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Post-doc Fellowships, Programs, and Opportunities

1 September 2013 5,785 views No Comment

In an effort to help ASA members interested in finding and funding post-doctoral positions, the American Statistical Association is running a short series about recipients of federal post-doctoral fellowships, program officers, and potential host scientists. For our inaugural piece, we feature Q&As with four members who have received National Science Foundation (NSF) or National Institutes of Health (NIH) post-doctoral fellowships and program officers from NSF and NIH. Watch for subsequent pieces in upcoming issues or on STATtr@k. We also welcome suggestions for this series.

Many federal agencies offer post-doctoral fellowships, including the NSF, NIH, intelligence community, Department of Defense, and Department of Energy. See also the Internship and Fellowship Opportunities in Science at Science.gov. Note that many NIH institutes or centers offer fellowships but, for space reasons, we are only consulting with a few.

The following organizations are among the private entities that provide post-doctoral fellowship opportunities: American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, and Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund for Medical Research.


Bruce Palka

Program Officer
NSF Mathematical Sciences Postdoctoral Research Fellowships (MSPRF)

    What advice do you have for people considering applying for the NSF mathematical science post-doc fellowship? Do you have any advice specific to statisticians?
    In addition to having constructively critical (senior) eyes on the application and working with the proposed host scientist, it is important for MSPRF applicants to remember that the application will be reviewed by a panel of individuals who have considerable experience in the mentoring of post-docs and graduate students, but who are not necessarily experts in the subject matter of the application. Thus, the project description must strike a careful balance between being overly technical (lest the reviewers not be able to understand the basic thrust and importance of the project) and nontechnical (lest reviewers question the depth of the research). This is a delicate balance to achieve, but clarity for a nonexpert reader regarding the overarching framework, goals, potential impact, and methodology of the project is, in most cases, crucial to the success of an application.

    The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) suggested the following steps:
    Visit and carefully read the NIGMS F32 Fellowship page and the NIGMS Featured Funding Programs.
    See the F32 fellowship-related program areas and contact the listed individuals if you area of interest falls within a support area. For areas not listed, send an email to Michael Sesma at msesma@nigms.nih.gov expressing interest in the F32, the specific interest for post-doctoral research, research and training aims for the fellowship, potential sponsor/host, and a biosketch.

    As far as support for statisticians and biostatisticians, the focus is on the significance and importance of questions being addressed and how to bring tools such as statistical and computational approaches to explore or address the topic. Fellowship programs provide training that focuses on scientific questions and the experimental approach to be used. The best way to find out about who is using statistical and biostatistical approaches in their research and might be good mentors is to search on relevant terms. Use RePort.nih.gov to find those projects.

    Applicants should request letters of recommendation from people who can comment meaningfully on the applicant’s dissertation or early post-doctoral research and are not merely chosen because the letter writers are especially distinguished individuals in the profession. A throw-away, thoughtless letter from a famous mathematical scientist who barely knows the applicant can doom an application.

    I have no advice for statisticians that wouldn’t apply to all MSPRF applicants.

    Should a potential applicant discuss their proposal with you the program officer? If so, at what stage of the process?
    We get requests for information from MSPRF applicants at virtually all stages of the application process. The members of the MSPRF management team are always ready to respond to such requests, whether made via email or in a phone call. We are able to answer general questions about the MSPRF program, but, for obvious reasons, we are enjoined from offering advice about the scientific content of applications. The answers to many of the questions we receive can actually be found in the MSPRF solicitation (NSF 12-496) and other documents that can be accessed from the program’s homepage and should be read carefully before the application process begins.

    What are the proposal funding rates for this program? How many are awarded annually?
    We generally receive on the order of 200 applications each year and make roughly 40 MSPRF offers, only a handful of which are typically turned down. The actual number of offers depends on the DMS budgetary situation.

