholars from other disciplines and conduct interdisciplinary research. Whereas building these collaborations can help the postdoctoral fellow, it also may help those in other fields (for example, medicine, psychology) to more fully understand the unique perspective and contributions of social workers. Ultimately, social workers are uniquely positioned to address the challenge of interdisciplinary research given their recognition of the impact of multiple systems on individuals and groups as well as their understanding of biopsychosocial factors.

Additional Factors to Consider

Although there are specific benefits to completing a postdoctoral research position, there are some potential drawbacks worth consideration. Postdoctoral positions are temporary positions, often lasting for one to three years. For the junior scholar seeking a more permanent position, this may not be ideal. Short-term positions can create challenges for one's personal life (for example, employment challenges for partners or long-distance relationships). Salary levels for postdoctoral positions may also be a concern because they are generally lower than salaries associated with tenure-track faculty positions. For National Research Service Awards (for example, F32 or T32 grants), NIH establishes stipend levels that currently begin at $38,496 and increase with each year of postdoctoral experience. Relocation expenses are frequently limited for postdoctoral positions. It is recommended that those seeking postdoctoral positions politely inquire about the availability of such funds during a ]job-search, and it is also recommended that they talk to a tax adviser to determine whether any moving expenses not covered by the fellowship/university may be tax deductible. Junior scholars wishing to focus more on teaching or clinical work rather than research may find that these opportunities are limited and sometimes discouraged. Many postdoctoral training opportunities emphasize research; individuals who do not use the fellowship period to produce conference presentations, journal manuscripts, or grant applications may actually find that the search for a tenure-track faculty position can become more difficult.

With respect to mentoring, there is a great deal of variance in the degree of involvement. For those considering a fellowship, it is important to think about who will be a part of the mentoring team and how much autonomy is needed or anticipated at the launch of a research career. In addition, the work expectations for postdoctoral fellows will vary with respect to how much they are able to devote to their own projects versus the projects of their mentors. These are important issues for a postdoctoral fellow to consider and should be taken into account as different funding mechanisms and opportunities are investigated.

Obtaining a Postdoctoral Position

There are currently a range of postdoctoral research training opportunities available to social workers (see Table 1). Many of these positions are advertised through NIH program announcements and e-mail lists for professional organizations The Social Work Research Network ( swrnet/) and Emerging Scholars Interdisciplinary Network ( provide listings of postdoctoral positions in a range of areas related to social work. Other groups such as the College on Problems of Drug Dependence and the Research Society on Alcoholism also provide listings of postdoctoral opportunities. Networking can also be particularly helpful in identifying other postdoctoral training opportunities that may not always be advertised through traditional channels (for example, positions written into R01 grants). For students interested in institutional training programs (for example, T32 awards), it may be helpful for them to apply for positions at institutions where their research interests map onto current work of faculty members who could serve as primary mentors (Zucker, 2010). This can increase the likelihood of successfully securing a postdoctoral position and can also ensure that candidates and mentors are ready to engage rapidly, even at the start of the program. Regardless of the specific funding mechanism, it is important to learn about the context for a position so that the junior scholar may have some understanding of the culture within a laboratory or research group and how a potential mentor has worked with other postdocs. It is also helpful to have a sense of professional needs and how well these needs fit with a particular position.


Competition remains tight for faculty positions, and it has become increasingly important for social work researchers to develop focused research agendas to increase their likelihood of obtaining a desired academic position. Completing a postdoctoral fellowship provides an opportunity for an early career researcher to address any gaps in his or her knowledge and research skills that were not fully addressed through doctoral education. Postdoctoral research training allows a new junior faculty member to start the tenure-track appointment with publishing and grant writing experience, a strong research pipeline, and professional connections that can grow into future collaborations. Social work doctoral students should consider postdoctoral research training as an appropriate next step following graduation and think carefully about how these opportunities can help a junior scholar achieve professional goals.

doi: 10.1093/swr/svt006

Original manuscript received February 25, 2011 Final revision received July 1, 2011 Accepted August 16, 2011 Advance Access Publication February 7, 2013


Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. (2000). Enhancing the post-doctoral experience for scientists and engineers: A guide for post-doctoral scholars, advisers, institutions, funding organizations, and disciplinary societies. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

DeMets, D. L., Stormo, G., Boehnke, M., Louis, T. A., Taylor, J., & Dixon, D. (2006). Training the next generation of biostatisticians: A call to action in the U.S. Statistics in Medicine, 25, 3415-3429.

Fenster, J. (2006). Post-doctoral training for social workers: My year at NDRI. Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions, 6(3), 125-127.

Fraser, M. W., Jenson, J. M., & Lewis, R. E. (1993). Research training in social work: The continuum is not a continuum. Journal of Social Work Education, 29, 4646-4662.

Gennaro, S., Deatrick, J. A., Dobal, M. T., Jemmott, L. S., & Ball, K. R. (2007). An alternative model for postdoctoral education of nurses engaged in research with potentially vulnerable populations. Nursing Outlook, 55, 275-281.

Gibbs, P., & Locke, B. (1989). Tenure and promotion in accredited graduate schools of social work. Journal of Social Work Education, 25, 125-133.

Green, R. G., & Baskind, F. R. (2007). The second decade of the faculty publication project: Journal article publications and the importance of faculty scholarship. Journal of Social Work Education, 43, 281-295.

Jenson, J. M., Briar-Lawson, K., & Flanzer, J. P. (2008). Advances and challenges in developing research capacity in social work [Editorial]. Social Work Research, 32, 197-200.

Khalsa, P. S., & Pearson, N.J. (2007). Financial support for research training and career development in complementary and alternative medicine from the National Institutes of Health. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, 30, 483-490.

