How to postdoc grant and not die in the process

The scientific career seems to follow a pattern of slight variations, from the feeling of senseless wandering (at first overwhelmed by a sea of knowledge as an undergrad or phd student, but later as skepticism and solipsism based on first-hand experience), to the uncertainty of what comes after our current stage (postdoc? Young PI? Faculty?). As many say, it doesn’t get easier -but it can get better and more rewarding. And to spark a bit of hope in the steps following the completion of the PhD, today I am drawing from my experience of applying to five postdoctoral fellowships in the past few months of 2021, to summarise what I have learned, what can be improved, and whatever might be of help.

Okay, let’s say you have finally made your mind. You’d like to stay in academia, either in the long run or to give it another chance after the turmoil of the PhD (as it was my case).

Was it that easy to decide? Really?

I will be honest, for me it was not a yes-or-no decision. Because of my particular circumstances when I finished the thesis, it took me more than a year to consider what exactly I wanted to make of working as a doctor. During this time I’ve had 2-year contract that kept me afloat and working while learning a bit more of what I like and don’t like of Academia. After a while of dealing with these problems (including the pandemic and more bad stuff), I felt scared of the future —but decided to look at it in the eyes.

Applying for funding is always complicated no matter what stage, but soon I realized the postdoc one comes with additional challenges. For example, when looking for funding as an undergrad or PhD student, the applicant is not be expected to have remarkable, prior knowledge in the matter –thus making a proposal eligible just in terms of viability and capacity for training. But postdoc grants are a different thing… in principle, as a doctor, you should be equipped (tools&knowledge) for the task of devising a fully-fledged, viable scientific project from scratch. But this is not always the case: not all PhD stories are the same, not all PhD programs or labs prepare as well or in the same way. This means that you might (or might not) be competing against very different people with different experiences and resources. Applying for postdocs can thus feel as left alone into the wilderness—a far-fetched shot of emerging as a scientist ‘out of the blue’, especially if you are tailoring a project of your own and/or you are very self-aware of both your previous and prospecting career steps. Sometimes that fear intimidated and paralyzed me –even if I can count myself lucky for publishing during my PhD. Even after this many applications, sometimes I think I still would be scared if I had to do it again!

But it’s good to know this in advance in order to assess what part of this variability you can have a better control of. And also, it is completely okay to feel overwhelmed. The truth is, you are not ready when you start. As for many other things in academia (and life), no one is. Writing grants is a gradual process of commitment and mental preparation that goes beyond the application process that you are after. By the time you start writing seriously, with several months ahead of any deadline, you should be at least familiarised with a few of the things mentioned here.

The Question

Before ANYTHING, you have to take your time to think of a project. Even before the lab and their funding? Yes. Because you will design the project with a personal objective. Prior to obsessing over novelty or rigurosity of the potential research involved, think about yourself in research. That is, ask yourself questions like these (and answer them honestly):

  • What thing(s) in your big field (biology, math, physics, …) do you really like?
  • What aspect of your work/job, the one you’re doing or did before, do you really like? Could you live/pass without it in your next work?
  • What is it that makes you wake up from bed and go to your work in the first place?
  • Is there something you liked earlier in your career that you did not have the chance to do, learn, or work on?
  • Do you miss something in your current job?
  • Do you miss something in your lab?
  • Did you notice something lacking in your previous work?
  • What do you miss from your previous lab(s)?
  • What things (i.e. skills, experiments, techniques, being timely/organized, working on teams… ) are you good at? What things are you bad at?
  • What did you learn about yourself in past works?

Write the (honest) answers down. These are the most important questions, and should be the basis of your decisions from now on. Soon you will learn that these questions have the flamboyant name of “identification of skills/knowledge gaps/career gaps” and are widely used in job preparations. You’ll ideally want to construct your grant proposal around them to help you progress in the things you are most inclined/aligned to: to work on something you couldn’t before, to re-connect with aspects of your previous work, to get trained in the things you’d like to know/do, etc.

Think, for real and real hard, about how you could put these things in the project. This thinking can (and should) take you time (days and weeks!). Think of it initially as a mind exercise; it can be complicated, you might not have all the background knowledge. In that case start with the non-scientific, or by discarding all the things you don’t (or won’t) like to do. Think of how can you integrate what you know, what you don’t, what you can and cannot (yet) do. In my case:

  • I drew from some aspects I studied deep in the PhD, and that also caught my attention at University lectures (==what I liked).
  • I noticed there exists a novel method (==what I want to learn) that could potentially exploit some caveats in the field and create a niche of research (==what I missed in my PhD research, and what brings novelty).
  • I finally aimed at learning all these things I will need in a research group where I could stand by my beliefs and principles in research and academia (==what I liked in previous jobs).

