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My winning proposal: Set your sights on the Smithsonian

Attention to detail brings the Smithsonian Institution's prestigious fellowships within reach

Top tips

  • Do not be overawed by the Smithsonian’s reputation—a good bid has a fighting chance.
  • Do not make your application longer than necessary.
  • Be specific and concise about your research questions, hypotheses and methodology.
  • Give the impression that you can hit the ground running as soon as you start the fellowship.
  • State clearly what the institution can offer you and demonstrate why you can only do your research with its resources.

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC claims to be the world’s largest museum, education and research complex. Its postdoctoral fellowships, which can last from 3 to 12 months, include a stipend of $55,000 (£42,000) a year plus a research allowance of up to $4,000. Applications can also be written for up to two years of support, but the second year of funding will be contingent on certain conditions being met in year one.

The overall goal of the fellowship programme is to allow researchers to conduct independent research related to Smithsonian collections, facilities or the research interests of the institution and its staff, and to utilise the resources of the institution. The deadline for applications is 1 November.

Audrey Lin, a Peter Buck postdoctoral fellow of the Smithsonian Institution, explains how she put her bid together.

Tell me about your fellowship.

I work in the anthropology department at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, where I work closely with my adviser Logan Kistler, a curator of archaeogenomics. I am working on several evolutionary history projects, some of which I started during my DPhil at the University of Oxford and involve analysis of ancient and modern genomes in animals and plants. I have a background in infectious disease, particularly viruses, and am using the Smithsonian animal collections to understand how specific viruses such as influenza can evolve in birds over time—and hopefully better understand the evolutionary history of the 1918 flu epidemic.

How did you find out about the scheme?

I heard about it two years ago when I met a Smithsonian curator at a conference. But because of the Smithsonian’s prestige, I thought the likelihood of my being awarded it was very low. I didn’t think much about it until a month later, in September 2018, when I was at another conference and I met my future adviser Logan. He told me the fellowship deadline was approaching and convinced me to apply. The attraction of the fellowship was that I would have freedom over my project. Frankly, I also thought it would be cool to work at the Smithsonian.

How did you find the application process?

I can only compare it to some Oxford junior research fellowships I also applied for. It was actually quite similar. The only difference was that for the Smithsonian I had to provide a timeline and a budget. At the time I had no idea how to make a budget, so I leaned pretty heavily on my advisers and prospective advisers for that. But I managed in the end.

Who else provided input?

I sent my proposal to my PhD supervisor and also another collaborator. But they didn’t advise me very specifically because my proposal was a bit out of their field. I worked more closely with my future advisers. But the point of the fellowship is that it is an independent, fellow-led project. So while I got help formatting and structuring the proposal and evaluating the feasibility of the project, the vast majority was done by me.

What tips did you get along the way?

One of the things my supervisor, who is on the evaluating panel, said, which I kept in mind, was that he loves applications that take him 10 minutes to read. Applications that take him an hour to get through do not make the shortlist. It all comes down to how well designed, clear and coherent the application is.

How did that filter through in your proposal?

I took from that a need to design the project proposal well. My advice is to be very specific about your research questions, your hypotheses, your proposed data sets and the methodology. Also, articulate clearly how your research will contribute to the field you are in and why anyone should care.

Presumably you should also demonstrate specific knowledge of the Smithsonian collections.

Yes. Be specific about what the Smithsonian can offer you and demonstrate why you can only do this particular research with Smithsonian resources and not anywhere else. My own project proposal had a strong bioinformatics component so I emphasised the specific data sets I would use, where to find them, and how utilising these data sets would allow me to address the specific hypotheses I had laid out. I also stated clearly the specific methods and tools that I would use to analyse these data sets. It was just a matter of demonstrating that I had thought a lot about the design of my project.

What else should applicants think about?

Be mindful that the people who will be evaluating your proposal will most likely not be experts in your field. This is an opportunity to demonstrate that you’re able to communicate your knowledge of the field that you are the expert in. Also, make sure you give the impression that you can hit the ground running as soon as you start the fellowship. Of course there will be a transition period when you arrive, but it’s always best to be as prepared as possible. Although you’ll be working with advisers, you should be able to demonstrate your independence to lead your own projects.

What else do you think made your proposal stand out?

My proposal was cost-efficient. Fellows only get up to $4,000 a year for research costs—most of which I spent on a good laptop. Because my proposal was informatics-based, I was able to show that I could still have a productive fellowship without the need to secure additional research money to cover lab costs. I emphasised that I could use public data that were already available at the Smithsonian.

How has the fellowship been so far?

Even in spite of the pandemic, it’s been great. I moved to Washington DC in mid-January and only had a few weeks of physically taking the train to the museum to work in the office. I’m still not yet able to go back. Although there are a number of Smithsonian museums already open, I think the National Museum of Natural History will probably be one of the last. But I’ve still managed to be quite productive without going into the lab.