Recommendations for Applicants
The following suggestions are adapted from an essay written a few years ago by Howard Bond, who ran the Hubble Fellowship Program for a number of years, and may be helpful to applicants for the NASA Hubble Fellowship Program (NHFP) and other postdoctoral fellowships. Although the program organization has changed, the rules for writing a good application have not.
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 12-point font, then do not use a smaller typeface! Similarly, observe the stated 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 excess letters will help depends on the review process for the particular fellowship. (For the NHFP we do not send letters in excess of three to the review panel.)
Letters of Reference, Part 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, Part II
Whom should you select for your referees?
- Letters have the most impact if written by someone who is known to the reader, but it is more important that the referee knows you well, than it is that the referee is well-known.
- It may raise questions in the minds of some of your readers if your thesis advisor has not written for you, particularly if you are a recent graduate. However, a letter from your advisor is not essential.
- 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 prize fellows or young faculty members). Ideally the letter should specifically assess the applicant's qualifications for this particular fellowship, at the specific chosen host institution, rather than being a non-specific, mass-produced letter.
- Give your referees a copy of your application to look over when they write for you, so that their letter will be appropriate and well-informed.
Try to identify your role in, or specific contribution to, the achievements described in your application. This is particularly important for papers where you are not listed as first author.
It is difficult to describe what makes a research proposal excellent, but reviewers generally know 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 three years. Generally (but not always) one or two well-considered 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 NHFP, make sure your word processor does not put "Miller Prize Fellowship Application" at the top of every page. Note that the NHFP application should make clear the relevance of the research to NASA Astrophysics.)
Have someone who has been on graduate student or postdoctoral selection committees read your proposal and make comments. Your advisor can do this, but you can also benefit from having someone who is more distant from your work read your application. As part of the NFHP selection process, your application will be read not only by experts in your field, but also by astrophysicists who may not know your field well at all.
➤ Last updated: July 19, 2018