And please, do yourself a favour and allow yourself to get excited when developing the idea –let the excitement a bit looser than usual. When writing, when picturing the next ideal stage.. I have spoken with a great deal of people that, for one reason or another, never gave a thought about these things. Even when we all know that science/academia is far from ideal and there are many things that we hate or don’t like about it, even when sometimes there is not even a alternative option to what you are presented. Take those thought, put them aside for a moment, and give yourself the chance to devise a project and an environment where you foresee you’ll flourish or, at least, be a happier worker. No one knows if that place exists until you define it, and perhaps there is a chance to follow that path out there (spoiler from my experience: a very similar place to what you devise will very likely exist).

And related but contrary to this, do not follow any path that will make you indecisive or uncertain from the start. Follow your gut and don’t start a thing you’re not happy or ready to commit to. You might be committing to a team and a lifestyle that might either be unfit or outright wrong/abusive, and this could truncate your career development and/or your excitement in this job. It is easier to define this uncertainty by saying what it isn’t, instead of what it is. For example, it is not what you feel when you’re occasionally nervous/excited about changing to a new country/place; it isn’t what you feel when you slowly realise not everything can or will be magic about the new position or the new group either. You’ll know the bad uncertainty when you get to feel it, because it doesn’t feel like other kinds of indecisiveness or uncertainty.

The Lab

All of this leads us to the next aspect after having ‘the question’, which is arguably even more important: the group, the lab. The longer I’ve spent around good scientists, the more I hear people say: the most important part of science is not the science, it’s the people. Because it’s people who make science, good people will make good science. Thus, my experience and that of many other is: if you cannot find an awesome lab that coincidentally works on your lifetime-dreamed questions&research, stick to the awesome lab with a bit less exciting science. If you’re concerned at all with your welfare and work-life balance, I hardly believe you will ever regret this decision. I have met a substantial number of people that never bothered to consider these things (neither imagining a place they’d like nor judging the ones they find), thinking in the postdoc as if it was an occupation that would not require you to be happy in order to work on it. (This works for some people, but careful with this). I hope to be wrong, but I foresee they might end in similar retellings of their past experiences.

A decent chunk of our job is who we do it with, and that involves the future boss and the colleagues. You’ll want to be able to feel comfortable and like you can be yourself around those people. You’ll want to feel comfortable when talking to your boss; you’ll want to receive and provide help to your lab mates, and rejoice in the success of the whole team. Generally speaking, we spend a lot of time together and you’ll appreciate the feeling of having a nest, a second home. This is specially true for a lab, where there are people in constant training. It is not easy to find labs like that, which unfortunately says a lot about the system, but there are a number out there. For example, we live in a time of unprecedented interconnectedness thanks to social networks. Having a Twitter profile to follow a bunch of colleagues might prove essential to find postdoc advertisements (especially from PI and institution profiles), or to start having a grasp of what your favorite lab is like.

Still, I would say there is no better method than talking and asking around: to friends, bosses that you know, friends’ bosses, boss friends, co-workers, former collaborators, people who know them inside the lab but also people who know them outside the lab. Knowing the people of the lab in advance, or figuring out a potential connection through your colleagues, might help you have a better picture of what the group is like. Also, when judging a group, try to balance the opinion of others with what you see for yourself. Not everyone is able to tolerate a boss that gives you all freedom, and vice-versa. Not everyone can stand particularly humorous or horizontal relationships, and not everyone can tolerate the same pressure at work. And this all influences the way people talk about colleagues and potential bosses. Judge for yourself as much as you can, given your circumstances (e.g., if possible, by meeting and talking well in advance, by talking to al the lab peers, …). And ideally, only after having your opinion better informed, then you reach out for them (email/DM), hopefully with some reference in the form of a common acquaintance. Sometimes they are top-busy with stuff and will gladly reply after some days or a week – but sometimes people simply don’t bother, and this can also be an indication of how the potential PI/receiving group can be.

All of this has happened to me, one way or another. I was lucky to find a lab of nice people for my PhD entirely on my own, and I was also lucky to bump into another PI with whom I’ve exchanged countless emails and shared long conversations for three years (!) until we’ve had the means to come up with a project together. Between these two, I was also lucky to find another lab with a research line more tangential to my original interests (and at the beginning less exciting for me), that I had somewhat mixed reviews for, but that I was able to better judge in-person and where I’ve learned a LOT of stuff, I’ve learned to get excited over topics and things I didn’t before, and I’ve made important friends and collaborators along the way. I also had some potential prospections and interactions with a number of groups where I could feel that I didn’t align with them, and in retrospect I’m happy for the path I took and the decisions I made, one way or another.

