Building a competitive postdoc application

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Advice from staff scientists and answers to your FAQs as you prepare your application.
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Every year, the Carnegie Institution for Science's Earth and Planets Laboratory (EPL) selects a new class of postdoctoral fellows.

In this article, we have compiled advice from Staff Scientists and answers to frequently asked questions that we hope will help you prepare your application. Please do not hesitate to reach out to EPL's Director and Postdoc Selection Committee Chair Michael Walter (mwalter@carnegiescience.edu) with any further questions. Good luck!

Before you begin

  • We strongly encourage you to get some information about the resources and people at EPL and think about how they may complement and enhance your proposed work and how you may collaborate with them. In other words, ask yourself, why are you specifically applying to EPL, and why would they want to choose you over other candidates?

    Make sure to mention the names of staff members at EPL who you might work with and contact them prior to writing your application. Approaching the process in this way allows you to meet several potential mentors even if the fellowship does not end up working out in the current cycle.
  • Once you have come up with your proposal idea, discuss this idea with your potential mentors, especially if your project requires access to specialized equipment. It is critical to make sure that the research can be done at EPL and that potential mentors are interested in the collaboration and will be supportive of the proposal. Please note that while most mentors are happy to help bounce around or refine ideas (when given enough time), your research idea must be your own, and EPL staff are not allowed to help you come up with project ideas or help write your proposal.
  • Alert your letter writers well in advance that you are applying to EPL and provide them with the deadline for letters. Ideally, you should share your application materials (even if they’re in draft form) with letter writers two weeks prior to the letter deadline. If there are specific things you want them to mention in your letter, please let them know.

As you are writing your application

Previous Research Statement and Description of Proposed Research

  • You need to keep to the requested lengths for the Previous Research Statement and Research Proposal. The requested lengths include references and figures.
  • Make sure to explain what broader science questions you are trying to answer. Remember that an interdisciplinary group of scientists will be reading your application, so it is important to explain why your research questions are important without using too much jargon and technical details. Staff who are not experts in your area of specialty can easily get lost in the weeds, so make sure to effectively communicate in a way that will excite any scientist.
  • Make it clear how your work fits into the bigger picture of your “subfield of research” and across other fields if possible. What is new or innovative? Address this for both past and future research. This can also generate enthusiasm from committee members that read your proposal who work in vastly different areas.
  • Make sure to discuss why your research project is timely and important to do now? What key knowledge gap will your research help to fill, and how will it influence future work? What will be the lasting impact?
  • Avoid writing a proposal that is only a list of tasks you will try to accomplish (i.e., I will do these experiments, or I will collect these data) without saying why. The introduction is very important in this regard and should set up the rest of the proposal.
  • You do still need to convey specifics about how you will address the broader science questions and convince the committee’s experts that completion of your project is feasible at EPL and over the duration of the fellowship. A timeline may help the reader (and you!) connect the different parts of the project together. A Gantt chart at the end is always helpful and lets staff know you have thought about timelines.
  • Consider the risks in your proposal and discuss backup plans (e.g., a risk assessment plan) if something does not go as planned or you cannot get the access you need to collect important data (synchrotron beamtime, telescope time, etc.). We encourage novel and risky proposals, but we also expect a realistic appraisal and mitigating strategies. Do not expect the committee to overlook risks that you do not mention.

Career development/motivations

  • Address how your proposed work adds to and enhances what you have already done, in terms of scientific knowledge and/or your skill set. Why is EPL a good place to enhance your scientific development and help launch your career?
  • Describe what you have uniquely contributed or will contribute to projects, versus other people in the field, especially in relation to your previous advisor(s) or colleagues. For example, in a multi-author paper where you are not the first author.

Technical suggestions

  • Do not use too much jargon or too many technical terms, and any you do use, make sure to define them. Again, some people who read your proposal on the selection panel will not necessarily be experts in your field.
  • Consider using headings like “background”, “goals”, “methods”, and “impact” to help organize the proposal. For instance, you could utilize boldface type or italics for important sentences such that the reader would only have to read those key sentences to get the gist of your application. Selection committees typically read many dozens of proposals, so try to help them remember the key features of yours.
  • An Executive Summary or Abstract at the beginning that highlights all the main points of the proposal is always helpful for readers. Include any information that will help the reader quickly understand the proposal.
  • Always include at least a few sentences and up to a paragraph about why EPL is a good fit for your research and/or career objectives. One metric of evaluation is “fit”, please make it very clear to the committee how you see yourself fitting into EPL and how EPL would be a great fit for your research.
  • Figures are not required but can be an efficient way to convey information and save on words. If you include figures, they should add key information to your proposal. A figure diagramming a technique or research idea is perfectly fine (it does not have to be a scientific paper figure) if it helps the reader understand your proposal. You may need to make 1-2 new figures specifically for your proposal. Be sure to not include figures “just to include a figure.” Some proposals are fine without figures – it depends on your research field and your proposed work.
  • People also have different opinions about listing papers in preparation on your CV. Listing submitted papers is okay (if their status is duly noted) on a CV but avoid listing in-prep work in a publications section. One option is to separate out those papers already through peer review (accepted, in press, published) from those not yet through peer review (in-prep, submitted) under different sub-heading in your CV.  If you have an “in-prep” article that is essentially complete, you can add “manuscript available upon request” to let readers know that it is that far along. It is fine to discuss “in-prep” articles in your statement of previous/current research, so the committee gets an idea of your current trajectory even if you do not have an extensive past publication history.
  • This is subjective, but some prefer using names instead of numbers for references. Some find it annoying to have to go look up what reference corresponds to what number, which means they are less likely to do so, and thus more likely to miss knowing about your papers. It is generally worth the extra space to list out the references in the text.

Before you submit

  • It is always helpful to read your essay-form application materials out loud, slowly, to yourself before submitting. Even better, ask a friend, colleague, or family member to read it for typos and grammar. Typos and poor grammar can be fatal to otherwise excellent proposals.
  • Ask colleagues, including non-experts in your field, to read your essays for scientific clarity Do they get the main ideas? Can they articulate why your research is interesting and important?
  • Have someone proofread your CV and other application documents for typos or typographic inconsistencies. For your publications, be consistent in the formatting style.
  • Again, contact your letter writers in plenty of time.

Now, you're ready to submit your application! 

Find all currently open postdoctoral positions at the Earth and Planets Laboratory on our jobs website.

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