Please share the story of your Fellowship

comments 28

Please use the comments box to share the story of how you got your research fellowship. Some tips for getting started can be accessed here.

We’re interested in hearing about times when you went the extra mile, reached out, made it happen, didn’t wait for permission. Tell us about who helped you and how; who didn’t and why. Tell us how you knew you were ready, and how you kept going.

Information on this study can be found by visiting the study page here. Ethical approval was granted by the University of Sheffield Ethics Committee on 3rd October 2014.

The Author

Kay works in research led service design of mentoring and coaching programmes for early career researchers. After doing her PhD and post-doctoral research in molecular science, Kay abandoned her lab coat in 2010 and moved her research focus to investigating how PhD students learn and develop as researchers - and how research careers progress into research leadership positions. Kay has just finished her MA Thesis investigating trust in the Student-Supervisor relationship, and is also, of course, engaged in trying to understand the experience of gaining a research fellowship.

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  1. I got a Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship from the 7th Framework programme of the European Union. The call was in 2012, and I got the positive evaluation by the end of November 2012. It was a real blast, because I was not sure about getting it (the success rate is really low, about 15%). And it arrived at the right moment: the situation in my country (Spain) regarding science funding was critical, and the things were getting worse for young researchers trying to consolidate a career and an independent position. So, despite I already had a permanent position as researcher, I was unable to stay still looking how my career as a scientist would become frozen due to the lack of funding. I accepted the fellowship, packed, and came to Sheffield (UK) to expend two years researching as some kind of sabbatical. But the decision was not easy. My family (wife and daughter) had to stay back in Spain whereas I would be working here.

    Finishing the application with all the documents and information needed was not easy. It took me a long time to write it and a trip to Sheffield in the middle to sort all the things. When finally I uploaded the proposal in the web page I was really happy with the result. At that point, I didn’t care too much about if it would be successful or not, I was proud of the work done. And I started everything in my own, even before getting permission from my institution (I got it later).

    In addition, I find now that the first year after starting with the fellowship was also particularly hard due to several factors: changing place, leaving the family behind, adapting to new circumstances and colleagues, and starting a new researching line. I think that I really went the extra mile after getting the fellowship, not before.

    My supervisor here was the main help that I got preparing the application: mainly for writing the proposal and contacting the necessary people at the university that could help me to cope with it. On the other hand, my institution in Spain didn’t care too much about it. I got only additional bureaucracy from them, in order to get the permits that will allow me to stay here in Sheffield for two years and keep my position there later on. This showed me the great difference between an institution that already concerns about its researchers (such as the University of Sheffield) and other that really doesn’t care about them (like mine in Spain).

    I really never stopped to think about if I was ready or not for a fellowship. I needed one. I was looking for financial support and an opportunity for working outside, trying to avoid that my scientific career would become frozen. So I went for it. But it wasn’t the only one: at the same time I applied for another one from a Spanish foundation (ironically, that was rejected, despite the application was really easy and also the competence was much lower). When you are in the need of something, you don’t ask yourself if you are ready for that or not. You just do it. In science, like in most part of your life, you have to keep trying. There is a lot of work that you will do with negative results. But when one of the projects goes in the right direction, it is really rewarding. And at least for me, it compensates for all the previous unsuccessful attempts. What is the worst thing that could happen if your fellowship is rejected? You will be like at the beginning (but with some more experience about how to write a proposal). But if you success, it can change many things. Perhaps my confidence comes from the fact that I can assume from the start that there is a high chance of getting a negative result. So knowing that, I have nothing to lose, just spending some time writing the proposal.

    When the times are tough, keep going is always difficult. In my case, I draw motivation from different sources. One is my daughter: if I am spending a long time far away from her because of the work, then I have to make the things work properly. Another source is some kind of personal pride: I don’t like to give up easily, so I keep trying whereas I think there is a remote chance of success. And the friends and colleagues at work; they are also an important motivation source for me: they have their own problems and difficulties too, and their tough times, and don’t give up. And some of them also rely on my work, so I can’t disappoint them. I am sure that if I think more carefully, I would find more sources of motivation, but the text is long enough, so I will end here.