    Sonia B. Jakowlew

    Program Officer
    National Cancer Institute, Cancer Training Branch, Center for Cancer Training

      What advice do you have for people considering applying for the post-doctoral fellowships through NCI? Do you have any advice specific to statisticians?
      To be competitive for post-doctoral fellowship awards supported by NCI, applicants should have the following qualifications:

      • Outstanding academic record and graduate research training to equip the applicant with the knowledge and skills to perform the proposed research training activities
      • Peer-reviewed first author and co-authored scientific publications from the applicant’s graduate and post-doctoral research
      • Primary sponsor/mentor with appropriate cancer biology expertise in the areas of the applicant’s project, a track record of successful mentorship of post-doctoral fellows to independent academic faculty positions, and active R01 or R01 equivalent funding to span the time period of the fellowship who will supervise the training and research project. In the rare cases where the primary sponsor has not established a mentoring track record, a co-sponsor with such a track record and scientific expertise should be included. Both the sponsor and co-sponsor should include letters of support in the application.
      • Customized research training plan of high scientific quality that includes a description of the research strategy suited to the applicant’s stage of research development, that is distinct from the sponsor’s research, and that the applicant can take when he/she leaves the sponsor’s laboratory. There must be a description of the background that led to the proposal, the significance of the research, the approach for achieving the hypothesis-driven specific aims, the rationale, and the expected outcomes and proposed alternatives of the proposed studies in the application. Although preliminary data are not required, it is important to include some pertinent data from the scientific literature, current laboratory, or the applicant’s research to determine feasibility of the proposed project.
      • Additional training activities that will help the applicant become an independent investigator, including coursework, seminars, grant-writing and presentation career skills, and opportunities for interaction with other scientists and investigators
      • High-quality institutional environment with the necessary research facilities, resources, and commitment for the applicant to perform the research training plan and to foster the applicant’s training as an independent researcher. To maximize the acquisition of new skills and knowledge, the sponsoring institution must be a site other than where the applicant has trained as a graduate student. If the applicant proposes to remain at the graduate institution, the opportunities for new research training experiences designed to broaden the applicant’s scientific background should be documented.
      • Exceptional letters of reference (3–5) from investigators who are familiar with the applicant’s background, abilities, and capability to become an independent academic faculty investigator (e.g., previous mentors and collaborators). Letters should be submitted directly into the NIH eRA Commons system by the referees by the due date of the application. The sponsor and any co-sponsors may not submit a letter of reference.
      • Applicants with a background in statistics who lack cancer biology training are encouraged to obtain some cancer biology/biomedicine didactic training before submitting an application and to include additional cancer biology/biomedicine training in their applications.

      Should a potential applicant discuss their proposal with you, the program officer? If so, at what stage of the process?
      Statistician applicants should feel free to contact the program officer with specific questions after reading the current fellowship program announcement and discussion with their primary sponsor.

      What are the average proposal funding rates for this program? How many are awarded annually?
      During the past five fiscal years of 2008–2012, NCI received an average of 262 unique post-doctoral fellowship applications per year. The average success rate of post-doctoral fellowship applications at NCI was 25% per year during this time period.

      Any other advice or comments you’d like to add?
      In addition to post-doctoral fellowships, statistician applicants who have little or no experience in biology or biomedicine may also investigate the Mentored Quantitative Research Development Award (K25) currently supported through the program announcement PA-11-196. Statistician applicants who already have experience in biology or biomedicine, and who are working in the areas of cancer prevention, control, behavioral sciences, and population sciences, also may investigate the Cancer Prevention, Control, Behavioral Sciences, and Population Sciences Career Development Award (K07) currently supported through the program announcement PAR-12-067. The program announcements and details about these NCI-sponsored programs can be found at the National Cancer Institute.

      koestler Devin Koestler
      Koestler is an assistant professor in the department of biostatistics at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. He earned his PhD in biostatistics from Brown University, under the mentorship of Andy Houseman, and completed his post-doctoral research training in the quantitative biosciences program at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College.

      Fellowship Support: NIH R25 training grant (Koestler also received a F31 fellowship through NIA to support the last 1.5 years of his predoctoral training.)
      Where: Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College
      When: 2011–2013
      What: Cross-disciplinary program in biostatistics, bioinformatics, and molecular epidemiology
      With whom: Margaret R. Karagas and Jason H. Moore
      Why did you pursue a post-doc?
      My ultimate goal is to pursue a career in academics as an independent investigator. That being said, I decided to do a two-year post-doc to further develop my research expertise and expand my horizons beyond biostatistics by learning more about bioinformatics and molecular epidemiology.

      Please describe your approach to preparing and writing your application (including any interactions with your host scientist).
      Each cover letter was carefully tailored to the specific job posting. Moreover, I made an effort to contact each of the PIs to personally introduce myself and provide any other background about my research interests and qualifications that were not discussed in the cover letter. I also had several colleagues review my application materials before I sent them out. Having an extra pair of eyes look over my application was helpful for ensuring that what was being sent out was of the highest quality.