Matthieu, M. M., Bellamy, J. L., Pena, J. B., & Scott, L. D. (2008). Accelerating research productivity in social work programs: Perspectives on NIH's post-doctoral T32 research training mechanism. Social Work Research, 32, 242-248.

National Association of Deans and Directors Task Force. (1997, March). Challenges and opportunities for promoting federally-funded research in social work programs. Washington, DC: Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research.

National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. (2012). Doctorate recipients from U.S. universities: 2011 (Special Report NSF 13-301). Arlington, VA. Retrieved from

O'Mara, A., & Bakos, A. (2003). Preparing oncology nurse scientists: Opportunities at the National Cancer Institute. Oncology Nursing Forum, 30, 745-746.

Zucker, R. A. (2010). University of Michigan Addiction Research Center (UMARC): Development, evolution, and direction. Addiction, 105, 966-973.

Natasha S. Mendoza, PhD, is assistant professor, School of Social Work, College of Public Programs, Arizona State University, Phoenix. Stella M. Resko, PhD, is assistant professor, School of Social Work & Merrill Pahner Skillman Institute, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI. Susan M. De Luca, PhD, is an assistant professor, School of Social Work, University of Texas at Austin. Amy N. Mendenhall, PhD, is assistant professor, School of Social Welfare, University of Kansas, Lawrence. Theresa J. Early, PhD, is associate professor and director of doctoral and international programs, School of Social Work. The Ohio State University, Columbus. An earlier version of this article was presented at the Council on Social Work Education 56th Annual Program Meeting, October 16, 2010, Portland, Oregon. Address correspondence to Natasha S. Mendoza, School of Social Work, College of Public Programs, Arizona State University, 411 N. Central Avenue, Suite 800. Phoenix, AZ 85004-0689; e-mail:
Table 1: Postdoctoral Training Opportunities Available to
Social Workers

Mechanism              Overview

                       T32 grants are awarded to universities and
                       other research institutions by the National
                       Institutes of Health (NIH) to provide
                       postdoctoral research training opportunities
                       for individuals interested in pursuing
                       research careers in biomedical, behavioral,
                       and clinical research. Awards include stipends
                       and research funds that allow fellows to
                       present their research at national conferences
National Research      and research meetings. Applications for a T32
Service Awards'        fellowship are submitted to the research group
(NRSA's) (1) T32 (2)   that has received the award.

                       Similar to the T32 awards, the F32 fellowships
                       are awarded through a participating NIH
                       institute or center (for example, National
                       Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institute
                       on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National
                       Institute of Mental Health) to support
                       promising applicants with potential to become
                       productive, independent investigators in
                       scientific health-related research fields. F32
                       awards require that the student writes his or
                       her own proposal for postdoctoral training.
                       These awards require a solid sense of
                       direction for the research and a commitment
                       from a postdoc mentor who has expertise
                       relevant to the research. Although F32 awards
                       are competitive, the acceptance rates of such
                       applications are considerably higher than they
                       are for NIH research project grant submissions
NRSA F32               (for example, R01 or R03). (3)

                       Postdoctoral positions can be written into
                       grant applications by independent principal
                       investigators (for example, faculty members).
                       Postdoctoral fellows contribute to the
                       investigator's research, and in some cases
Independent Research   these positions include specific
Scientist Grants       administrative duties related to the
(for example, 1101)    coordination of the study.

                       Positions with the VA often involve clinical
U.S. Department of     responsibilities that may be more ideal for
Veterans Affairs       graduates who desire additional practice
(VA) (4)               experience.

                       Funding for postdoctoral fellowships can also
                       be found through private foundations such as
                       the American Foundation for Suicide
                       Prevention. Postdoctoral responsibilities will
                       vary depending on the principal investigator
Private foundations    and the foundation.

Mechanism              Basic Eligibility                Time Frame

                       Clinical or research doctoral
National Research      degree; U.S. citizen,            Maximum
Service Awards'        permanent resident, or           three years
(NRSA's) (1) T32 (2)   noncitizen national.

                       Clinical or research doctoral
                       degree; U.S. citizen,
                       permanent resident, or           Maximum
NRSA F32               noncitizen national.             three years

                       Clinical or research doctoral
                       degree; no need to be a U.S.
Independent Research   citizen to work on many
Scientist Grants       research project grants,
(for example, 1101)    such as an ROI.                  Variable

U.S. Department of
Veterans Affairs       Clinical or research
(VA) (4)               doctoral degree.                 Variable

                       Clinical or research
Private foundations    doctoral degree.                 Variable

(1) Detailed information on NRSA awards (for example, T32 and F32)
can be found at

(2) The T32 grant program is supported by NIH and centers including
the National Institute on Aging, National Institute on Alcohol
Abuse and Alcoholism, The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute
of Child Health and Human Development, National Institute on Drug
Abuse, and the National Institute of Mental Health. Information on
institutions that have current T32 grants can be identified through
the NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools

(3) Information on success rates of applications for NIH grants,
including postdoctoral fellowships (for example, F32), career
development awards (for example, K01), and research project
grants (for example, R01, R03) are available online at rates/index.aspx.

(4) The Interprofessional Fellowship in Psychosocial Rehabilitation
and Recovery Oriented services are an example of postdoctoral
opportunities available through the Veterans Administration.
Information on this program is available at
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Title Annotation:RESEARCH NOTE
Author:Mendoza, Natasha S.; Resko, Stella M.; De Luca, Susan M.; Mendenhall, Amy N.; Early, Theresa J.
Publication:Social Work Research
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2013
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