The Road to Independence - Part II: What it takes to apply for fellowships (25 Oct 2014)

As I wrote earlier, I am interested in becoming an early independent fellow and started a blog series about it. This is the second post in the series.

In this post, I am going to talk about what it takes to apply for such a fellowship. And for those of you who want me to cut to the chase, here are things you will be needing for application:

Let me talk about these one by one and share my experience with you for each of them separately.

Finding postdoc fellowship opportunities

As I mentioned earlier, I got to know about the existence of such fellowships just by chance. I happened to be talking to people and stalking their CVs online, which introduced me to one of these fellowships just by coincidence.

I usually take a quick look at the job postings whenever I have a chance and try to get a sense of what is out there waiting for me; but not once, in my humble 5-year graduate school years, I saw a posting for such a fellowship. And this is a fact you should be aware of: these fellowships are not advertised widely for some reason. So you have to be the one who is chasing after such opportunities.

And as in every chasing game, it takes a lot of effort and time to get a complete listing of these. There was a relatively old article in Cell about these fellowships, titled "Superpostdocs reach for the stars", which was a really good start for me, but it turned out that many fellowships mentioned in that article are no more accepting new applications. Googling relevant keywords, talking to people and e-mailing departments of interest to me helped a lot to nail some of them down, and for the curious, here is the list of applications I will be applying to:

I honestly think that we need a crowd-sourcing approach to create a complete listing of such opportunities to get the word out as much as possible for the soon-to-be-graduates. But that requires another blog post on its own.

Getting the details right

One thing that bothered me a lot about these fellowships is that every single one of them seem to have a different application system to them. Some of them require your mentor to first nominate you to the program before you can apply, some of them want you to submit everything as a single application package via e-mail, and some follow a typical grant/faculty application procedure where they have a proper electronic system to manage things. Making sure to meet all the deadlines, not miss anything important and not filing something that is completely out-of-context is hard, because most of these information pieces are not available online. So get prepared for sending many e-mails to program coordinators and in some cases also for chasing the right contact person to send the e-mail to.

In my case, it took on average two e-mails back and forth to get all details I needed for these applications. To keep track of all these conversations, I suggest you get yourself familiar with task manager services (my favorite one is RememberTheMilk). I also find myself visiting web-pages for these fellowships quite frequently to see when the new application period will be open and unfortunately, not all of them have RSS feeds to them. To keep track of these web page changes, I ended up setting up alerts on ChangeDetection web service and it works beautifully and takes a huge burden off of your shoulders.

At least three recommendation letters

This one is really challenging. You see, most graduates students work in my field work in isolation and work with their advisor on a project. Under normal circumstances, this means that by default a graduate student has two secured reference letters: one from her graduate school advisor and one from her previous advisor. The latter is somewhat questionable, because Ph.D. programs usually takes 5-6 years on average and during all these years, many graduate students diverge from the field that they received their degree in. And this means that the former advisor's letter might not count as strong or informative as your new advisor's letter.

Thanks to my tri-institutional graduate program, I got to spend a year in a different campus and had the chance to work in another lab for a whole year (+1). I also happened to work for a multi-institutional project and interacted with another PI quite frequently (+1). And I have no serious issues with my current advisor (+1). In this sense, I was lucky to secure these additional support letters but not everybody is fortunate enough to do so.

So my advice to you, dear student friend who happened to be reading this post and looking for humble advice, is as follows: participate in collaborative projects as much as possible and get to know people. If you are considering becoming independent early on, then start acting independently as early as possible. If your lab collaborates a lot, then be part of at least one collaborative projects; if not, then think about starting one on your own.

Let me pause here and leave the next two important things for another blog post before this one gets too long and boring. But the bottom line of this post is that these applications do take time and can be considered as a part-time job. For those of you who are already overwhelmed with other things, I suggest you think twice before going down this path. If you are seriously thinking about applying for these fellowships, then plan ahead and try to dedicate a whole month to get these applications out of your way.

Coming up next: Preparing a CV and a research proposal.

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