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USGS Mendenhall Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

 
Quotes from Mendenhall Postdoctoral Fellows

Q: Why is it great to work for the USGS?

A: When you become a part of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), you join a world leader in the natural sciences. The USGS provides reliable scientific information to describe and understand the Earth; minimizes the loss of lives and property from natural disasters; manages biological, water, mineral, and energy resources; and enhances and protects our quality of life. For more information, visit http://www.usgs.gov/ohr/.

GENERAL

Q: Is it possible to apply for a Mendenhall Fellowship under more than one Research Opportunity?

A: Yes. Applicants are strongly urged to coordinate the development of their research proposals with appropriate Research Advisors. Currently there is no limit on the number of applications an individual may submit. In the event that an applicant ranks highly for more than one Research Opportunity, the USGS retains the right to determine the Opportunity for which a job offer may be made.

Q: How many Mendenhall Fellows are hired each year?

A: The number of postdoctoral fellows hired depends on funding available each year. The expected range is 12 to 20 each year.

Q: What is the role of the Research Advisor during the preparation of the research proposal?

A: Applicants are strongly urged to coordinate the development of their research proposals with the appropriate Research Advisor(s). The role of the Research Advisor(s) is primarily consultative. They may provide assistance in the sharpening up of a proposal but should not be actively involved in writing the proposal. The concepts around which the proposal is built should be generated mostly by the applicant. The Research Advisor(s) should provide equal access to all potential applicants.

Q: Can Mendenhall Program research be done jointly with universities or other institutions?

A: Yes. Each year a number of the Research Opportunities advertised have co-mentors from universities and other institutions. Typically, funding is provided by the USGS. However, it is possible to conduct research under this Program with joint funding between the USGS and other sources.

Q: If the project does not fit neatly into 2 years, can a Mendenhall Fellowship be extended?

A: Mendenhall Fellowships are funded for 2 full years, and funding cannot be extended. The appointment is made initially for 2 years; however, it can be extended for up to an additional 2 years provided appropriate work and funding are available. Some Mendenhall Fellows have been able to extend their employment with the USGS by obtaining additional funds from other USGS funding sources and obtaining additional funds from external sources.

Q: What is a “reasonable” budget for a Mendenhall postdoctoral project?

A: Application packages are evaluated based on four criteria detailed below. One of these covers budget and facilities. This factor considers the proposed budget—if it is commensurate with the level of effort and reasonable with respect to the value of anticipated results. This factor also considers the availability of necessary facilities at the USGS or proposed arrangements for access to required facilities elsewhere. Salary, benefits, and overhead are included with each Mendenhall assignment. The budget request part of the application should cover anticipated operating expenses—for fieldwork, access to specialized equipment, conference travel, publications, and so on. The total amount requested by successful applicants varies considerably. Applicants are expected to communicate the total cost (operating expenses) for a 2-year effort.

Q: If an applicant asks for “too much” for operating expenses, will he/she be at a competitive disadvantage?

A: See answer to the question above. To date, the Mendenhall Program has not excluded an applicant from competition on the basis of his/her budget request.

Q: I am interested in a Mendenhall Postdoctoral Fellowship. What should I do?

A: The first step is to become aware of the Research Opportunities available for a given year and the application deadline. Check the table of opportunities and the associated descriptions. Then, contact the Research Advisor(s) listed and express an interest in the project advertised. Applicants are strongly urged to coordinate the development of their research proposals with the appropriate Research Advisor(s). Please be sure to pay close attention to the application details and deadlines and ensure your complete application package is submitted prior to the closing date and time listed.

Q: Are all advertised Research Opportunities filled each year?

A: No. The number of positions filled depends on the funding available.

Q: How many applications are received each year?

A: Approximately 100 applications are typically received each year.

Q: Can more than one applicant be accepted into the same Mendenhall position (Research Opportunity or project)?

A: Yes. More than one Postdoctoral Fellow can be awarded to a research project. However, this is very rare.

Q: Can aspects of science education be incorporated in to a research proposal?

A: Yes. As a part of the final steps toward career preparation, Fellows are encouraged to take part in educational activities as appropriate. Some examples of such activities include: preparation of Fact Sheets and similar products relevant to their research, involvement with educational committees of professional societies, visiting schools as guest scientists, working directly with teachers to enhance science teaching, and organizing a public field trip to the Fellow’s research area. These types of activities are encouraged for USGS permanent staff as well. Applicants should understand that the principal focus of projects under the Mendenhall Program is scientific research in the disciplines or subdisciplines pertinent to the Research Opportunity.

CITIZENSHIP

Q: Can citizens of nations other than the United States of America apply for a Mendenhall Fellowship?

A: Yes. As the Mendenhall Fellowships are U.S. Government positions, the USGS must give preference to U.S. citizens. Citizens of other nations may be considered under certain circumstances. An example is when there are no qualified citizen applicants. In such a situation, the USGS may consider making an offer to a noncitizen. It is optional for the USGS to consider citizens of other nations, and various laws and regulations must be followed. The Basics section contains some information on the hiring of noncitizens.

