Some thoughts on my experience with the Smith Fellowship and application

I was very lucky to receive a David H. Smith Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in 2016. Since then, a number people have contacted me to find out more about the Smith Fellowship as they prepare applications. In an attempt to share this information more broadly and equitably, I’ve documented a few of my thoughts on the Smith application process and fellowship.


  1. How does the application process work? As far as I understand it, proposals are reviewed by a group of Smith alums, friends, and staff. I have never participated in proposal review, but I think each proposal is reviewed by at least two people and maybe more. Some subset (maybe 20?) of applicants receive a phone interview sometime in the fall. After the phone interview, 8-10 applicants are invited for an in-person interview in January (concurrent with the winter retreat for current fellows). (Smith will reimburse for interview-related travel expenses.) The in-person interviews involve 2 x one-hour panel interviews. Each interview panel consists of five interviewers (again, a mix of program staff and supporters). The interviewers get together after all the interviews, decide on 5 finalists, and call them within a day or two. Some questions that came up in my phone or in-person interview, or those of people I know, include:
      • What in your background or aspirations points towards wanting to effect change?
      • What about the training from a Smith Fellowship excites you?
      • What’s a major challenge you’ve faced and how have you overcome it?
      • Why is your work relevant to conservation science and practice? How can it transform conservation?
      • What makes you a leader?
      • If we don’t fund this, will it get done anyway?
      • Who’s your conservation hero?
      • How are you entrepreneurial and willing to take risks?
  2. What does Smith look for in applications and applicants? As I said, I have never been involved in fellow selection, but my sense is that there are two key things that the Smith folks are looking for:
    1. They want projects that are applied and have real-life ramifications. They are agnostic as to subject matter (could be beetles, frogs, fish, birds, flowering plants, lichen, large-scale landscapes, whatever), but they care about the applications of the work. I will also note here that, as the RFP says, you must have at least one academic and one conservation (NGO, government agency) mentor, but something that is not clear from the RFP is that you can have as many mentors as you want. (I had five.) Also, your mentors are just mentors, and not your bosses. Smith is unequivocal on the fact that you are in charge of your project, and no one else, and they will go to bat for you on this front.
    2. They want to invest in us as people and as leaders. The proposal matters, but just as much, who you are matters. They say they want to invest in future “conservation leaders,” which sounds a bit pretentious, but also, I think, to some extent, describes what they are looking for. Another way of saying this is that I found that Smith was a good place to bring my whole self to the table.


The fellowship provides two years of salary (though see below regarding flexibility and family leave) and a generous amount of travel and research money. The money is given to and dispensed by the fellow’s host institution. There are three 1-week-long retreats per year (usually one in October, one in January, and another in April or May), in a different location each time, with intense professional development and community-building.

Obviously, each person’s experience with the fellowship is different. Generally, I would say that the fellowship is hands off, but with lots of support if you want or need it. Sure, you are expected to work on your proposed project, but everyone involved fully understands that projects evolve and change as you work on them. I don’t think I know any Smith Fellows who ended up doing exactly what they proposed in their initial proposal. The only deliverables you owe the program are (1) two short 15-minute presentations, one on your project the spring you receive the fellowship, and one on your progress the following spring, and (2) two annual reports, due in September each year. As far as I can tell, many fellows (including me) don’t manage to publish on their fellowship work until long after the fellowship is officially over.

Mike Dombeck (the executive director of the program), says one of the goals of the fellowship is to enable fellows to take risks, and I can say that for me, the fellowship was a remarkable gift that did exactly that – allowed me to take huge risks (literally, I started a business) that I would never have taken otherwise. My experience with the ethos of the program is that they chose us because they trust us to do fabulous things, and they want to give us the resources to run as far as we can. Mike and Shonda (the program director) have been delighted with everything I’ve done, even when it was quite far from what I originally proposed (see starting a business, above).

I will say also that Smith is the most family-friendly professional space I’ve ever been in. On my first retreat, four of the fellows had brought babies (and family members to care for them). I brought my kid (and various family members as caretakers) to three retreats and we were warmly welcomed. Smith is also extremely flexible in terms of family and other leave; many fellows take leave of some sort or another during their fellowship. In addition to taking a few months of family leave, I spent most of my fellowship tenure working part-time (thereby extending the money for an additional year), and Smith was fine with all of that.

If you are queer and/or a person of color, and would like to talk more about these identities within the context of fellowship, I’d be happy to talk directly.


Many people have asked to see my proposal. I’ve posted it here with the caveat that it is quite idiosyncratic and I think does not probably resemble other successful proposals very much.