      What advice do you have for people thinking about applying for a post-doctoral fellowship?
      Aside from talking to program officers and previous F31 recipients and reviewing abstracts of successful F31 applications for that institute, I think my biggest piece of advice would be to make sure you prepare a well-developed and specific training plan (as I understand, this piece weighs heavily into the overall scoring of these awards). I think those applying for the F-series tend to focus too much on the research plan, with the training plan as an afterthought. Since the F-series grants are training awards, intended on aiding the development of doctoral/post-doctoral students, the training component is key and shouldn’t be overshadowed by the research plan.

      Why or when should someone consider a post-doc?
      The paradigm is changing, but I think if your ultimate goal is a career in academics, then a short-term post-doc can be a valuable tool for achieving your goals. I personally did not feel prepared to begin a faculty position right after grad school, so I decided to do a post-doc to further develop my research skills and learn more about several different disciplines that were of interest to me.

      Anything else you’d like to add?
      Start the search and application materials early! With a clear set of career goals in mind, continuously check websites that announce post-doctoral research positions matching your career goals and interests. Introduce yourself to faculty at conferences and departmental seminars, as they are often a valuable resource for helping you find the post-docs that are a good fit based on your training and research interests.

      The real key to looking for and ultimately deciding on a particular post-doctoral position is finding the positions that will provide you with the necessary resources to be successful. The top priority should be positions that will enable you to be productive (manuscript publications, conference presentations, etc.), as these are typically the criteria you will later be evaluated on when you decide to take the next step in your career.

      KatiePollardKatherine Pollard Pollard earned her PhD from the University of California at Berkeley Division of Biostatistics under the supervision of Mark van der Laan. Her research at Berkeley included developing computationally intensive statistical methods for analysis of microarray data with applications in cancer biology. After graduating, she did her post-doc at Berkeley with Sandrine Dudoit and developed bioconductor open source software packages for clustering and multiple hypothesis testing before starting a postdoctoral fellowship in bioinformatics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

      Fellowship Support: NIGMS F32
      Where: Center for Biomolecular Engineering at the University of California at Santa Cruz
      When: 2003–2005
      What: Comparative genomics, bioinformatics
      With whom: David Haussler and Todd Lowe
      Why did you pursue a post-doc?
      I wanted to learn more computing and biology. I had the opportunity to work directly with wetlab scientists and professional programmers.

      Please describe your approach to preparing and writing your application (including any interactions with your host scientist).
      I actually wrote my NIH NRSA fellowship application with a different mentor, Bruce Conklin at Gladstone Institutes. Bruce and the administrative staff at Gladstone taught me a lot about preparing a successful grant. After I received the fellowship and got an offer to be a post-doc at UCSC, Bruce was generous enough to advise me to transfer the fellowship there, because he thought it was a great career opportunity for me. I now work in the same department with Bruce and have grants with him.

      What advice do you have for people thinking about applying for a post-doctoral fellowship?
      It is a great idea to talk to the program officers at the funding agencies. A big part of getting a fellowship funded is finding the right home for it in terms of review panel and agency. Sometimes, statistical projects are appreciated in unexpected places.

      Why or when should someone consider a post-doc?
      In today’s job market, post-doctoral experience and a funding record are big pluses, in both academia and other sectors. A post-doctoral fellowship enables one to get further training and mentoring, or to explore a new area that could lead to an exciting job.

      Post-docs from my lab now have jobs at top universities and biotech companies.

      SherriRoseSherri Rose Sherri Rose is an assistant professor of biostatistics in the department of health care policy at Harvard Medical School. She earned her PhD in biostatistics from the University of California at Berkeley and was an NSF post-doctoral fellow at The Johns Hopkins University.

      Fellowship Support: NSF Mathematical Sciences Postdoctoral Research Fellowship (MSPRF)
      Where: Department of Biostatistics at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
      When: 2011–2013
      What: Semiparametric estimation for causal inference in longitudinal observational data and machine learning for prediction and effect estimation

      Why did you pursue a post-doc?
      Post-docs have become increasingly popular for statisticians over the past 10 years, and I saw one as a great opportunity to expand my research platform before starting a faculty position. My doctoral advisor at Berkeley, Mark van der Laan, also counseled me that many of the department’s most successful recent trainees (in academic jobs) completed post-docs or other additional training. Independently, I decided that if I was going to pursue a post-doc, I wanted to bring in my own funding. This would allow me to not only have greater control over my research projects, but also gain valuable experience obtaining external grants.

      Please describe your approach to preparing and writing your application (including any interactions with your host scientist).I spent a substantial amount of time pondering the “big picture” of my post-doc—what, where, and with whom—before writing a word. I discovered the NSF MSPRF, but knew they funded few statistics post-docs. Therefore, I went through the awardees for the previous three years and contacted those working on statistical projects to ask for their advice. Almost everyone I contacted responded. I also wrote to the program officer to query whether my potential area fell within the scope of their program. Several mentors gave me great advice regarding hosts, and I ultimately contacted Michael Rosenblum at Hopkins to discuss possible project ideas. I took these ideas and developed a research plan for my NSF application, after spending many hours reading journal articles in this new area.

      What advice do you have for people thinking about applying for a post-doctoral fellowship?
      1) Do your research and plan ahead! Whether it is through NSF, NIH, or another organization, it is important to know what their funding priorities are, the deadlines, and how your proposal will be scored. Consider talking to successful awardees from previous years. 2) Make sure your application is compelling to someone outside your subfield and major area. 3) Maximize your effort. The NSF MSPRF usually has a deadline in October, but NIH has multiple deadlines. A back-up plan might include revising an unsuccessful NSF MSPRF proposal for NIH or vice versa.

      Why or when should someone consider a post-doc?
      Aside from the reasons I note above, a post-doc also allows you to better understand academic life through joining a new department and school. (Most post-doctoral fellowships discourage applicants from submitting proposals to stay at their doctoral institution.) The professional development opportunities helped me zero in on what I wanted out of an academic career, what types of departments I would enjoy, and how I could best contribute to science.

      Anything else you’d like to add?
      Don’t be afraid to take some risks during a post-doc. I was exposed to new research areas and methods at Hopkins, and it inspired collaborations and projects that wouldn’t have happened if I’d only interacted with people in my subfield.

      suz_TolwinskiWard Susan Tolwinski-Ward Susan Tolwinski-Ward earned her doctorate in applied mathematics from The University of Arizona in 2012. She is an NSF mathematical sciences post-doctoral research fellow at the Institute for Mathematics Applied to Geosciences (IMAGe) at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Her research is in probabilistic estimation of paleoclimates from natural proxy data such as the relative annual ring-widths of trees.

      Fellowship Support: NSF Mathematical Sciences Postdoctoral Fellowship
      Where: Institute for Mathematics Applied to Geosciences (IMAGe) at the National Center for Atmospheric Research
      What: probabilistic paleoclimate estimation
      With whom: Doug Nychka
      Why did you pursue a post-doc?
      I envisioned the post-doc as extra time to build my network of collaborators, add to my publication record, and grow my statistical modeling skills, as well as a vehicle to gain exposure to cutting-edge statistical approaches and scientific problems of interest.

      Please describe your approach to preparing and writing your application (including any interactions with your host scientist).
      The deadline for the mathematical sciences post-doctoral research fellowships is early (October), and so it was the first proposal I wrote. To get over my jitters about writing my first proposal, I decided to mentally treat the NSF proposal as a draft version that would help me write all the others that followed. I learned a lot about grant-writing from the process, and I guess it turned out pretty well to boot! I think there were two keys to my success: I placed a lot of emphasis in the proposal about why the problem I wanted to work on was important, not just mathematically, but in terms of broader potential benefits to society, and I emphasized how my dissertation research prepared me to undertake my proposed research plan. My proposed host scientist was not involved in helping me craft the proposal, but he did have to write a letter of support indicating he would have the resources and commit the time to be my mentor. I had worked in IMAGe as a summer visitor before, so Doug already knew me, and for him to write that letter was as easy as sending an email.

      What advice do you have for people thinking about applying for a post-doctoral fellowship?
      Start brainstorming project ideas and writing your proposal as early as possible. And if the criteria used to evaluate proposals are provided (as they are in the NSF fellowship announcements), then write your proposal such that a reviewer holding a checklist of those criteria and just scanning what you’ve written will easily and clearly see that you meet all those criteria.

      Why or when should someone consider a post-doc?
      If you feel you need more time to mature as a researcher or establish your research program and network of collaborators before applying for faculty positions, a post-doc is a great professional opportunity.

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