How to succeed with postdoc fellowship applications

How to succeed with postdoc
fellowship applications
M a d hukar Pa i , M D, P h D
A s s o c iate Pro fess or, M c G i ll U n i ve rsit y, M o nt real
As s o c iate Di re ctor, McG i ll I nte rn at ional T B Ce nt re
Why you should apply for fellowships and
not just CIHR
In academia, the expectation is that we will all raise funds for our research
Applying for a fellowship is not that different from applying for research grants; so, you get
valuable practice
Getting independent funding via fellowships is a strong sign that you can raise money, and looks
great on any faculty application
So, apply to ALL competitions that you are eligible for (depending on only CIHR is not a great
Before you apply for any competition….
1. Carefully read the instructions, eligibility and evaluation criteria
2. Try and get hold of a couple of previous successful applications in that
competition – use them as models or templates
3. Give yourself plenty of time to draft and go through multiple revisions and get
comments from others
How does a CIHR committee review post-PhD
fellowship applications?
Remote review model; no face to face meetings or teleconferences (online discussion is
possible) – so, your application needs to speak for itself and objective/tangible items are critical
to highlight
The Fellowship evaluation criteria and weightings were established based on studies of the
predictors of post-training research activity and through consultation with past Fellowship
reviewers. [Note: for this competition, criteria will likely not be changing, except maybe it will be
a bit reworded as well as re-weighted].
The ratings that reviewers submit for each criterion on the 0.0 to 4.9 scale will be weighted
automatically by ResearchNet in the calculation of an overall rating.
For comparison, let us look at FRQS criteria for
postdoc fellowship applications
Comments from an established, well-funded
“the only objective metric is publications and h-index. some students actually have 8-10 papers and
an h-index of 4, after a PhD! they stand out from those who have 1 paper published and 1 in
the fit between training and project is important. e.g. excellent Canadian PhD in endocrinology going
to Harvard to study insulin growth factor with a guru in the field.
the project on its own is hard to judge; some of them look like they are copied out of the new
supervisor's CIHR/NIH grant and do not have the 'voice' of a trainee.
the letters are not helpful, because they are written by former advisor (biased) and incoming
supervisor (conflict of interest)…”
Comments from a junior faculty who got
postdoc fellowships…
Track record (e.g., PhD bursary, awards, publications) – single biggest predictor of future success
is past success
◦ Highlights the importance of submitting PhD publications as you go rather than after thesis submission
An well-thought out and feasible research project
◦ Originality is important but a detailed, well described, feasible project is key
Supervisor with a track record of successful supervision history in terms of students publishing
Changing institutions and (especially supervisors)…”
Comments from a current postdoc with
“I think there are two things to consider: one is your own research record, and
the second are the skills/suitability of your supervisor.
Publications of all kinds count into the total, as do oral presentations.
Sadly, I don't think the research proposal itself counts for as much as it should...”
Comments from a current postdoc with
“a strong mentor who has had success in mentorship
a project that is already started (IRB approved and other funding secured)
prior research experience of applicant and publications..”
Advice from an experienced reviewer (for
 Publications [of course]—but avoid “in preparation” as most reviewers find this virtually meaningless…
 If you decide to indicate role and percent contribution on your publications, be honest and consistent.
 “High-level” conference presentations/abstracts e.g. plenary speaker and/or oral research presentation[s] at major international conference[s]—a good practice
to highlight oral/plenary presentations as opposed to posters. Basically things that further support your productivity and leadership.
 Pay careful attention to the description of your proposed research. Often only a brief e.g. one page description is allowed. Don’t fall into the trap that >75% of
applicants fall into, where 90% of the project description is background, rationale, objectives, and/or potential importance, with 2 lines about the actual design
and execution of your research. Provide enough detail about the proposed methods—without using jargon—that an educated reader, who is not an expert in
your content area can understand. It is a document that should be written carefully, in consultation with your supervisor, leaving plenty of time for revision.
 Reference letters—usually these are a bit of a wash. That said, you absolutely MUST make sure you get reference letters from your primary PhD supervisor, and
ideally your primary MSc supervisor as well. Absence of letters from them is assumed to mean that they were less than satisfied with your work. If there is a
specific reason why your PhD supervisor cannot provide a letter this should be stated explicitly.
 As for any competitive application, follow all instructions carefully, and make sure your final application fits the allotted space—this can be a particular challenge
when you cut and paste from Word into on-line forms. Leave time to proof read. Typographical and/or grammatical errors are distracting to reviewers.
 Usually there is a section where the supervisor indicates what exactly you will be doing, and how this fits with his/her research program. Try to make sure
[usually by emailing this back and forth] that a) this is concordant with the project description you have submitted; b) this reads as personal/specific to you e.g. it
is explicitly stated that your planned work will take advantage of expertise XYZ that you already have, and that through the course of this work you will acquire
additional expertise in ABC, which will ultimately allow you to do PQR as an independent scientist.
Advice from a former CIHR Scientific Institute
1. Don't do your postdoc at the same institution (or with the same supervisor) as you do your PhD.
2. Don't do your postdoc at the same institution where you want to get a faculty position afterwards.
3. Make sure your proposed postdoc supervisor has a strong track record of supervision, grant support, and
4. The most important criterion for judging the applicant is publications before and (especially) during/based on the PhD
5. The institution where you get your PhD, your performance (grades), and (especially) outstanding letters of
recommendation (e.g., "This is the best PhD student I have seen at McGill in my 30 years on the faculty") are next-most
important criteria for judging the applicant.
6. The proposed postdoc research project/program shouldn't be important, in my view (because it is almost always
written by the supervisor, not the applicant), but it is.
In sum, your probability of success is high
You can tell a clear story of what you did in your PhD, what
you found and published, how that led to a postdoc
fellowship, and how you plan to continue along that
research trajectory with a new mentor/institution that is a
good fit with your chosen field and will provide a good
environment for you to grow into an independent
researcher soon.
Making the most of your postdoc fellowship

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