Postdoctoral Fellowships at US Science Agencies: Questions and Answers

Are you wrapping up your Ph.D. and considering postdoctoral opportunities within federal agencies? In late October, AGU H3S and CUASHI organized a webinar with program managers from NASA, NOAA and the USGS to discuss the application process for the postdoctoral fellowships within each of their agencies. Dr. Scott Miller from NASA discussed the NASA Postdoctoral Program (NASA NPP), Dr. Cara Campbell from the USGS discussed the Mendenhall Research Fellowship Program, and Dr. Monika Kopacz discussed the NOAA Climate and Global Change Fellowship Program on behalf of program manager Dr. Virginia Selz. The webinar can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mTjv7g106vQ. Following the webinar, there were breakout rooms with the program managers to address specific questions that attendees had about each fellowship opportunity. The questions and answers from each breakout room are provided below. We hope this is beneficial to graduate students and postdocs who are considering these fellowship opportunities.

Fellowship Program links:

Application Deadlines:

  • NASA NPP: March 1st, July 1st, November 1st
  • USGS: November 1st however there may be additional opportunities posted throughout the year with different deadlines
  • NOAA: January 4th, 2023, typically early in January – check website for exact deadline each year

Questions for all agencies:

Can the study area be outside of US?

  • For NASA NPP, the research opportunities are located in-residence at a NASA center or facility. However, collaborations are certainly possible, and field campaigns are frequently part of many research opportunities. But the primary focus is on research that will be conducted at a NASA center or facility.
  • USGS: Similarly, the position is affiliated with a specific USGS facility within the US. However, the issue of interest can be external to the US, such as studies of volcanoes outside the US.
  • NOAA: The study site (i.e. the subject of the fellowship) can be outside of the US, but the research must be conducted at a U.S-based institution

Is there potential to be converted to a permanent scientist at any of the agencies after working as a postdoc?

  • NASA NPP: Speaking solely from my personal experience (Dr. Scott Miller), this is certainly a possibility for many opportunities, but there is no guarantee of continued affiliation / placement at the facility. Having said that, many NPP Fellows do transition to NASA civil-service or contractor positions at NASA facilities.
  • USGS: No, there is no direct conversion pathway. To become permanent would require successfully competing for an open position in the USGS. As active members of research teams, Mendenhall Fellows are typically very productive and, therefore, competitive in the hiring process so we do have a fair number of Mendenhall Fellows selected for permanent positions. 
  • NOAA: You can apply to open positions as a current lab member, but no special consideration is given to fellows

Are there opportunities in the 3 agencies for student internships?

  • For NASA, the NPP opportunities are all post-doctoral degree. While NPP is not a student program, there are other opportunities within NASA for current students. I could recommend https://www.nasa.gov/stem for more information on those programs.
  • Similarly, the Mendenhall Fellowship opportunities are all post-doctoral degree. However, the USGS has internship opportunities for students (including graduate researchers) through the Youth and Education in Science (YES) Program. More information here: https://www.usgs.gov/youth-and-education-in-science
  • NOAA has student opportunities that can be found at: https://www.noaa.gov/education/opportunities/students

Can multiple applications be submitted in the same cycle? Can we reapply in subsequent cycles?

  • NASA NPP: Multiple applications for the same person in the same round are not permitted under NPP. It is recommended that you contact numerous supervisors, but only apply to the program that best fits your area of research. But you can apply for additional opportunities in future cycles during your eligibility period.
  • USGS: You can submit multiple proposals during the same cycle. However, make sure that all proposals are of high quality; don’t trade quality for quantity. You can apply for additional opportunities in future cycles during your eligibility period.
  • NOAA: You cannot submit multiple applications in the same cycle, but you can submit in subsequent cycles during your 3-year eligibility window.

Are current postdocs eligible to apply for these fellowships?

– Yes, in all agencies, current postdocs are eligible to apply for the fellowships if they are within the timeframe of eligibility after receiving their doctoral degree. See each program’s website for information on the eligibility time frame.

NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellowship (NASA NPP):

Are NASA Postdoctoral Program fellowships applicable for non-US citizens? What are international students eligible to apply for?

The NPP is open to many international applicants. Applicants requiring immigration sponsorship must be eligible for a J-1 visa, or hold an LPR, asylee, or refugee status. These are the broad program requirements, but NASA centers may have additional criteria, etc. You can review this information at https://npp.orau.org/applicants/eligibility.html

How do I find an advisor? And is the advisor the Principal Investigator (PI) or am I?

You should look through the available opportunities(https://npp.orau.org/applicants/opportunities.html) and find one of interest. Each opportunity will have an advisor listed. You should contact the advisor and discuss your research idea that fits within the opportunity. You will then write the proposal independently and you will be the PI on the project.

