Honing your Hubble Application

by Guest on August 20, 2014

This is an anonymous guest post from two past members of the Hubble Fellowship committee.

The Hubble Postdoctoral Fellowship among the most prestigious awards in our field and is worn as a badge of honor throughout an Astronomer’s entire career. About 10–20 are awarded each year to applicants from around the world to fund a three year fellowship at a US-based institution. Applying for a Hubble and the other NASA-funded prize fellowships, the Einstein and the Sagan, is quite different than any other job application and the following advice is intended to hopefully shed some light on the process, provide realistic expectations, and enable applicants to submit the strongest application possible.

Publish.

One of the easiest metrics to look at is an applicant’s publications, particularly the number thereof. In 2014, awardees who were finishing their PhD typically had 6±2 first author publications (with a minimum of 3), while those that already had a postdoc had 8±1.4 (minimum of 6). In both cases, 1–2 of these may have been just submitted. Keep in mind that there is no hard cut on the number of publications an applicant should have, nor is there a correlation between number of papers and ranking among awardees. This is just one of many factors considered by each committee member individually.

The number of publications isn’t the only factor that matters, of course. A paper that is highly  cited demonstrates that you are doing impactful work.  Try to get papers out early enough in your PhD that they have time to accumulate citations and actively promote your work by giving lots of talks.   But don’t stress about your citation numbers; panelists were circumspect about realizing that some sub-fields have very high citation rates and others don’t.

Cultivate good letters of reference.

As part of your fellowship application, you will also need to submit the usual letters of reference. Make sure you have at least two from people who know you well enough to write you very strong letters. If you have published a paper together, it will be that much easier for your letter writer to give you a very strong letter.

So do you just get people at your home institution to write your letters for you? Not necessarily. It’s also beneficial for you to have a letter from someone outside of your Ph.D. institution. If you have a postdoc already, then at least one of your letters should come from your new institution. If this isn’t possible, try to get a letter from a collaborator who was not involved in your thesis research.

The letters themselves should be very clear about your intellectual contributions to your thesis work. For instance, was that ground-breaking paper you published your idea or your advisor’s? Letters should also comment on your creativity and independence, so you should cultivate these qualities in yourself; they can get you far even outside of applying for fellowships! Your letter writers should also see your research proposal so they can comment on it. We like to see comments like “Her proposal is ambitious but entirely feasible and extends her past work in a significant new direction…”

One of the main purposes of letters is to fill in information that doesn’t come across through the rest of your application. If there is anything you particularly want mentioned, it helps to remind your letter writers about such information. For example, you could try an approach like the following:

Dear Prof X – thanks for writing a letter of reference for me! My application is attached. Below are a few points that I think are not clear from my application. If you have advice on how I might incorporate them, please let me know.

  • I am one of 68 co-I’s on 7 BaDAcRONYM papers, but my individual contributions to these papers were actually quite substantial. These included…
  • I am second author on the paper Overachiever et al. 2011. The first author is an undergrad summer student that I supervised.
  • There’s a big gap between my first paper in 2007 and my second in 2010. During this time, I was working on commissioning the TIMESINK instrument which I eventually used for all of my thesis observations.”

Reference letters are the place to include some more personal information. This can be relevant if you are doing something unusual like taking your Hubble Fellowship to your PhD institute, which is generally a bad idea. In this case, ask one of your letter writers to discuss your reasons for this briefly but frankly. Reviewers will not penalize you for having a complicated personal life; we’re people too! However, they will ding you for making a poor scientific choice if they can’t identify a good reason you to do so.

Keep your CV concise!

For the purposes of brevity, keep your CV under two pages (not including the publications). The best way to do this is to stick to what’s most important. Highlight your invited talks and accepted telescope or grant proposals on which you were PI.   Also, while it should go without saying, avoid fluff like your AAS membership, or other interests that aren’t relevant like your love of squash or basket weaving. The panel does likes to know that you are a well-rounded leader in your scientific community so do mention significant leadership or mentoring roles that you’ve held and education and public outreach activities that you’ve been involved in.

With regard to your publications, number your papers; we’re going to count them anyway even if you don’t. If you have more than 6-8 refereed publications, separate your first author papers from the others by putting them in two separate lists, and in all cases, put your name in bold-face print. Also, be sure to clearly indicate which papers are published and which are submitted. For the submitted papers, include submission dates to show that these papers weren’t all hurried out right before the fellowship deadline. If you have any non-refereed publications, list them separately, and only include them if your refereed papers are a bit sparse. Likewise, you shouldn’t include papers that are “in prep”; this could mean anything and we just cross them off. If students you mentored appear on publications with you, try to indicate this in your publication list.

