Proposal Writing Panel

May 28, 2015

The first of the panel discussions is about how to write effective followship and grant applications. Members of the panel have all applied for, and won, various fellowships. They will be talking about what makes an application effective, important things to think about, and other tips and tricks learned through experience.

The slides from this session will be posted to the ERES website soon.

Our panelists are:

James Owen, Hubble Fellow (JO)
Laura Kreidberg, NSF Graduate Research Fellow (LK)
Brian Hicks, NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow (BH)
Daniel Forman-Mackey, Sagan Fellow (DFM)

JO: The panelists are starting this session with a short presentation describing key points, specifics for each of their respective fellowships, good proposal writing, anonymous advice from selection panelists, and a Q&A. Participants can grill them further at lunch.

LK: Grad student fellowships are useful, super useful. There are no downsides. Guaranteed funding, no need for TA work if you don’t want them. Also good practice for writing more proposals in the future.

The NSF GRFP is open for senior undergraduates, and first and second year graduate students. Apply all three years, even if you don’t have something your senior year! The application is pretty hefty, so start early and take your time. Two main criteria: intellectual merit (how good is the science?) and broader impacts (why is the useful to others?). Broader impacts can be presentations, conferences, public outreach, STEM mentoring, volunteering, tutoring, etc. Winning an NSF GRFP makes you eligible for the NSF GROW, which allows you to continue your research in a foreign country.

BH: A fellowship program versus a regular postdoc position. Pro: you set your own research program, you control your research budget, more ‘prestigious’. Cons: you’re on your own (potentially no supervisor). For ‘open’ fellowships, you can take the fellowship anywhere, while an ‘institutional’ fellowship is directly associated with a particular place that you then have to work at. There are open fellowships available around the world.

Statistics: ~300 new PhDs per year, ~100 fellowships available per year.

For the NPP, there are multiple application periods per year, and there are around 200 fellows in residence at any one time. There is a good stipend, benefits, and lasts for 2-3 years (the last one is funding dependent).

Advice: communicate directly with the adviser for the research opportunity before writing the proposal. Read the requirements carefully before you begin.

Go to the NASA Postdoc Website for a list of available positions.

DFM:Talking about the Sagan, Hubble, and Einstein fellowships, since they are pretty similar. Sagan is specifically for exoplanets, the Hubble is for anything, and Einstein is more for cosmology/extragalactic. Duration is up to 3 years, good benefits, good research travel budget, good stipend.

Must propose 3 institutions on your applications, institutions can only accept one of each per year. The success rate is about 1:17.

JO: General proposal advice: keep things clean and concise, don’t list too many “in prep” papers, start early and take your time. Know your audience and tailor specifically, do not submit the same one multiple times. DO NOT BREAK OR BEND THE RULES.

A good proposal will explain why your idea is relevant, what is your idea an dhow you will do it, and why you specifically are the right person to do this project. Also, make sure that your idea is achievable on a reasonable timescale. Why is your proposed institution the right one for the project?

Proposals are not academic papers! They are advertisements for your project and for you. Make your proposal stand out, as reviewers read thousands of pages per season. Get feedback (early) from people both in and outside of your field.

Anonymous advice solicited from reviewers:
1. promise something new, not more of the same
2. don’t make the panel angry. Don’t say how awesome you are, don’t use too many acronyms, make the proposal easy to read, follow the rules.
3. have diverse letter writers. An observer, a theorist, and if possible someone outside of your university.
4. “At the very least, the proposal should not be irritating!”

And now the Q&A portion:

(note: I wasn’t able to actually see the panelists as they were answering questions, so I apologize to the panelists if I attributed one of their comments to someone else.)

Q: Why to ask a paper reviewer to write your letter? What will they bring?
A: JO: The context and scientific relevance of your work

Q: Are there any fellowships that aren’t only for US citizens.
A: LK and DFK: yes, Hubble and Sagan, and some others. Look carefully at the requirements

Q: How do you decide whether or not you should have a direct supervisor for your project or be your own boss? So, postdoc or fellowship?
A: DFM and JO: It is mostly dependent on how confident you are in being your own boss and what your personal preference for work environment is. If you have a good independent project and don’t need firm structure to work, then a fellowship would work. You could also apply for a fellowship under an advisor’s project (“I want to take my fellowship and work on this project of yours. What do you think?”). If you like working more in a larger group, then perhaps a postdoc would be better for you.

Q: What else should you include in your proposal?
A: Audience member who is also a Sagan Fellow: make sure that you talk about successful presentations you have had, AAS or the like. Show that you can communicate your work effectively. When you lay out your project, be specific as to how you will accomplish your goals. Most Hubble and Sagan fellowships don’t go to people right out of grad school; they mostly go to people who already have one or more postdocs under their belts. The extra postdoc first shows your additional experience.

Q: Thoughts on resubmitting the same project with some modifications to make it better?
A: Audience member who is also an NPP: you can do that for sure, take a close look at the comments from reviewers that you get back and you can iterate over the reviews until it works. If the comments look good, it might just be that there was no funding for you that cycle on you’re on the waiting list. Keep trying!

Q: The NPP proposal is significantly longer than Hubble or Sagan. How does that change your writing style and focus?
A: BH: It’s about 15 pages, which is about the length of a research paper. You don’t need to change your focus, but you can elaborate more on points that you have to be concise on in your other proposals. You could also add sections, provided that they don’t confuse your proposal.

Audience comment: Europe is nice. There is also a higher success rate (~1:4) than most US fellowships and the salaries are competitive.

Audience comment (NPP winner, also NSF GRFP and NSF GROW winner): The NSF Postdoc Fellowship application is larger than the NPP application, is due soonest, and can serve as a “first draft” or first attempt at an NPP. You can even maybe get comments back on that proposal before you have to submit your NPP and get more feedback.

Q: For open fellowship, is it a bad idea to choose as your first choice your PhD institution?
A: JO: the anonymous feedback was split. If you choose it, have a really good reason why you pick that. Personal reasons (like two-body problems) are indeed good reasons. Panel members are people too, and some institutions will even break the “one fellow” rule for a personal reason. If the main reason for an institution is a personal reason, go ahead and put that in your proposal directly. Lame reasons just look lame. Of course, you always need a really good reason for any of your institutions.

Q: How does having a postdoc help or hurt one’s chances at a position in industry?
A: (question was put off until tomorrow career panel, so this is my general impression): It probably doesn’t hurt to gain more experience that can transfer over. You can gain skills during this time that may be attractive to an industry company. You can make the switch at any time, don’t be intimidated.

Q: Time management? How do you balance everything, when you have dozens of applications?
A: JO: Very carefully. Make a clear schedule for yourself, and realize that you need a good solid few months of time to get everything done, and you probably won’t be getting much research done at the same time. Start thinking about your projects early, and talk to professors about it before you start writing.

This session was a lot of fun. There were a lot of fellowship and grant winners in the audience who shared their multi and varied experiences in applying for and winning grants. Great audience participation!

Now, it’s time for lunch, where we will be continuing the discussions on applying for and winning fellowships.

ERES Videos Online

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