Okay, but how do I find the grants

Let’s say you found your question and your lab, or that you found a lab with a nice question. What now? It is very important to start ahead of time, as stated above. Ideally, we will be aware of the grants available and a number of other things, months before their calls open.

There is a plethora of grants, and somehow many of them are not even that known or advertised. There is the big hegemony (e.g in the EU: Marie-Sklodowska Curie Actions, EMBO fellowship, Human Frontiers, Wellcome Trust), but also many that are specific to certain countries and/or scientific areas. Keep an eye on academic and private societies, since many of them also offer fellowships. There are a number of online databases that keep track of current grant applications, and they might prove useful. If you have an professional online profile (twitter), keep also an eye on the people you follow —you may learn of unheard applications, as it happened to me.

Write down a list of fellowships and their current/future calls, with 6-8 months in advance (even more if it will be your first time), and put the deadlines in your calendar. For a first contact, start reading through the eligibility criteria, one at a time, and then go for the lesser details. This -the initial checking for eligibility- is key to the rest of the process. Because there are many options out there, and some ask for very specific conditions, this will allow you to confirm or discard the calls you will focus on, preventing you to waste time —or encouraging you to seek more opportunities. The more in advance you go the more time you’ll have to correct on the go.

After you have a broad idea of how the application works, go for a second read, this time more thoroughly, and if possible taking notes of the most important aspects to keep them at sight. That is, eligibility criteria (based on both you and the host lab/institution/country), deadline, letters or additional supporting material, specific formatting… For all these notes, have at hand a specific notebook or document where to centralize your calls and where to track your progress. I used Google Docs and GoodNotes to have it synced online and accessible for my supervisor. I have seen other people using spreadsheets as well.

Most postdoc grants have a bi- or tri-partite structure that follow the pattern below. Note how both the lab and the applicant are as relatively important, stressing that synergy with the receiving group is very desirable.

  • The proposal itself: introduction, objectives, and perhaps expected outcomes (both research and/or transversal)
  • Your profile (CV, publications, suitability of the candidate for the project AND the lab, …)
  • The profile of the host (CV of PI, publications, suitability of the lab for the project, …). This often applies for both the lab AND the institution.

You will need to understand in advance how each grant adapts this structure to their own formula. Throughout the whole process and regardless of which one you’re writing, you will need to tie together all the aspects of your and the host profiles, to the proposal. Keep this in mind for the writing.

Okay, but how to WRITE it

And the actual writing? What if I told you that you needn’t any of this preparation beforehand to start writing?

Remember when we talked about knowledge and career gaps? These can be the starting blocks of the text. In the earliest stages of the writing, I have often spurred ideas and sentences right as I felt them, as if I was telling them to someone I like. At that moment, the important thing is to generate a narration that suits your liking and what you need to convey in the grant. You can later on start adding pieces of evidence and further knowledge, little by little, to construct an introduction + objectives, in a similar way to the snowflake method. This naïve, perhaps lengthy structure, can be used as the basis to any particular grant-specific formatting. Further modifications and trimming can adapt it to what you need in your specific grant.

Much like the document to track the calls, keep a document to track the changes, where to literally copy&paste all the sentences and stuff you scrap between versions and write&editing process; who knows if inspiration will struck you on that sentence for the next application, or who knows if the co-applicant will wake up on a Thursday thinking it was actually a good sentence. NEVER delete anything for real when writing; and if you do, make sure to have a version control system (like google docs, or git if you’re more sophisticated -I am not).

My best experience in the writing came from having a bunch of succesful proposals by fellow colleagues and prior applicants. Try to get at least two successful proposals from former applicants, for the same grant you are applying for, and study them, learn what they did/wrote, how they wrote it, and learn why. These will prove the most valuable source of information and custom-case experience about what it takes to be a successful grant (sometimes it’s about the language, the timing, etc.). Try to see if your own proposal could be fit into a similar layout, learn of keywords and tags, etc. If your grant refers to specific legislation (e.g. Marie-Curie and EU/Horizon Europe), gather all the pertinent information to see how it would fit into your proposal (e.g. how you’ll disseminate results following guidelines and normative, etc.).