Lastly, if you have some papers that are highly cited give the citation numbers. In fact, it’s probably a good idea to list the total citations of all of your first author papers. You may also wish to quote your “H-index”, but be aware that many people do not know what this is.

Write a strong, easy to read research statement.

A typical proposal is at least 12 pages of text, counting both your proposal and letters. Committee members read about 100 of these (>1200 pages of total reading) so make it easy for a weary reader to get an overview of your work. A good way to do this is to use lots of bold-faced section headings and summarize key points in your proposal. To check that you’ve done this well, ask a few people to read your proposal very quickly and write a 3 sentence summary. Then check, do those 3 sentences reflect the points you consider most important? If so, you’ve probably done a good job! It also helps to write for a broad audience. Keep in mind that if your proposal makes the first cut, it is read by the full committee, which includes people from a wide range of sub-fields. Make sure that someone in an entirely different sub-field could understand why your work is valuable and important.   Finally, be sure to stay within the page limits and font size requirements — some panelists get very grumpy about this.

Past Research
When discussing your past research, highlight your most interesting projects with the highest impact. You shouldn’t provide a laundry list of every project you’ve ever worked on. Similarly, don’t assume that the committee members will recognize the impact of your work automatically. You should give evidence of the benefits your work has brought to the field. (e.g. “Our new method for selecting z > 6 galaxies has been adopted by several other large surveys (references).”)

Current Research
With respect to your current research, be sure your science objectives and their broad implications are crystal clear. Beyond this, make sure you are very clear about how your science objectives will be achieved. When you do this, give just enough detail to show that your plan is both well thought out and feasible, but avoid the nitty-gritty; the committee doesn’t need to see your S/N calculations.

There are a few other points you want to make clear to the committee. You should explicitly state the ways in which this work is an intellectual leap from your thesis. It’s fine if your proposal is related to your thesis work (most are) but be sure it’s not just more of the same. You should also take care to distinguish yourself from your competition. If there are other groups working on similar problems, acknowledge this and say why your approach is different and better. Be sure to briefly explain how your proposed host institution will enable the science you wish to do. Finally, explicitly address the relevance of your project to “Cosmic Origins”, or any other stated requirement of the fellowship. A sentence or two is sufficient to address this.

Got more tips? Have more questions? Let’s hear them in the comments.

Correction: August 20, 2014
An earlier version of this article misstated the year of the panel this article is based on. It was the 2014 panel reviewing the applications submitted in 2013, not the 2013 panel.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michael merrifield August 20, 2014 at 9:45 am

All good, strong advice. The only thing I would add is that if you are already doing a postdoc, particularly a fellowship-type one where you had freedom to choose your research area, don’t spend it redoing your thesis with larger sample or better data, and, lovely person though he or she may be, don’t keep collaborating with your thesis advisor on everything that you do. Panels are looking for evidence that you can develop your own original ideas and manage collaborations of your own, to show that you have the potential to be a future leader. It could well be that for almost your entire PhD you were leading things and your supervisor was just along for the ride, but there is no way for the panel to know that (beyond anecdotal and all-too-often unreliable information in their letter of recommendation), so developing your own projects in a somewhat different area is by far the best way of demonstrating your strength.

Even if you are in a postdoctoral position that requires you to be working on a specific project so most publications are in some sense the intellectual property of your boss, do whatever you can to find time for one or two small independent projects: the fellowship panel will understand that you have less freedom in such a role, but still need some evidence to back up claims of your ability to develop and implement ideas of your own.

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2 Regular, non-fancy Postdoc August 20, 2014 at 1:03 pm

When did you serve on the panel, how many total applications were there, and how many did you feel were good enough to be funded? That is to say, in the same sense that I’ve heard about the necessary triage of excellent proposals on NSF panels due to lack of funds and TACs that have to turn down proposals due to lack of time, while there are proposals that obviously don’t make the cut, there are usually ones that do, but cannot pass due to lack of resources.

Just trying to understand if getting turned down is truly a sign of a poor proposal or not, since the panel does not (and shouldn’t be expected to) provide feedback.

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3 Michael Merrifield August 20, 2014 at 3:02 pm

I have served on a fair number of astronomy fellowship panels, and have never yet been on one where there weren’t many more appointable candidates than fellowships. That’s why all the small things that can make your already-good application stand out are so important.

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4 Benjamin Weiner August 20, 2014 at 5:21 pm

Comment ported from FB astronomers:

Nearly all job-hunting advice posts, no matter how well intentioned, also become lists of Minimum Sufficient Criteria Nobody Meets. This one does too, even though it is good advice. There is always going to be something you didn’t manage to do, whether it be publishing six papers before graduation or remembering to list the citation count next to each paper on your CV (people do that?) As such, a side effect of helpful lists is to increase applicant stress. The only thing I can suggest is that you try to recognize the overstress when it comes upon you. One can do all these things and not get a fellowship while someone else who missed some of them out does. There’s no recipe. Plus, a Hubble Fellowship doesn’t even guarantee living happily ever after.