Q: How many citizens of nations other than the United States have been hired under this program?

A: About 5% of the Mendenhall Fellows to date have been citizens of other nations.

WHAT HAPPENS AFTER APPLYING?

Q: What happens after an application is submitted by the deadline?

A: Each application is checked to confirm that all required documents have been submitted. The Regional Personnel Office contacts perform a preliminary qualifications review to verify that minimum educational qualifications are met and that a research proposal has been submitted in the appropriate format. Then the applications are forwarded to a review panel, to the Coordinator of the Mendenhall Program, and to the selecting officials for review.

Q: How are applications reviewed? What are the criteria used to evaluate them?

A: All qualified applications are reviewed using a two-step process. First, a review panel made up of subject matter experts (scientists) reviews each application on the basis of the criteria described below and ranks all applications. Research proposals are expected to be fully responsive to the requirements described in the Research Opportunity. The panel forwards its recommendations to the selecting officials (USGS managers). The selecting officials also review the applications utilizing the criteria below. They make final selections considering the input of the review panel and the Coordinator of the Mendenhall Program.

All qualified applications are reviewed based on the following criteria:

    1. Technical quality of the research proposal: This factor considers the scientific merit of the proposed research and the probability of achieving positive results within the 2-year postdoctoral appointment period. This factor is double weighted. Thus, the scientific merit of the proposal is just about the most critical aspect.
    2. Relevance and Timeliness: This factor considers the relevance and timeliness of the proposed research as they relate to the science strategies listed under The Basics. The potential for the advancement of science as well as the advancement of USGS science strategies will be considered. Research proposals are expected to be fully responsive to the requirements described in the Research Opportunity.
    3. Research performance and academic record: This factor considers the quality of graduate research and publication record of the applicant (promptness of publication of results, quality of publications, and so on) and the graduate and undergraduate grades.
    4. Budget and Facilities: This factor considers the proposed budget—if it is commensurate with the level of effort, and reasonable with respect to the value of anticipated results. This factor also considers the availability of necessary facilities at the USGS or proposed arrangements for access to required facilities elsewhere.

Q: When will applicants learn about the outcome of their application?

A: As posted at the top of the Mendenhall Program web site, offers will be made typically during mid to late February. Applicants are usually given 2 weeks to accept or decline offers. Because there are more highly ranked applicants than there are available Postdoctoral Fellowships, additional applicants may receive offers if initial offers are declined. Therefore, all offers must be resolved before formal notifications are sent to all applicants. This may not happen until the end of March or later.

AFTER A MENDENHALL FELLOWSHIP…

Q: What do Mendenhall Fellows go on to do after their USGS postdoctoral tenure?

A: There are many potential career paths after a Mendenhall Fellowship. As of July 2008, 76 Mendenhall Fellows have completed their 2-year appointments. Here is where they went after the Mendenhall tenure: 25 obtained permanent career positions with the USGS; 11 are continuing in temporary positions with the USGS; 25 have obtained tenure track positions in universities; 6 are employed by other Federal government agencies; 4 are working in the private sector; 1 went back to school; 2 left science; 1 is working overseas; and 1 is teaching in high school.

Q: Will the Mendenhall Fellowship lead to a permanent position with the USGS?

A: Not necessarily. Tenure as a Mendenhall Fellow does not lead to any preferred status when it comes to permanent employment with the USGS. Mendenhall Fellows can apply and compete for permanent or other types of USGS positions. If a Mendenhall Fellow obtains employment with the Federal Government, the 2-year employment will be added to the length of service.

WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE A USGS MENDENHALL FELLOW?

Mendenhall Fellows work directly with their Research Advisors. The Research Advisors are scientists who are usually permanent staff at various USGS science centers. The Mendenhall Fellow is an active member of the group to which she/he is assigned to and participates fully in group meetings and other activities. Fellows will have an opportunity to interact with a large number of professional scientists who span a wide range of disciplines and subdisciplines. The USGS is a ~9000 strong organization with a presence in all 50 States and abroad. There are approximately 1500 research scientists at the USGS.

Here is what a few Mendenhall Fellows said about their experience at the USGS:

“I would describe work at the USGS as a Mendenhall as being pretty much the ideal research environment -- I'm surrounded by top-notch scientists doing high-level research … I have everything I need to do good research, but do not have as many distractions as are common in graduate school. Though my project is (as written) pure research, there is enough applied work going on around me that I am kept aware of current topics in geophysics, am involved in solving real problems, and am able to keep my research focused on applications with immediate importance. It's really a pretty ideal combination, and one that is (to my knowledge) unique to the USGS.”

“I think the greatest thing about working as a Mendenhall Postdoc is breadth of facilities and expertise the USGS has to offer. With the tons of labs and tons of leaders in their fields in this organization, the possibilities for collaboration on truly integrated and innovative research are endless. The financial support is solid, and the program is highly invested in your research success. The postdoc is all what you make of it. If you don't develop a clear research objective and approach relatively quickly, you can totally flail. But if you do, you can have 2 to 4 incredibly productive years.”

