Apply! JSMF Postdoctoral Fellowship Awards

The Understanding Dynamic and Multi-scale Systems program supports scholarship and research directed toward the discovery and refinement of theoretical and mathematical tools contributing to the continued development of the study of complex, adaptive, nonlinear systems. The program’s emphasis is on the development and application of the theory and tools used in the study of complex research questions and not on particular fields of research per se.  JSMF is also interested in projects attempting to apply complex systems approaches to coherently articulated questions where such approaches are not yet standard but could open up new paths to progress.

Important Note: JSMF supports research in the brain sciences through its topical program Understanding Human Cognition. The Foundation recommends that researchers in the neurosciences not submit applications to the Dynamic and Multi-scale Systems Postdoctoral Fellowship Award. Typically, such applications are unsuccessful.


PDF Download the 2020 Guidelines (.pdf)

Calendar Deadline to apply is June 12, 2020 15:59 CDT.

The Fellowship

Students completing their doctoral training, and committed to acquiring new skills and experience in a multi-disciplinary field such as complex systems science, can benefit from postdoctoral training where such opportunities to broaden research experience and acquire new knowledge and skills.   A postdoctoral position adding new dimensions to a student’s doctoral education (adding theoretical skills to one’s experimental training or vice versa; pursuing work in a new topic or field), can be limited by the availability of funded positions via institutional training grants or faculty research grants.   The latter case can result in a postdoctoral fellow engaging in a research project dictated by the needs of the research grant rather than pursuing a creative and self-directed training program based on his or her interests or goals.

The James S. McDonnell Foundation 21st Century Postdoctoral Fellowship Award in Understanding Dynamic and Multi-scale Systems is intended to provide students in the final stages of completing a Ph.D. degree more freedom in identifying and securing postdoctoral training opportunities.    Following a multi-phase review of applications, selected pre-doctoral students are granted “letters of intent to fund” that the student can use in negotiating with potential postdoctoral training institutions while the student is in the final phase of graduate school.   The JSMF Fellowship is designed to provide students with opportunities to pursue postdoctoral training that might not be otherwise readily available.   The Fellowships are intended to allow students to seek postdoctoral research opportunities aligned with the student’s interest and desire to obtain additional skills and experience that will further their pursuit of careers in complex systems science.     

Award Details

The total amount of the JSMF Fellowship is $200,000 USD to be expended in no less than 2 and no more than 3 years.

  • The cost of the full postdoctoral salary or stipend and fringe benefits must be paid in full from the fellowship.
  • Institutions cannot request that other funding sources be used to cover the Fellow’s salary or stipend; the primary purpose of this fellowship is the continued education and training of the postdoctoral fellow. The fellowship is not intended to provide general support to a laboratory or department.
  • If the institutional postdoctoral salary scales are set such that there are funds in excess of what is needed for stipend and benefits, the excess funds can be used by the institution to support the Fellow’s research.


Important Note: JSMF Fellowships are not awarded until the student applies to and is accepted as a postdoctoral fellow at a qualified institution and the institution submits an acceptable request to JSMF to initiate the grant.


The JSMF Fellowship is a unique opportunity for students with an interest in and an aptitude for complexity science who are in the final stages of completing their Ph.D. and looking to make a significant change in direction for their first postdoctoral fellowship (field of study, model organism, theory vs experimental, etc.) that will either be difficult or impossible without an external source of funding.  Students should anticipate activating the Fellowship between June 2021 and February 28, 2022.

In prior years, upwards of 70% of submissions are not advanced past the first review phase due to poor fit with the described goals of the program.   JSMF requests that potential applicants and their advisors carefully consider the characteristics of this rather unusual Fellowship prior to applying.

Important Note:  This Fellowship is not intended for individuals that already have completed a Ph.D. or students that have already identified a postdoctoral position and a postdoctoral mentor as traditional funding mechanisms are better suited to these students.   Such applications are ineligible for consideration.


Applications can be submitted beginning April 15, 2020. The deadline for applications and letters of support is June 12, 2020, 15:59 CDT (20:59 UTC). All materials must be submitted electronically through the specified process.    Application submitted after the posted deadline are not accepted.

Decisions and Notification

Applications that meet the eligibility requirements will be reviewed by an expert advisory panel. The panel will use the quality and appropriateness of the proposed fellowship plan, the evidence of the applicant’s academic creativity and productivity, and the information provided in the letters of support as the basis for recommending applications for funding consideration.

Final funding decisions will be announced at the end of October after the JSMF Board of Directors meets and considers the advisory board’s recommendations.

Typically JSMF can support up to 10 Fellowships each year.

Applying for the Letter of Intent to Fund Phase

It should be clear from the application the reasons why pursuing a post-doctoral position is qualitatively adding to the student’s skills, knowledge, and connection to scientific communities.  Complete applications must be uploaded to the JSMF website. Submissions must contain the two parts described below to be considered complete:

Part 1: To be submitted by the applicant

Applications and letters of support can be submitted beginning April 15, 2020 and will be accepted up until the deadline of June 12, 2020, 15:59 Central Time (20:59 UTC).  Late applications will not be reviewed. We recommend submitting applications at least 24 hours before the deadline to allow for unforeseen circumstances.

A complete application consists of the items below.

  1. Applicant Contact Information
  2. Application Title
  3. Summary (500 word maximum)
    • The JSMF Fellowship is intended to provide students with the opportunity to broaden research experience and acquire additional skills prior to pursuing a career in academia or elsewhere. If awarded this fellowship, explain how the fellowship would significantly change the direction (field of study, model organism, theory vs experimental, etc.) of the student’s research.  It should be clear to readers that to pursue the desired postdoctoral research direction requires more freedom than a typical postdoctoral position.   The summary should be explicit as to how the applicant intends to  broaden their complex systems training.    Avoid bland generalities.
    • List of the top 2 contributions (articles, code, software, etc.) made by the student during the Ph.D. period.
  4. A brief description of the student’s current research written in essay format (500 word maximum)
  5. A description of the student’s postdoctoral research interests written in essay format (2500 word maximum)
    • Describe how the student’s interests, questions, and future plans require the flexibility of this fellowship.
    • Explain how the current and future research directions derive from and will contribute to complex systems science.  Please avoid generalities and clichés.
    • Provide specific details about what the student intends to learn during postdoctoral training.
    • Finally, describe what is the student’s plan after the fellowship? Does the student plan to seek another fellowship, obtain employment in industry or government, pursue a faculty career in academia, or start a business?  Note: All of these options are equally acceptable responses.
  6. The student’s curriculum vita (2 page maximum) in PDF format

Upon submission a confirmation email will be sent to the student indicating the application was received.

Part 2: To be submitted separately as single PDF files by the Ph.D. mentor and other faculty member

Students must request two letters of support to be submitted that address the student’s qualifications and benefits anticipated to be gained during a period of postdoctoral training. Letters of support should not be included in the application file. Letters must be submitted directly by the letter writer.

Letters of support will be accepted up until the deadline of June 12, 2020, 15:59 Central Time (20:59 UTC).  We recommend submitting letters of support at least 24 hours before the deadline to allow for unforeseen circumstances.

Letter submitters will be required to create an account and upload a 2 page maximum PDF version of the letter of support.

Advice for Letter Writers
Letters of support are an important component of the JSMF Fellowship application and are used as key information in the review and decision-making process. Letter writers should use their text to describe the student’s skills, abilities, achievements, and provide information that the advisory panel can use to evaluate the applicant’s fit with the opportunity afforded with the JSMF Fellowship.  It is advisable that students share the Fellowship guidelines, a draft of the application, and a copy of your bio/c.v. with those writing letters.


  • LETTER 1: Letter of support from Ph.D. mentor
    • Must provide assurance that the student will complete all Ph.D. degree requirements and be able to start a postdoctoral position between June 2021 and February 28, 2022.
    • Should state whether he or she reviewed and provided feedback on the student’s application prior to submission to JSMF. Feedback is encouraged.
    • Tell us about what you see as the top 2 contributions (articles, code, software, etc.) made by the student during the Ph.D. period and why it is important.
    • Areas to consider including in the letter:
      • Academic qualifications
      • Perceived fit with the JSMF Fellowship (maturity and independence)
      • Technical skills
      • Inquisitive nature
      • Collaboration
      • Creativity
  • LETTER 2: Letter of support from a faculty member familiar with, but not directly involved in supervising, the student and the student’s research.
    • Should address the student’s qualifications and the benefits anticipated to be gained during a period of postdoctoral training pertinent to the goals of the JSMF Fellowship..

Requirements for both letters of support:

      • Letters must be on institutional letterhead (if available) and in PDF format
      • No more than two (2) pages in length. Letters exceeding this length will be truncated without acknowledgement.
      • Letters of support that are emailed, faxed, or sent by physical mail will not be processed.
      • Letters of support must be submitted through the appropriate link in response to the email letter request initiated by the student’s application. The student must initiate this request as part of the application. Upon receipt of the email inviting you to submit a letter of support you must follow the instructions to create an account and upload your letter.

