Frequently Asked Questions for Mentors

Brown University Environmental Change Initiative
Frequently Asked Questions for Mentors
Postdoctoral Research Associate Program 2014

Brown University’s Environmental Change Initiative is currently seeking candidates for postdoctoral positions in interdisciplinary environmental research. These are ECI-funded positions mentored by two Brown or MBL faculty members from different fields. You may hear directly from applicants, as we encourage them to contact potential faculty mentors directly to discuss project ideas. Many faculty who have mentored past ECI postdocs have found them to be great assets to their programs, but finding an effective match requires participation of both faculty mentors and applicants. The following frequently asked questions provide additional information about the program. If you have any further questions or concerns, please contact Bonnie Horta for administrative concerns and Associate Professor Leah VanWey for questions about projects or mentors.

I’ve just been contacted by a stranger who says they are applying for an ECI postdoc. Why are they contacting me?

As part of the application process, we ask applicants for the ECI postdoc positions to develop a project proposal that draws on the research of two or more Brown or MBL faculty working in different fields. After extensive vetting and in-person interviews, we will hire one or two applicants per year to carry out their proposed project. In general, applicants have been highly-qualified and highly motivated to pursue independent interdisciplinary research. By entertaining their inquiry and taking the time to discuss project ideas with them, you are opening the door to the possibility of a new cross-field collaboration. If this is truly not a possibility for you, please do the applicant the favor of letting them know that. If you might be interested (usually the case), please hear them out, offer your feedback on the idea, and then be as candid as possible about your level of interest. We will entertain more than one proposal involving the same mentor, but it would be quite rare to fund both.

ECI is going to pay for a postdoc in my research program? Great! Why?

The primary goals of the program are to motivate fresh thinking about potential areas of collaboration and to apply enough resources to determine whether those new areas are truly viable. We have found that time is the major factor limiting our faculty’s ability to pursue new ideas. A trained postdoc with appropriate skills and intellectual investment in a new research area can be the bridge that lets you fully explore a budding collaboration that you would not otherwise have time or resources to pursue.

I’m willing to talk with these applicants, but I’m a little uncomfortable with someone else making the decision about who gets hired in my lab.

We are all interested in hiring highly qualified candidates, but ECI’s first priority is to help build and strengthen novel collaborations. It sometimes happens that the best person for your lab doesn’t propose the best project from ECI’s perspective. That’s a big disappointment for us all, but seems to be an unavoidable part of the process. If you have sufficient funding, you are welcome to pursue your first choice candidate after ECI’s decision is made. Rest assured that ECI will not hire a candidate if both mentors are not fully supportive of the project and the candidate. Letters of support from the proposed faculty mentors are a required part of the application package, and no application will go forward without your support. The proposed mentors and their labs are a major focus of in-person interviews and we will solicit your in-depth feedback before moving forward with a hire.

I don’t yet have much experience with this person, what should I include in a letter of support?

The mentor’s letter of support should explain your interest in the applicant and the proposed project and evaluate the ability of this applicant to work effectively in an interdisciplinary environment. How will the project build a coherent extension of your current or planned research? Is this a logical extension of past work for the applicant and do they show evidence of interdisciplinary skills and interest? How will this experience contribute to the applicant’s professional development? Please include an evaluation of the applicant’s qualifications based on the application materials and your initial interactions with them.

Are there hidden costs?

ECI covers a competitive salary for up to 24 months, a small research fund for the postdoc ($5000/year) and provides a computer. At present, postdocs have office space in a shared ECI office with other interdisciplinary scholars – which we believe enhances the impact of the program and helps build a community of scholars with similar ambitions. Some mentors find that a postdoc’s proposed project fits into their own funded research well enough that they are able to contribute additional funds for field work or laboratory supplies. We support such cooperation when it is available, but it is not a condition for eligibility.

What is expected of mentors?

We expect both mentors to take an active role in the development and execution of the proposed project, including regular team meetings and communication with co-mentors. ECI will manage hiring, payroll and administrative functions for the postdocs in close consultation with both mentors. Bridging the cultures of different disciplines is one of the great challenges of doing crosscutting research, so we strongly encourage both mentors to bring the new postdocs into the life of their own department, including listservs, seminars and social events. We believe the time devoted to such activities is well-spent for both the postdocs and the program, which benefits from the cross-fertilization of people and ideas. We also expect that mentors will contribute to the professional development of postdocs as they would for trainees working exclusively in their own research group. You should introduce them to colleagues; suggest opportunities for learning and exposure; point them toward funding sources; critique their papers, presentations and grant proposals.

If I have ideas for interdisciplinary projects, should I share those with applicants? Shouldn’t the proposal be the applicant’s own work?

Unlike a traditional job search, we are simultaneously evaluating both the project and the applicant. It is in your best interest – and those of the program – to help steer applicants toward projects that will add a new interdisciplinary dimension to existing research strengths. Of course, the applicants bring their own sets of skills and interests. The key to a successful project is finding the areas of intersection between the interests and abilities of applicants and faculty mentors. The text of the proposal should be the applicant’s work and the work plan should rely on their ideas, but faculty should feel free to discuss their ideas, recommend sources and comment on the completed proposal. If you have further questions or need additional information, please contact Leah VanWey, Deputy Director of ECI ( for questions about projects and mentors or Bonnie Horta, Manager of Administration and Finance ( for questions about applications, administration or budget.