Moderator: Detlef Weigel, Deputy Editor, eLife.
Speakers: Carmen Gervais, Director of Fellowships and Career Development Awards, HFSP; and Sebastian Haesler, Group Leader, Neuroelectronics Research Flanders, Leuven, Belgium.
The Human Frontier Science Program is an international organisation that funds researchers in the life sciences through a mixture of Postdoctoral Fellowships, Career Development Awards and Research Grants. It received some 788 applications for the 2015 round of fellowships, and awarded 66 Long-Term Fellowships (which are given to life scientists who want to move into a different area of biology) and 9 Cross-Disciplinary Fellowships (which are given to researchers with PhDs in fields outside of the life sciences such as physics, chemistry, computer science and engineering, and who want to move into the life sciences).
Anyone who has received a PhD in the past three years can apply, although applicants who are not a national of one of the 38 member countries of the HFSP must take their fellowship in a member country. (Exceptions can be made to the three-year rule for national services, illness or parental leave). The Postdoctoral Fellowship provides funding for three years, with the last year of funding being transferable to another country. The amount of funding granted varies depending on where the fellowship is held, and it includes a number of benefits (including relocation costs for spouses and children, and an allowance for children) and a small research grant that can be used for research-related costs such as conferences and association memberships.
HFSP Postdoctoral Fellowships prioritize support to scientists who want to move into a new area of research area and work with someone they have not worked with before. For Sebastian Haesler, the fellowship allowed him to move from a PhD in genetics and behavior to a lab at Harvard that specialized in electrophysiology: “it allowed me to follow my interests," he told listeners to the webinar, "even though it was a bit different to what I had done in my PhD”.
So what makes a good HFSP Postdoctoral Fellowship application? “The reviewers are looking for a certain level of excellence from the scientists” Carmen Gervais told the meeting. Once they’ve met this requirement, “the key consideration is how unique is this person as a scientist and how unique is their idea and their approach”.
A crucial part of the application is the research proposal, as the HFSP fellowship program is designed to fund innovative, ground-breaking projects. Detlef Weigel, who has supervised 13 HFSP Postdoctoral Fellows, advised applicants to be bold when coming up with an initial idea for a research proposal and not to worry about whether it is doable: "you can work out the practicalities when working on your proposal with your future supervisor".
Applications need to include three letters of recommendation, including one from the host supervisor (that is, the head of the lab where the applicant wants to work). Haesler recommends that applicants should contact their potential host supervisor well before the deadline for applications: “Write a proposal and run it by your future supervisor many times”. This will allow the supervisor to see that the applicant has a good idea, and also that they can craft that idea into something that is “executable at the experimental level”. It also demonstrates intellectual independence and scientific maturity. Weigel suggests contacting a potential supervisor at least nine months before the application deadline.
The other two recommendation letters should be written by researchers who have already worked with the applicant (one of whom is commonly their PhD supervisor). Gervais shared a tip for obtaining strong letters of support: “help your letter writers put evidence into their letters” by emailing them a list of “4 or 5 key things that you did that had really big impact in the lab”. As a minimum, Weigel said applicants should send their letter writers a copy of their CV.
The discussion during the webinar also produced some more general career development advice. When applying for fellowships, said Haesler, “you have to really know yourself and [. . .] be very honest” about what you’re looking for. This does not just apply to the lab where the applicant wants to work: they need to ask themselves if they (and their family) would be happy living in the city where the lab is based. Weigel agreed: “it’s important that the whole package is right for you”.
For early-career researchers aiming to set up their first independent laboratory, HFSP also offers Career Development Awards (CDAs), which are worth $300,000 over three years and are exclusively open to HFSP Postdoctoral Fellows. The award must be held in a different country from the Fellowship, and scientists often use the award to move back to their home country. Haesler used the CDA to move to Belgium and set up his laboratory.
Watch the other webinars in our postdoctoral fellowship series: www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLOAy5WJPezEhC89zQxVvStRTjKCgT-I0C