Ten tips on applying for a postdoc fellowship

Competition for postdoctoral fellowships is fierce, so your application needs to stand out as realistic, coherent and compelling. Here, five Stanford University scientists reveal 10 tips from their own experiences when attempting to secure a place

August 20, 2016
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Start early and gather critical information

Crafting a competitive fellowship can take six to nine months, so it is imperative that you start early.

You may even want to start looking for postdoctoral fellowships before you finish your doctoral degree.

Compile a comprehensive list of fellowships that you can apply to. This list should include key information to organise your game plan for applying, including sponsor (agency sponsoring the fellowship) name; sponsor deadlines; and any other requirements or critical information.

To find suitable fellowships, start by asking your faculty mentors, laboratory colleagues and recent alumni about their experiences applying for fellowships.

Once you have an exhaustive list of fellowships that you are eligible for, start gathering critical information that you can use to inform your writing. Gather previously submitted applications and reviewers’ comments for the fellowships you will to apply to. Both funded and unfunded applications are useful.

Create a game plan and write regularly

Writing a compelling fellowship takes time, a lot of time, which is challenging to balance with a hectic laboratory schedule, other responsibilities and family obligations.

To reduce stress, divide the fellowship requirements into smaller tasks by creating a detailed timeline with goals or milestones. Having a game plan with daily and/or weekly goals will also help you to avoid procrastination.


Read next: Essential PhD tips: 10 articles all doctoral students should read


Make sure that you are writing regularly (daily or every other day) to establish an effective writing practice. This will increase your productivity and reduce your anxiety because writing will become a habit.

Find your research niche

It is crucial that you have a deep awareness of your field so you can identify critical knowledge gaps that will significantly move your field forward when filled.

Keep a list of questions or problems inherent to your field and update this list after reading germane peer-reviewed and review articles or attending seminars and conferences.

Narrow down and focus your list through discussions with your mentors, key researchers in your field and colleagues.

Because compelling projects often combine two seemingly unrelated threads of work to challenge and shift the current research or clinical practice paradigms, it is important to have a broad familiarity with the wider scientific community as well.

Seek opportunities to attend seminars on diverse topics, speak with experts, and read broadly the scientific literature.

Relentlessly contemplate how concepts and approaches in the wider scientific community could be extended to address critical knowledge gaps in your field.

Share your ideas with others, such as mentors, other scientists and colleagues, to gauge interest in the significance and innovation of the proposed ideas.

Use your Specific Aims document as your roadmap

A perfectly crafted “Specific Aims” document, usually a one-page description of your plan during the project period, is crucial for a compelling fellowship because your reviewers will read it!

In fact, it is very likely that your Specific Aims will be the first document your reviewers will read, so it is vital to fully engage the reviewers’ interest and desire to keep reading.

The Specific Aims document must concisely answer the following questions:

•           Is the research question important? Compelling proposals often tackle a particular gap in the knowledge base that, when addressed, significantly advances the field
•           What is the overall goal? The overall goal defines the purpose of the proposal and must be attainable regardless of how the hypothesis tests
•           What specifically will be done? Attract the reviewers’ interest using attention-getting headlines. Describe your working hypothesis and your approach to objectively test the hypothesis
•           What are the expected outcomes and impact? Describe what the reviewers can expect after the proposal is completed in terms of advancement to the field.

Build a first-rate team of mentors

A strong mentoring team is essential.

Remember, reviewers often evaluate the qualifications and appropriateness of your mentoring team. The leader of your mentoring team should have a track record of mentoring individuals at similar stages to your own as well as research qualifications appropriate for your interests.

Reviewers will also often consider if your mentor can adequately support the proposed research and training because fellowship applications don’t always provide sufficient funds.

It is also useful to propose a co-mentor who complements your mentor’s qualifications and experiences.

Develop a complete career development training plan

When developing this plan, it is helpful to think deeply about your training needs.

What skills or experiences are missing from your background but are needed for your next career stage? Try to identify three to five training goals for your fellowship and organise your plan with these goals in mind. Below are sample activities:

•           Regular (weekly) one-on-one meetings with mentors
•           Biannual meeting with advisory committee
•           Courses to study specific topics or methods
•           Seminars focused on specific research areas
•           Teaching or mentoring
•           Grant-writing, scientific writing and oral presentation courses or seminars
•           Opportunities for gaining leadership roles
•           Laboratory management seminars or experiences.

Stop! Get feedback

Feedback is critical to developing a first-class proposal.

You need a wide audience providing feedback because your reviewers will likely come from diverse backgrounds as well.

Be proactive in asking for feedback from your mentor, colleagues and peers.

Even non-scientists can provide critical advice about the clarity of your writing.

Tell a consistent and cohesive story

Fellowship applications are often composed of numerous documents or sections. Therefore, it is important that all your documents tell a consistent and cohesive story.

For example, you might state your long-term goal in the Specific Aims document and personal statement, then elaborate on your long-term goal in a Career Goals document, so each of these documents must tell a consistent story.

Similarly, your research must be described consistently in your abstract, Specific Aims and research strategy documents. It is important to allow at least one to two weeks of time after composing the entire application to review and scrutinise the story you tell to ensure that it is consistent and cohesive.

Follow specific requirements and proofread for errors and readability

Each fellowship application has specific formats and page requirements that must be strictly followed. Keep these instructions and the review criteria close to hand when writing and revising.

Applications that do not conform to required formatting and other requirements might be administratively rejected before the review process, so meticulously follow all requirements and guidelines.

Proofread your almost-final documents for errors and readability. Errors can be confusing to reviewers. Also, if the documents have many misspellings or grammar errors, your reviewers will question your ability to complete the proposed experiments with precision and accuracy.

Remove or reduce any field-specific jargon or acronyms.

Review the layout of your pages and make sure that each figure or table is readable and well placed. Use instructive headings and figure titles that inform the reviewers of the significance of the next paragraph(s) or results. Use bold or italics to stress key statements or ideas. Your final documents must be easy to read, but also pleasing, so your reviewers remain engaged.

Recycle and resubmit

Fellowships applications frequently have similar requirements, so it is fairly easy to recycle your application or submit it to several different funding opportunities.

This can significantly increase your odds for success, especially if you are able to improve your application with each submission by tackling reviewers’ comments from a prior submission.

However, some sponsors limit concurrent applications to different funding opportunities, so read the instructions carefully.

Conclusion

Regardless of funding outcomes, writing a fellowship is an important career development activity because you will learn and refine skills that will enhance your training.

This is an edited version of an article written by Stanford University academics Li Ma, Lei Cai, Crystal M. Botham, Siu Ping Ngok and Ke Yuan, which first appeared in the open-access journal PLOS Computational Biology, which is republished with the permission of the authors.

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