Honing your Hubble Application [Repost]

by Joanna Bridge on October 3, 2018

The NASA Hubble Fellowship Program is an umbrella program that includes the Hubble, Sagan, and Einstein Fellowships. The application deadline this year is November 1, 2018 at 7 PM EDT. In order to help you compile a successful application package, we are reposting this AstroBetter post from 2014. It is an anonymous guest post from two past members of the Hubble Fellowship committee. While the program has changed recently, the advice is still relevant, and the links have been updated to address the current program.

The NASA Hubble Fellowship Program includes fellowships that are among the most prestigious awards in our field and is worn as a badge of honor throughout an astronomer’s entire career. The program anticipates awarding up to 14 fellowships in 2019 to applicants from around the world to fund a three-year fellowship at a US-based institution. Applying for these fellowships 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 PhD 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-faced 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.

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