The following essay, written a few years ago by Howard Bond, may be helpful to applicants for Hubble and other postdoctoral fellowships.
The title above is admittedly misleading-there is no magic formula that will guarantee that your application for a Hubble Fellowship (or any other postdoctoral fellowship) will be successful.
Nevertheless, a few informal hints can be offered for tilting the odds in your favor, based on my several years of experience with the review process for Hubble Fellowships:
- FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS! You would be surprised how often applicants ignore specific instructions, and thus compromise their chances. For example, if the application instructions say that single-sided materials are to be submitted, then submit them single-sided! (Generally the reason for such an instruction is that two-sided materials are likely to be fed through a copying machine that has been set for single-sided input, and thus every other page will be missing in the copy the reviewer sees.) Observe the stated total page limits; otherwise you will annoy the reviewers. If the instructions call for three letters of reference, then make sure that three are sent in, not two or one. Whether excesss letters will help depends on the review process for the particular fellowship. For the Hubble Fellowship, we do not send letters in excess of three to the review panel; they are provided only at the panel meeting in January, but generally the impact of such letters at that late a stage is small.
- NUMBER ALL PAGES. Then, when your application is dropped on the floor, the correct order can be restored, and any missing pages tracked down.
- LETTERS OF REFERENCE I. It is essential that you follow up with your referees to make sure that they have sent in their letters before the stated deadline. Late letters will not be sent to the reviewers, or will be sent to them in a separate mailing that may not receive much attention, or will be provided only during the panel meeting, at which point it is generally too late to affect the outcome. So you need to pester your referees relentlessly until you are positive the letters have been sent in.
- LETTERS OF REFERENCE II. Whom should you select for your referees? I can make several suggestions:
- It will generally raise questions, at least for very recent PhD's, if the thesis advisor has not written one of the letters.
- Ideally the referees should be well-known astrophysicists. However, it is much better if your referee is less famous but obviously knows you and your work extremely well, than if the letter-writer is a very famous person who is evidently not very familiar with you.
- The best letters describe and assess the person and his/her work in some detail, and directly compare the candidate with well-known persons at a similar career stage (e.g., recent Hubble Fellows or young faculty members). Ideally the letter should specifically assess the applicant's qualifications for the Hubble Fellowship at the specific chosen Host Institution, rather than being a non-specific mass-produced letter. There is a bit of a cultural divide when it comes to letters from, e.g., Europe, which sometimes tend to be extremely brief and generic, and thus tend to have little impact on the reviewers.
- PREVIOUS ACCOMPLISHMENTS. Try to identify your role in, or specific contribution to, the achievements described in your application. This is particularly important for, e.g., papers where you are not listed as first author.
- RESEARCH PROPOSAL. It is difficult to describe what makes a research proposal excellent, but reviewers generally know one when they see one. You need to demonstrate your skill in selecting an important research project, and your ability to explain it within the allowed page limits. The project should be one of obvious relevance and impact, but also needs to be one that is not so ambitious that it is unlikely to be accomplished in 3 years. Generally one or two specific projects are better than a "grab-bag" of smaller individual efforts. It is important to tailor your proposal to the Fellowship being applied for, rather than to send the same generic application in for every opening. (In particular, if you are applying for a Hubble Fellowship, make sure your word processor does not put "Miller Prize Fellowship Application" at the top of every page!) Note in particular that the Hubble Fellowship application must contain a discussion of the relevance of the research to at least one of the scientific missions that fall under the Cosmic Origins Program: HST, Spitzer, Herschel, SOFIA and JWST.