Steps for a Successful Post-Doctoral Fellowship Application, Grant Call or Scholarships for Postgraduate Studies Abroad – A Personal Memoir

It is important that you have this at the back of your mind before applying for a postdoc position. A postdoc position allows you to produce something tangible (e.g., publication and experience, etc) that you can add to your resume/CV to be able to stand out from the rest of other PhD holders. Postdoc position is a period that you can consolidate on the skills and experiences from your PhD in order to become a better researcher or academic. Applying for a postdoctoral fellowship position anywhere around the world, from Africa to Europe, to the Americas, Asia and anywhere is really a hard work and very competitive process of every PhD graduate who dreams and hopes to occupy such a lofty position in academics or research. But like the saying goes, “nothing in life comes easy” – you must have to do the work and put in the time to be able to get something worthwhile out of your hard works. In this piece of article, you will be guided through some of the many steps and guide (I call them the Do’s and Don’ts of postdoc etc application process) that will at least help your application to reach the table of the reviewers and possibly be pushed forward or recommended for selection. I have applied some of these guidelines in my own applications; and I have failed in many areas but I must confess that I have also learnt from these failures and at the same time received some grants here and there in Europe, North America and Asia. And I strongly believe that the guide will also help you when you think it’s time to send in an application for a postdoc position or any other postgraduate scholarship opportunity anywhere in the globe. Always remember that you don’t learn anything from winning all the time; you only learn when you fail. So anytime that you get some unpleasant news about your application, don’t ever see it as a failure. You are not a failure because you are trying. Failures are those who give up and never attempted to try again.

Who is a postdoc, and what is the time limit or age-range of a postdoc, post PhD?

This is a good question to ask yourself and produce an answer to if you really want to take applications for postdoc positions anywhere in the world seriously. A postdoc is someone that has just recently graduated from his or her PhD and is fresh from the doctorate degree program, ready to go into full time academics or research in either a university, industry or research institution. The postdoc period is basically a learning, building and development period in every PhD graduate. It is the time when you build and learn leadership, competency, expertise, management and collaboration. The postdoc stage is usually an inspiring and worthwhile period that allows the fellow to build skills and experiences in their areas of research interests, and thus transform into effective leaders and independent or senior researchers in their chosen field of study or research interests in the future. It is the period of mentorship where the mentee (i.e., the postdoc fellow) builds and develops a cordial and lasting personal relationship with his or her host supervisor and other team research members while also developing key expertise, experience and skills required for the fellow’s own research sustainability long after the postdoc experience. Most postdoc positions are normally open for fresh PhD graduates whose PhD’s are not more than 6 years old (with exceptions in females that may lose some time in maternal care of children or other family obligations). Therefore, anyone currently doing his or her PhD in the university or have just recently graduated should see him or herself as a postdoc fellow and therefore should initiate the process of applying for a postdoctoral fellowship to build and develop into a more effective and confident independent researcher or scholar in their field of study or research in the near future. So, postdoc period is usually 1-6 years, post PhD. My advice: start preparing and developing research proposals as well as scouting for potential host supervisors and host laboratories or institutions before you graduate from your PhD program. It will save you a lot of stress.     

Things to NOTE and DO before applying for any postdoc/grant/scholarship or postgraduate award

  • Carefully review the eligibility criteria and application guidelines before you apply. Every application has their own unique eligibility criteria and guidelines; and it is wise to read and understand these guiding principles of the application before attempting to apply. Only apply where you meet the eligibility criteria and have properly understood the guidelines of each application. This will help reduce the stress most applicants get when their applications didn’t turn out as expected.
  • Carefully evaluate the review guidelines of the selection committee that will review your application. Every application usually has unique selection committee members that appraises the applications and selects the best or most outstanding applicants for the award. It is important that you acquaint yourself with what the selection committee is looking out for in the applications, and then tailor your application to win their interest.
  • Always try as much as possible to review the biography or details of previous awardees of the same grant or scholarship you are interested in applying for. The information of previous awardees is usually found on the organization’s website, so look carefully. You can carefully review their resume/CV and see how to gain some insight about preparing a winning proposal or application. This helps too!
  • If you know that you do not ‘currently’ meet the requirements or eligibility of the application, do not apply. All you need to do at this stage is to work towards developing yourself and building up your resume/curriculum vitae (CV) to meet the criteria in the future applications. There will always be open calls and applications in the future. The most important thing is to be a planner and plan towards submitting a winning application in the future. You only become lucky when you plan and prepare, so plan to win! Only submit your application if you ‘think’ you meet the eligibility of the ‘current call’ as well as the requirements that the review/selection committee is looking for. In my own case, I choose the battle that I fight! I don’t just apply for everything because of the fun of it or because I think I may be eligible. I carefully go through the eligibility criteria and those of the selection committee – so that I do not get some emotional pain when the results are finally out. Nonetheless, submitting applications in some cases, even when you think you may not meet the eligibility criteria is also another way to build some experiences because the comments on the applications from the review committee (especially when not successful) if available to you, will guide you on how to prepare a better application in future. Some grant organizations will also make the decisions and comments of the selection committee available to you ‘only if you request to know about it’.
  • Look for a mentor and follow their guide. Look around your institution or community, and you will find someone who may have previously applied or was awarded the same grant in the past. These previously awarded individuals may not be close to you. You can write them an email or give them a phone call. There experience will help you with some lead on how to prepare and submit a winning proposal or application. I do this a lot, and the practice has helped me to turn in many winning proposals and applications that were successful. So having a mentor and guide really helps. Just have one!      

As aforesaid, you must not apply for every openings or scholarships just for the fun of doing so, unless you want to build some experience or stamina. If it was for the latter reason, then you can go ahead because experience is important in all of these applications. Choose your battles carefully because that is how you may become lucky, especially by ensuring that you meet the eligibility and have carefully reviewed the application guidelines and the guidelines for selection committee members. Also supplement this with proper planning and preparation. Don’t forget to have someone, probably a senior colleague, a previous awardee or supervisor to review your applications again before you finally submit them. Applying and submitting incomplete application will do you no good but instead, it will make the selection committee members or grant body see you as someone that does not read and adhere to SIMPLE INSTRUCTIONS.

Criteria for evaluating postdoc/grant/scholarship/postgraduate applications

Most postdoc/grant/scholarship/postgraduateapplications are mainly evaluated or reviewed on the basis of:

  • Their merit and novelty.
  • Their contributions to knowledge
  • Strict adherence to the application guidelines or eligibility criteria.
  • The leadership qualities of the applicant.
  • The research quality of the application (i.e., the research proposal) and that of the applicant.
  • The novelty, excellence, sustainability and impact of the research proposal.
  • The research achievements of the applicant. This is usually for postdoc and postgraduate (PhD) calls. Previous research awards or achievements of the applicants is a vital tool that is normally used for evaluation, this could be in the form of publications, previous research grants received or commendations, patents or other community development services done in the past. Don’t be deterred if you have no previous grants or awards or publications. Just ensure that your proposal is unique, novel, impactful and of good quality. However, anyone applying for a postdoc position should have at least one academic output usually in the form of a publication in a journal of high impact. This will help the selection committee members to put or rate your application above others lacking any form of academic or research output (in this case, a journal publication).
  • The similarity or connection of the application or applicant’s research plan/proposal to that of the strategic goals and objectives of the intended host institution, host supervisor or grant awarding body. You must ensure that you tailor your proposal and application to be in tandem with the goals and objectives of your proposed host institution or laboratory, as well as those of your intending host supervisor. This will help increase your chances of getting the award. Most host supervisors or host institutions will most likely pick proposals or applications that fall in the line of their own research interests more than those applications or proposals that do not in any way align with the ongoing projects or research in their lab. This information will help you when you are searching for a host supervisor or host lab to collaborate with in your application. Always ensure that your proposal aligns with the ongoing research in the institution or laboratory that you are applying to.

Characteristics of a successful application

The characteristics of a successful application range from the research excellence and quality of the applicant, the research proposal, comments/recommendations from the applicant’s own institution, comments from the applicants own PhD supervisor(s), as well as comments from the applicants recommended referees. All successful applications usually have very ‘strong comments/recommendations’ from the applicant’s referees, previous supervisors and even that of the host supervisor in the intending host institution.  

The personality of the applicant

  • The applicant must have demonstrated leadership and impact on the field.
  • He or she must have a substantial number of publications. Even one good paper in a journal of high impact is enough.
  • The applicant’s research proposal should be able to contribute to the corpus of knowledge in the field of the applicant. This can be in the form of introducing a novel idea or knowledge to the field or institution.
  • The applicant (usually for postdoc positions) should belong to at least one professional association in their field.

Characteristics of a successful research proposal or application

  • Every successful research proposal should be practicable, doable or feasible. Proposals that are not realistic or doable and cannot be completed in a record time are usually not processed further.
  • The research being proposed should substantially contribute novel knowledge to the field of the applicant, and that of the host institution to some extent.
  • It should be able to advance new knowledge base or strengthen old ideas in the institution or field of the applicant. It should be able to solve some critical questions in the applicant’s research field or that of the host institution.
  • Successful research proposals in most cases are usually a component of the supervisor or ongoing institutional research. The applicant can develop his or her research proposal to be a major component of this larger research framework of the intending host supervisor or institution. Most grant bodies or host supervisors don’t think twice when they see a proposal that aligns with their own personal ongoing research or institutional research. So try to tailor your proposal to align with that of your intending host supervisor and host institution.    
  • Another important factor that characterizes a successful research proposal is the science communication in the proposal. Since research is usually undertaken to solve an existing problem in the society or to build upon an already existing knowledge; grant awarding bodies or institutions are usually very keen to see how impactful the research outcome will be on the wider society, as well as its applicability in the industry, education, health, policy, governance or day to day activities of humans or animals and the environment. Research proposals with clarity on the social and industrial impact of the research outcome or results are usually rated high than those without these qualities. So prepare your proposal with these vital questions in mind.   
  • Start planning and preparing early, and begin your application as soon as the call for applications is announced. Visit the websites of the institution or grant body from time to time; this will help you know when it is time to begin your application. Starting your application on time is best because it will allow your supervisors and referees enough time to submit a recommendation letter (when they are needed).
  • You should always be in touch with your intending host supervisor to discuss your proposed research and have him or her review your research proposal and resume/CV for quality and other amendments before you finally submit it. As senior colleague or someone with more experience than you can also assist you in this area.   
  • Be clear as much as possible about your career goals in the short, medium and long term, as well as what you want to achieve from the current application (if successful). You should clarify these facts in the research proposal that you are preparing for the application. This will help reviewers know that you are not just applying like the other applicants, but that you truly have plans and what to achieve in the course of your work. Reviewers want to see that your proposal aligns with your future career goals.  
  • Your research proposal should have a section for timeline or milestones – which show what you want to achieve or the experiment you want to do at each month or so, and how you want to achieve it.
  • You should show leadership and excellence in your research proposal. Don’t be in a hurry when writing your research proposal. This is why it is important for you to start planning and preparing on time. Planning and preparing on time will give you ample time to tell a compelling story in your proposal, as well as have sufficient time to review the work personally and pass it on to another senior colleague for review and corrections or amendments before final submission. It will remove all form of ambiguity that makes your research proposal unclear to the selection / review panelists. Don’t wait until it is deadline before you send it to a senior colleague to review, correct and amend, because everyone is probably busy with something and they may not have time to do it for you if you send it to them late.   
  • Most selection committee members or reviewers are usually people who may not be specialists in your field of study/research. So try as much as possible to oust every form of vagueness from your research proposal. Write in a layman’s language and use ambiguous scientific or academic terms with caution and clarity. 
  • Don’t submit more than what is requested in the application. Respect page limits, as well as word limits and word counts. Just follow the guidelines for applicants and submit what you have been requested to submit as outlined in the call for applications.
  • Finally, your application or research proposal should be as persuasive as possible. You should write in such a way that your research proposal or application ‘sells’ – because it is a competition that you are going into, and in this case, only the winner(s) takes it all. So make your application or research proposal to stand out from the many applications that will be submitted by selling yourself well. Just make a compelling argument in your proposal and defend it sternly with the aims, hypothesis and objectives or plan of your research proposal. Always remember to give yourself some time off, and go out to have fun and rest. This allows your brain to recuperate and see things from a different and interesting angle especially when you are confused along the way. Take some time to rest because when you do, you will discover some errors in your application or research proposal that you may never see if you hadn’t taken time off to rest. So resting is important as you prepare your application or research proposal, and that was why I talked about starting on time. PLANNING and PREPARING is how you get lucky when applying for a Post-Doctoral Fellowship Position, Grant Call or Scholarships for Postgraduate Studies Abroad.    

The testimonial/statement of the applicant’s PhD supervisor, host supervisor and referees

  • The applicant’s previous supervisors or intending host supervisors should be able to communicate in clear terms the research excellence, quality and leadership of the applicant. You can help guide your supervisors and referees about some important achievements you added to your CV that they were not aware of. This will help them to put up a quality statement on your behalf.
  • They should also show in their report how interesting and novel the applicant’s proposal is. Research proposal should bridge existing gaps in the field or build upon some existing knowledge. It is important that your supervisors or referees reflect the novelty of your proposed topic in their statements, and if possible corroborate any publications of yours to the work.   
  • Host supervisors or applicants PhD supervisors should be able to indicate in their report that the applicants proposed research is a major part of their ongoing work or that the research of the applicant aligns with theirs or that of their institution. Reviewers want to make sure that the work you propose is in line with that of the host institution and that they are willing to make available office and lab space as well as all necessary support available for you to undertake the study. You can talk to your intending host about it because some may not be aware, and may write their statements without taking cognizance of these facts.
  • Also on the report, the host supervisors should indicate in clear terms the institutional support that the applicant will receive in terms of laboratory and office work space, grants/funding for research, as well as other professional and mentorship development programs that the applicant stands to benefit from. This is usually for postdoc positions.
  • The individual that is responsible for writing your referee report or recommendation letter should be very familiar with your research proposal or previous work. This will help them to relate to your work when putting up a report on your behalf. So when choosing a referee, make sure to choose recommenders that are familiar with your work. This can be your previous PhD supervisor, undergraduate/postgraduate supervisor or your institutional head or supervisors.

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Good luck!

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