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5 Michael Merrifield August 21, 2014 at 5:12 am

Just to clarify, the panels I have served on definitely have not worked from a prescriptive list of minimum criteria (unless there are specific rules for the scheme, such as a maximum number of years in research post-PhD), but rather look for evidence of specific traits in the applicants such as originality, drive, ability to manage projects and people, ability to deliver, etc. It seems perfectly reasonable, as I think this blog does very well, to ask what kind of evidence panel members typically look for to make sure they are visible in the application when appropriate, or possibly even to alter behavior to position oneself for a fellowship in future. If you have other ways to demonstrate these strengths, that is even better.

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6 typical PhD student from Germany August 21, 2014 at 8:18 am

“awardees who were finishing their PhD typically had 6±2 first author publications”

wow, that sounds really crazy. Here, the typical PhD takes 3-4 years. So, am I really expected to write two papers per year?
In my experience, a good (and lucky) PhD student has four papers at the end (but there are students who have only 2 papers, but those probably do not have a chance for a Hubble fellowship):
paper 1: results from the masters
paper 2: data/method paper
paper 3+4: results from the thesis
For the first paper, you need some luck (There are a lot of master theses which do not yield publishable results), the last two papers will probably be submitted only. And when I consider that I have to write the application almost one year in advance, they might still be “in prep”.

If I would meet someone with 8 papers during the PhD, I would ask why this person has not finished the PhD two years earlier. Actually, the regulations of my university allow you, to get a so-called “accumulative PhD” when you have three first author publications (i.e. take your three papers, write an overall intro and conclusion and get your PhD). Anything beyond that would be waste of time

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7 Benjamin Weiner August 21, 2014 at 8:32 am

I don’t mean that the lists are used by the panels as minimum sufficient criteria – since after all I also suggested that nobody really meets all of them. I mean that these lists get interpreted by job-seekers as minimum criteria, and that, well-intentioned as they may be, they increase the stress of the job search and the qualification arms-race: you “need” many more papers on finishing a PhD than you “needed” 15 years ago, you “need” to highlight your citations and bold your name on your CV, and list the students you mentored (many finishing PhDs haven’t mentored a student), and so on.

As someone on FB astronomers pointed out, making the process seem more intimidating will discourage people who underestimate their abilities, feel underqualified, and/or suffer from stereotype threat; e.g. women and minorities, students from smaller institutions, students who are less well-connected. Even a perfectly fair panel can’t give fellowships to people who took themselves out of the applicant pool because they thought they didn’t have a chance.

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8 Michael Merrifield August 21, 2014 at 9:14 am

Hi Benjamin — I think I would argue very much to the contrary: many less well-connected less confident students may well be put off because they don’t have ready access to panel members who can lay out this kind of advice to them in person (as we certainly do for our potential applicants). They will accordingly be more reticent to apply for such an unknown in the first place, and will be placed at a significant disadvantage in the whole process because they have less information about how the panel functions. This kind of informational post therefore encourages wider participation and helps to level the playing field.

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9 August Muench August 21, 2014 at 9:44 am

Michael: while much of this advice is quite useful in a ‘level the playing field’ sort of way, the publish, publish, publish bean counting lead is certainly not. If this post is intentionally structured to suggest that the first thing a panel does is bean count first author publications and sigma clip the probably non-gaussian distribution then this post’s very valuable information on crafting an applicant’s message about their research and enlisting (and guiding) meaningful letter writers will be lost on the variety of less confident students.

10 Michael Merrifield August 21, 2014 at 10:00 am

To be completely honest, August, number of papers is the first thing I look at. If it is an unexceptional number of papers given the applicant’s seniority, then I look no further and certainly don’t use its exact value to select the winner. If it is an unusually small number, I look further for evidence as to why it is lower. Are any of the papers exceptionally long? Has the applicant been involved in an instrumentation project with a long lead time? Is some explanation of illness or career break provided by the applicant or referees? In the absence of such evidence, that application is not likely to end up at the top of the pile, since ability to deliver science is one of the skills the panel is looking for.

It is really all about gathering evidence of relevant ability and skills, and the more effectively that evidence is presented, the more chance the applicant has.

11 August Muench August 21, 2014 at 10:15 am

I wasn’t trying to say that publishing papers wasn’t the most important thing. What I was trying to say was that leading with the unfortunate decision of “quantifying” past candidates suggests that there is a magic # (plus or minus 2!) that must be achieved. I feel that quantifying this number is a mistake by this post’s authors *unless it accurately reflects the panel’s approach.* Maybe it accurately reflects people who have been watching the outcome of the fellowship process for a long time and trying to quantify it. I don’t understand that need to quantify even though I do it but only for gender statistics (still holding steady at 30% women across all us based fellowships for the past 5+ years).

