How Postdoctoral Financial Aid Works

Postdoc Funding

Some students might supplement a postdoc stipend with a loan.
Some students might supplement a postdoc stipend with a loan.
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The funding for most postdocs comes from the federal government. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are the largest government agencies that provide money for the support of postdocs. The way this usually works is that a primary investigator (PI), someone who's is a scientist at a university or research facility, applies for a grant from the NIH or the NSF for a specific line of research. The grant award will be for a sum of money that the funding organization will pay to the PI's institution over a specified period of time. A portion of that grant money is for the PI to pay the salaries of technicians, research assistants and postdocs. Under this system, the PI hires a postdoc to work on a research project for a certain number of years and offers him or her a salary package for that time. Most postdocs work in this sort of scenario.

Another way postdocs receive federal funding is through stipends that agencies like the NIH and NSF pay directly to the postdoc, instead of to the university or research lab. The stipends come from competitive fellowships that postdocs apply for, and the postdoctoral fellow can use the money at any research facility willing to sponsor him or her. The most common fellowship of this type is the NIH's National Research Service Award (NRSA). Only about 15 percent of postdocs are paid directly through a fellowship like the NRSA. The stipend levels for these fellowships actually have an impact on all postdocs, however, because most institutions use them as guidance for how much to pay their postdoctoral fellows [source: Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy].

Postdoc funding is similar to funding for graduate students, since universities pay a lot of their graduate students stipends from research grants. However, the stipends for graduate students are much lower than those for postdocs: In 2003-2004, the average annual stipend for a graduate teaching assistant was $11,714 [source: Binghamton University Graduate Stipend Survey]. Many graduate students use student loans to supplement their stipends. Graduate students fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and use a combination of grants, scholarships and stipends to pay for their tuition, books and living expenses, while postdocs receive a salary offer and don't fill out a FAFSA.

Are all postdocs created equal? Read on to learn what questions you should ask when applying for a postdoc.