The early building will take time and dedication, moreso if it is not something we are used to do. But, in doing so, the writing and preparation of the introduction helps to construct a project or idea of your own. Beyond our thoughts in the mind, this starts materialising it as something more tangible; as I was once told, do not underestimate the power of the written word, for that which is not laid down in words is already bound to never happen. What is not written is not planned. And, it also helps the proposal beyond the science itself, with the the presentation and the pitching of the ideas. It all will (or should) be influenced by our mindset and the words in the application.

All of this will take a lot of time. I spend five months on and off, with split weeks (three days for my actual current work, and two days for the writing and all things proposal related.). And still, it was far from the ideal time they recommend. So I advise to take a lot of time in advance to gather&study information (including previous proposals), writing and preparing everything- At the beginning you need a lot of time forone single application, but luckily you’ll transfer your learned lessons to the next one and so forth, and once the ball starts rolling, you’ll be able to complete them in less and less time.

Having more time will play crucial to incorporate your future supervisor in the preparation of the grant; it will translate into more time for brainstorming, discussing, putting ideas in common, and rounds of copyediting. This coordination shall be occuring prior to starting the application process and remain continuous and uninterrupted. For this, it may sound cliché, but nothing works better than emails and calendar reminders, albeit perhaps a bit to the next level. For example, when you meet, have a bullet list to address point-by-point, remember to make a summary to them after everything was discussed, including future meeting date & time, just to make sure you’re on the same page. And after that, send back an email the minute you sit down after leaving the meeting, with a summary or at least two sentences to keep the topic hot, to reassure you’re on the same page, and to ensure you did your part in keeping up to date. It may sound as an unfair extra bit of work, but I’ve done both things and can assure it is worth doing it. And also please, do your absolute best to engage the host researcher/institution in the application process. If for example you’re interested in communicating your research and have some traction, etc., maybe it is good to ask around to the staff at your receiving institution and get in touch with one or two people. You’ll be surprised to know that near half of them are enthusiast researchers like you that hold a ‘part-time’ position as engagers or communicators. At least this was my case. Regardless of how it is, you may find out things/channels/platforms you didn’t know existed, and make contacts that will open new paths to you. In the end, it’s all for your own interest.

Grant submitted! Now… what?

The bit after a journey is as pivotal as the journey itself, and thus here I focus in dealing with the result in case your grant gets rejected. There is only one way to start talking about this, and that is by reminding you it is not your fault. It is okay if it happens. Allow yourself to be sad or mad at first, acknowledge your emotions, let them out and don’t feel pressured for feeling whichever way you feel. It is completely normal to feel bummed by those news and I would honestly not trust anyone in this sector that tones down the emotional bit of it. It can feel unfair, this world is very competitive and you often never know what was determinant in the decision. I have felt like that, not too long ago actually; and more people also do (talk to your peers!!!). There are many factors that you cannot control (such as the high stakes from extremely, outstandingly talented people, the age/experience gap across applicants, and so on), and as such you should not hold yourself responsible for it; not internally, because none of that is on you. And only after you have abandoned that mental place, only when you feel more receptive or absorbant towards other thoughts, then consider what could be improved for the next time. Perhaps it wasn’t your moment now. Perhaps next time you’ll be more prepared; maybe you could take more time to prepare in other fronts (taking courses, doing transversal things that might complement your career profile). Maybe your idea will be more mature and ready for putting in practice after more time passes and you have more experience (this, no matter what, will always be the case). Whatever the case is, do not take it as a personal thing (==as something related to the YOU, and to something you did wrong), and focus on what else do next. There are more paths, and although going through all of this might have not yielded a position, it wasn’t for nothing: the experience of going through this (career self-counseling, identifying gaps, making contacts and engaging with people, keeping alive dreams derived from interests, all the time and work into reading, organizing, and framing your ideas… that experience is now yours to carry on to the next thing in life you will do.

Final remarks

And that’s all on my side. There are plenty of guides out there in how to prepare a job application in academia and many of them go great lengths into technicalities and providing tools or resources, but I cannot recall many of them intersecting to other common problemas that we have as scientists, academics, and above all humans. This doesn’t intend to be a guide or tutorial; all the contrary, to complement the useful information provided by the first. I thought it could enlighten and reassure a bit more the emotional part and provide a first-hand testimony of what it feels like, what drives you into the decision, how to cope with the vast extents of information, and how to materialize a potential employment position out of your own volition and needs. The world is full of good ideas, but some are still in newcomer minds and thus takes them a while (if at all) to pop up in science. Perhaps I will keep this post updated if more information comes to my mind, correcting stuff, etc. I hope you find it useful, and good luck with the applications!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *