With a well-honed application, a Smithsonian fellowship is attainable
The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC claims to be the world’s largest museum, education and research complex. Its postdoctoral fellowships, which come in many different flavours—reflecting the diversity of the institution’s collections— are open to scholars anywhere in the world.
The fellowships normally last between three months and a year, with the possibility of extension for a second year. They provide an annual stipend of $55,000 (£42,000) and a research allowance of up to $4,000. Applications can also be written for up to two years of support, which will be conditional on successful completion of the first year. Most fellowships open to applications once a year, with a deadline on 1 November, however several collections use a different annual schedule.
Audrey Lin completed her DPhil at the University of Oxford in 2019 and won a Peter Buck postdoctoral fellowship, named for the physicist and co-founder of the Subway food chain. She began it earlier this year—just in time for the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Tell me about your fellowship
I work in the anthropology department at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, with my adviser Logan Kistler, a curator of archaeogenomics. 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—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. 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 met my future adviser Logan. He convinced me to apply.
How did you find completing the application?
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.
Did you get much advice from colleagues in the UK?
I sent my proposal to my DPhil supervisor and also another collaborator for feedback. But they didn’t advise me very specifically because my proposal was a bit out of their field. However, 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 and coherent it is.
My advice to future applicants is to be specific about your research questions, your hypotheses, your data sets and the methodology. Also, articulate clearly how your research will contribute to the field you are in and why anyone should care.
Should you also demonstrate knowledge of the Smithsonian collections?
Yes. Be specific about what the Smithsonian can offer and demonstrate why you can only do this research with Smithsonian resources and nowhere else. My project proposal had a strong bioinformatics component, so I emphasised specific data sets I would use, where to find them, and how using them would allow me to address the specific hypotheses I had laid out. I also stated clearly the methods and tools 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 consider?
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 going for you so far?
It’s been great—even in spite of the pandemic. 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. But I’ve managed to be quite productive without going into the lab.
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