The NPP fellowships require evidence of strong research output (i.e. publications). What if our Ph.D. advisor supports publication at the end of the dissertation? Will that have a negative impact on our success with the NPP or NOAA proposal?

In your academic record, list the manuscripts you are working on as in “in preparation” as this is a common occurrence.

I’m currently a postdoc at a university. Would there be any funding opportunity that I can apply for while I’m doing a postdoc at another institute?

Yes, the NPP opportunities are open to current (and former) postdocs as well.

Follow-up: is there an opportunity for postdoc to get funded while affiliated at our current institute? Do all the NASA/NPP positions require postdocs to be fully affiliated with NASA/NPP?

There are some programs where university faculty can be NASA NPP advisors (the astrobiology program is one example). However, that is dependent on the opportunity, and it is not very prevalent in the NPP.

Does research on “climate insurance” fall in the interest of NASA?

If you repackage the topic for “climate insurance” to “risk assessment”, it may fall in the prime topic of interest of NASA. NASA is primarily interested in risk assessment like flood risk, drought risk etc., and conducts a lot of capacity building workshops, primarily focusing in developing countries.

I am a NASA fellow for my PhD. And planning to apply for the NPP – do you think it decreases my chances since I have been associated once or does it all depend on the science investigation I propose?

Ideally the postdoctoral project you propose should be independent of your graduate work. However, the fact that you are already aware of what NASA is working on might strengthen your proposal. It may improve your chances but will almost certainly have no negative impact.

Can you provide some information about funding programs such as “NSF macrosystem” or similar programs that NASA has or could co-fund? Or what kind of program does NASA have to fund research about modelling earth ecosystems or exoplanet ecosystems?

See the Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) for independent grant funding.

In NASA’s program, which has multiple cycles through the course of year, are similar projects posted in all the rounds through the course of year?

Yes, unless the required number of positions are filled, most cycles feature similar projects through the course of year.

Mendenhall Research Fellowship Program:

Feel free to contact Dr. Cara Campbell for further information (ccampbell@usgs.gov)

How specific should the details be in the proposal regarding how you plan to answer/address your research question? Is it better to be very specific on methods/datasets/sites to answer sub-questions under your overarching proposal? Or be a bit more general on your approach to answer your research question?

This depends on the research question you want to answer and its breadth. You want to demonstrate that you have clear research questions and a logical way to approach them. There should be testable hypotheses outlined in your proposal and you should show some familiarity with the required datasets and proposed study areas and discuss your reasoning for choosing them. In your proposal you need to show that you will come in and be a productive member of the team.

Can any of the Mendenhall fellowships be remote?

There is the possibility, but it varies by position and opportunity. Some positions are listed as remote or allow you to select from multiple locations. This is more likely for positions that don’t require field work components, such as modeling positions. Check the opportunity posting for duty station location(s) and to see if remote work is possible. 

If there isn’t a Mendenhall opportunity that fits my interest, could I work with someone to develop a future Mendenhall opportunity at the USGS?

Not usually, as the positions are developed to address identified needs within the USGS. However, there are other postdoc opportunities at the USGS, so if you want to work on a specific project, reach out to the scientist of interest to see if there is a possibility to develop a postdoctoral project. 

As Ph.D. students, we don’t often make budgets. Can you provide any tips on developing a budget?

You should discuss the budget component of the fellowship application with the research advisors listed on the opportunity who can provide information about what expenses you should anticipate and any facilities and equipment that are available. The budget does not include salary, just operating expenses for your project. Be sure to include detailed field, laboratory, and computing expenses, publication costs, and scientific conference funding.

NOAA Climate and Global Change Fellowship Program:

How many fellowship applications are received and how many are funded each year?

A typical call receives about 100 applications and approximately 10 fellowships get funded each year, but it can vary slightly year to year.

Can you clarify the process of finding a research institution and then using a NOAA fellowship for funding?

You should focus on global change research and identify the institution you want to work with as you apply for the funding opportunity. Your project should be innovative and push the field forward. You must find an institution that does not have a 1st year NOAA Climate and Global Change postdoctoral fellow already in residence (check the database of current hosts/fellows).

Is assessment relative to your career stage (i.e. fresh out of PhD versus already having a postdoc(s))?

Yes, the level of accomplishment is assessed with the level of the career stage in mind. Potential for success is also heavily reliant on your publication record and innovation of the proposed research and research topic.

Are there any benefits to the host from NOAA other than an opportunity working with fresh minds?

This fellowship provides the platform for collaborations between researchers and funds the salary and benefits expenses of a postdoctoral fellow. The research mentor at the host institution must provide the expenses related to completing the research.

Can you briefly explain about the inclusion response statement?

This is similar to a diversity, equity, and inclusion statement and should include “a discussion of the applicant’s past activities and plans for future contributions to support diversity, equity, and inclusion” (NOAA Fellowship Application Information Page). You can reach out to the current program manager for further clarification if needed.

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