As you and the post point out after, the interpretation of this number is a much more involved process dependent upon many variables, some of which (personal issues?) may or may not be weighed responsibly by the committee. I repeat that I find it deeply unfortunate and probably discouraging to lead with a metric like this.

12 August Muench August 21, 2014 at 9:47 am

It is reassuring to learn that the authors’ experience is that personal information included in letters of reference is always used by panelists for the good of the candidate. Often opening that door means it cannot be closed, so knowing that Hubble panelists are forethinking in evaluating candidates based on life choices is great.

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13 Graduate Student August 21, 2014 at 11:32 pm

I think that while this explication is helpful the questions mentioned regarding publication count are certainly warranted. I’m a PhD student about to defend and looking at applying for one of the fellowships above. As a small school theorist who had an early E/PO fellowship take up a substantial amount of my early grad school time I am only now starting to publish and will probably only have 2 or maybe 3 publications by the time of the deadline (and certainly none that have been out long enough to gather a high citation count) – it appears from the advice here that I should avoid applying for these fellowships this year in this case. If that’s not the case I would appreciate a clarification from a committee member if possible.

If such a publication/citation record is paramount to being a strong candidate it would be very helpful to say so. This would mean less wasted time on an application/proposal and the logistics of contacting collaborators that could go towards science (which can go towards a stronger proposal in the future) as well as other post doc applications and would encourage applicants who may not be strong candidates to wait another year and strengthen their applications. Given the fact that some of these fellowships receive hundreds of applications and signaling in terms of prestige (even if this is derivative of the fact that ability is more easily confirmed at relatively non-insular institutions full of really smart people!) plays at least some factor it would be helpful to know how a non-traditional applicant can make her or himself more competitive.

Again I just want to reiterate that this post is very helpful – it would just be great to know a little more about what basic cutoffs may exist (if any!) and what the playing field looks like.

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14 Hubble Fellowship Selection Panelist August 26, 2014 at 12:59 am

It’s too bad that the publication numbers stuck out like a sore thumb from our post—they were merely meant as a statement of fact, not as a statement of a critical criterion. The applicant pool for the Hubble fellowship is staggeringly impressive: the entire time I was reading applications, I kept lamenting the fact that I couldn’t give fellowships to, well, most applicants.

There are no basic cutoffs in the fellowship selection (at least, there weren’t for me, as I read the proposals—maybe other panelists felt differently). Writing papers is one way to illustrate that you are a productive person who sees projects through to the end. As Michael stated very nicely above, I think a lot of us panelists used the paper count as just an initial data point. If somebody had zero or 1 papers out of grad school, or 1 or 2 papers out of postdoc, then they had some explaining to do. But also keep in mind that your previous productivity will shine through in other aspects of your proposal—specifically, letter writers may be more likely to glow about you if you have been exceedingly productive in the time they’ve known you.

Here’s one additional interesting aspect of the Hubble fellowship selection process (at least from the year I sat on the panel). Every panelist brought their own prioritized criteria with them, and we decided as a panel that we would not try to standardize our priorities, but instead to let our different voices represent the breadth of the astronomical community. So some of us weighted outreach/leadership as important, others not so much. Some of us took the research proposal as the most important aspect of the proposal, others weighted the letters most heavily. Because each application is only read by three panelists in the initial triage stage, and because the pool of applicants is so rich with wonderful young scientists, there does tend to be some noise in who makes it through to be selected as a fellow. The hope is that the other fellowships will lessen the effects of this noise, as they also make offers to a wonderful, somewhat-but-not-completely-overlapping, also somewhat noisy, samples of young scientists.

Specifically to you, graduate student, I would suggest that you try your hand at applying for the fancy fellowships. I disagree that it is a huge amount of extra work, if you are already going to be applying for postdocs anyway. Why not give it a shot? I know quite a few recipients of Hubble and other fellowships who did not expect to get them. Often we are poor judges of our own abilities.

15 Grad Student October 21, 2016 at 5:39 pm

What about letters of reference from your proposed postdoc advisor and collaborator? Does this present an unprofessional conflict of interest? Presumably this person would love to have you win a prize fellowship and bring it to her institution. However, in my case (and I imagine this is common), my proposed advisor is someone with whom I have collaborated closely and does work related to what I am proposing. This makes her both a good choice for an advisor and a good choice for a letter writer. I could see it as beneficial for a reviewer to see that the the applicant has already worked with and established good rapport with his proposed advisor, making him more likely to hit the ground running if his proposal receives funding. I did not see any instructions prohibiting this in the fellowship call — hopefully I didn’t miss it. Any thoughts from the panelist(s)?

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