Frequently Asked Questions

Last updated March 9, 2020

Am I eligible to apply for a JSMF fellowship award?
Students should not already have a Ph.D. but be on track to complete all degree requirements and be ready to start their first postdoctoral fellowship between June 2021 and February 28, 2022.  There are no geographic restrictions for applicants.
I have a question about font, margin, page requirements, references, image captions, etc.
There are no specific guidelines related to these types of questions. Use your best judgment, and understand that the application file submitted needs to be easily readable. References and image captions are not included in word counts.

I’ve decided the institution I want to go to for my postdoc position. How can I explain this in the application?
If you’ve already made a decision on where you are going for a postdoc then you are not eligible to apply for this fellowship. This fellowship is not intended for individuals that already have a Ph.D. or students that have already identified a postdoctoral position and a postdoctoral mentor as there are traditional funding mechanisms available for these students.
I have more than one Ph.D. mentor. Should I have each mentor submit a letter of support?
No. Only one Ph.D. mentor letter of support will be included with your application file. If you have more than 1 mentor please ask them to write a joint letter that is up to 2 pages in length. Letters exceeding 2 pages will be truncated without acknowledgement.
I have more than one letter for the non-mentor letter of support. Should I have each letter writer upload a letter?
No. Only one non-mentor letter (up to 2 pages in length) should be submitted for your application file. Letters exceeding 2 pages will be truncated without acknowledgement.
Will you accept a late application or letter of reference?
No. All materials must be received on or before the official deadline. Late applications and letters of reference will not be reviewed. It is up to the applicant to verify with the letter writers that letters of support are submitted prior to the deadline.
If I apply and receive a letter of intent to fund, when can I activate the award?
We anticipate that letters of intent awarded in 2020 may be activated between June 2021 and February 28, 2022.

For various reasons, should I receive a letter of intent to fund I would like to stay at my doctoral institution or the medical school associated with my doctoral institution for a postdoctoral position. Is that acceptable?
No. The intent of this program is to allow students to broaden their training and experience.

I’m considering applying for the JSMF Fellowship, but if I receive a letter of intent to fund I am unable to commit to activating it.
Applying to the JSMF Fellowship is highly competitive. By applying for a letter of intent to fund, the student indicates his or her strong intention to activate the award, if received. Students should contact us and withdraw their application from further review if at any time this is no longer true.  
What institutions can be used for a JSMF Postdoctoral Fellowship Award?
Please note that due to changes in U.S. Treasury regulations, the Foundation no longer maintains a list of grantee institutions on file.

If awarded a letter of intent to fund, applicants must select a postdoctoral position at a qualified institution. Any U.S. or foreign institution with IRS 501(c)(3) tax-exemption status qualifies. Domestic or foreign institutions that are instruments of the government (supported financially by the state or national government) also qualify. In all cases, potential grantee institutions require supporting documentation of the institution’s tax status.
I applied to the program in a prior year. Am I eligible to apply again this year?
No. Once you have applied to the JSMF Postdoctoral Fellowship program you are not eligible to apply again in future years.

I haven’t received an email confirmation for submitting an application or a letter of support that I know was submitted.
Check your spam folder to see if the confirmation email was mistakenly classified as spam. Verify that the email address entered on the form was not entered incorrectly. Log into your account to see if the application was submitted and if invited letters of support have been submitted.

I made a mistake with my submission, and the submission deadline has not passed. How do I correct the error?
Log into your account, under “My Applications” select the “Submitted” option, click the “Open” button on your submitted application., then click the “Notes” menu option on the left hand side. Click the + icon to create a message to send to JSMF requesting the application be returned for revisions. JSMF will return the submission to your account for revisions.

I’m having a problem with an electronic application or a particular program guideline. Whom can I contact for help? 
For the fastest response, send an email to

Important Dates

March 6, 2020
Application guidelines posted on the website.

April 15
Applications and letters of support can be submitted via the website beginning this date

June 12, 2020 15:59 CDT (20:59 UTC)
Deadline to submit an application and letters of support

June 13 – September
Applications will be reviewed during this time

September 13-14
Advisory panel will meet to discuss the finalists

September 25
Notification of decisions will be sent by email on or before this date. If you do not receive notification on this date first check your spam filter and then contact

Late October
JSMF Board of Directors will consider the advisory panel’s recommendations

June 2021
Earliest anticipated activation date for a fellowship awarded in 2020

February 28, 2022
Latest anticipated activate date for a fellowship awarded in 2020

Visit the official link


James Smith McDonnell

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