“As a Mendenhall Post-doctoral researcher, you have the ability to interact with leading scientists in many disciplines, genuinely interested in sharing their talents, in learning from you and in helping you achieve your project goals. This provides in my opinion, the greatest working environment there is.”

“Working as a Mendenhall Fellow with the USGS has provided me with invaluable experience in doing top quality science with seasoned researchers, along with new opportunities to assist other governmental agencies in providing the science needed to make informed land management decisions".

“I would definitely encourage PhD students to apply for a Mendenhall opportunity. I have absolutely loved the program. The work environment is very professional, supportive and focused on quality research and publication, just as would be expected in academia. The pay is very good compared to academic post-docs, which makes one feel like an appreciated professional - a pleasing sensation after all of those years of sweat and poverty in graduate school. Also included are project funds each year, and the possibility of access to extensive instrumentation/facilities/services at USGS nation-wide. Plus there are lots of fieldwork options, and plenty of USGS people participate in IODP and other outside cruises/fieldwork. Mendenhall fellows basically get all the support needed”… to hit the ground running and produce…“it's just up to the individual to make the most of it. I am a big fan of the program. I also had the luck of joining a fantastic group of people.”

“The thing I like most about the research environment here has been the wide range of experience of the scientists from across the Survey. There are lots of opportunities for collaborations, world class labs, and a large amount of scientific resources. It is sort of like being in a geology department with thousands of people in it.”

“Postdoctoral positions are becoming the norm as a career transition from graduate school to whatever your next step may be. There are several good reasons to go with a Mendenhall postdoc …right out of school: A) The pay is better… B) You have the opportunity to interact with some of the best scientists in your field and in ancillary fields. How much you interact with researchers in Water Resources, Biological Resources as well as in the Geology Disciplines in the USGS is completely up to you. The more outgoing you are, the more rewarding the experience will be. C) You have an autonomous (or nearly autonomous) research program. With most academic postdocs, you will be working on someone else's proposed research as opposed to the research questions you defined. D) The environment is collegial.”

“The pursuit of cutting-edge societally-relevant research with the USGS has given me a great deal of professional and personal satisfaction that was lacking in academia.”

“Working at the USGS as a Mendenhall fellow has been a great experience and great for my career. I would recommend this postdoctoral opportunity for anyone, regardless of their future career path (e.g., research, consulting, or academics). The ability to draw upon professional experience and expertise in literally any geologic discipline from biogeochemistry to cosmochemistry is what makes the USGS experience different from most other post doctoral opportunities.”

“The most valuable aspect of my tenure as a USGS Mendenhall postdoc was working with an interdisciplinary team of scientists- hydrologists, geochemists, biologists, ecologists.”

“Unlike other national science organizations, funding levels of the USGS Mendenhall Program reflect an enabling philosophy for young research scientists.

“The research budget was a significant factor that enabled me to explore novel, innovative approaches.”

“Like academics, research at the USGS is at the forefront of science, often breaking new ground. The main difference between academic research and research at the USGS is that most USGS research is applied in that it builds on specific projects and problems that fall within the scope of the USGS mission. However, this does not mean that research is limited in comparison to academics. Because of the size, diversity, and available resources at the USGS, the subjects and types of research projects are practically unlimited.”

“Unlike many academic post-docs, the funding comes from the Mendenhall Program and not from the advisor's projects. Thus, I have had a lot of autonomy in planning and managing my project, but I still receive fantastic guidance and mentorship from my advisor. As far as drawbacks, since there are fewer students around than at a university, there are fewer opportunities to practice mentorship (although certain curmudgeonly post-docs may see this as a benefit). I actually did have the opportunity to mentor one student worker during my post-doc. Similarly, there are fewer opportunities for discussion groups, etc. But the research seminars were as good if not better than those at my PhD institution. The average age of your close colleagues is likely to be significantly older than it would be at a university. But, speaking for my group, they may have some snow on the roof, but they're fun to be around!”

“Compared to academic institutions, being a Mendenhall Fellow at the USGS has provided a greater level of funding for two years, but the uncertainty of long term funding is still quite similar.”

“As with any post-doc, how well it will set you up for the job market just depends on whom you work with and what you accomplish. I am nearing the final year of my fellowship and I have been competitive (i.e., gotten an interview) for academic positions, government positions and even some interest from the private sector (an environmental consulting agency), although I've barely looked into that option. In short, I think that my Mendenhall post-doc has put me in a good position with respect to the job market, and has left me with more options than would a straight academic post-doc.”

“The extensive pre-existing data sets of the USGS allowed me to deepen the complexity, relevance, and inter-connectedness of my Mendenhall research.”
“You can have your cake and eat it too: As a researcher at the USGS you have both solid financial support and significant intellectual freedom to explore.”

Go back to Mendenhall Postdoctoral Program

U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
URL: http://geology.usgs.gov/postdoc/FAQ.html
Direct inquiries to Rama K. Kotra at rkotra@usgs.gov
Maintained by Mendenhall Postdoctoral Fellowship Program Web Team
Last modified: 16:07:01 Thu 13 Dec 2012
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