  2. Fellow says

    I was a few months into my first post-doc position when a colleague said they thought I was Fellowship material. I hadn’t thought of this before, I didn’t even know what a fellowship involved, and I was surprised because that colleague had only known me a few months. I started by speaking to everyone I could about where to apply and how to apply, I went through websites and looked at criteria; this was a total of 4 years before I actually submitted an application. So putting in all the groundwork, raising your profile within your department, Faculty and University as well as to other researchers in my field was invaluable. I identified Fellowships for which I was eligible for and those which had deadlines to suit the timelines of my work commitments and my personal life.

    I was awarded a fellowship in 2013 after a couple of years of hard work on project development, applications, and interviews, drafting and redrafting. It was the 4th fellowship I had applied for, and the second I was interviewed for. I wrote more applications but then decided not to submit them because it just wasn’t right at the time, and I didn’t want to submit something that would reflect badly on me for the future.

    I consider myself to be well self-motivated and able to set myself a goal and keep going to achieve it. When I submitted my first application I had just come back from parental leave so I was juggling commitments. I was doing much of the writing in the evenings, a good motivator was thinking that if I was spending my time doing this, then it better pay off, I had better do a good job of it! Also the persistent thought that sometime in the near future I would be out of a job helped me to stay focused! When your time runs out in a post-doc position you don’t just lose employment, you lose the research niche you have been building up. I needed to advance my career to have a chance of maintaining my projects.

    Sometimes my energy and confidence would dip and I sought out some key people around me to talk to, to clarify my thoughts, to plan and get me back on track. There were people who gave me advice on the application – senior colleagues, my career mentor; and there people who just listened to me and gave me chance to clarify my thoughts and hear myself think out loud; my personal mentor. In that sense they didn’t just tell me I could do it, they made me see that I could do it and that made all the difference to me. My partner was key in keeping me going through hard times. To keep going, and keep on track, I have always set myself micro deadlines along the way. I chunked the applications down into smaller parts and I find if I promise not only myself but also other people that I’ll send them work by a particular deadline, which helps me keep on top of it. I did encounter some negativity and some difficult points, it’s hard negotiating who owns which part of the research, extracting and defining myself as different from the work that was going on in my old research teams. And making your research fit into a department’s wider research aims and portfolio is always something to be negotiated as well as keeping it in line with the particular Fellowship call you are writing the application for.

    The influence and support of my collaborators is something that I couldn’t have done without. Finally being able to tell them I had been successful was a great feeling. I was the one who reached out to other researchers and other groups locally and nationally, I just emailed them, chatted at conferences, and simply asked them to help or be part of the project. No one ever said no to me, so it was well worth asking! That was a confidence boost as their opinion validated that I was good enough for this. I recruited some research project collaborators to be named on the fellowship. I also recruited people just to read and feedback to me on what I’d written and how the application looked through their fresh eyes. Getting this read by people outside my immediate area brought different perspectives to the piece. And when you apply for a fellowship, you have to demonstrate that you can make contact and drive productive collaborations. There’s no way you can rely on the contact you have via your post-doc PI, you have to show you can operate independently of them.

    When I got my fellowship, it was the second time I had been interviewed for that particular award. In the previous round, I had got to interview, to be told they liked me – they thought I was right for the fellowship; they liked the location – the department I proposed would serve me well and help me succeed…but they didn’t like the project…they wanted pilot data. That was annoying because in a way I already knew that, I had had that piece of advice already from my Head of Dept. so I knew this would be picked up.

    However, I am really glad that I still put in the application, and that I went through the process of writing and interviewing even at that stage because by the time I walked back in with the pilot data, I was familiar with the process of interview and well prepared for it. Importantly, they were also familiar with me. They had asked me to go away and deliver data to enhance the application, and I had done that. So they already knew that I could work to deliver results for them, and that is an important message to a funder, it helped them feel that their money would be in safe hands and that they could trust me to deliver. I admit I was deflated not to get it the first time, but also it gave me confidence. It was good feedback in that it validated that I was good enough to do it and I could be successful next time. In hindsight we already had that relationship, they knew me, I knew them, in that sense I already had a track record with them.

    So, don’t wait to feel ready to apply, that day will never come if you just wait for it. You have to get yourself ready, and by that I mean get into the applications, get involved in the process. The best way to know how to do it is just to get into the application form and get going on it. Then when you look back you can see those gaps, and the bigger picture that you couldn’t before. I’ve had to really learn a lot, especially how to take critique of my work, which when you’re so involved with it, you’ve put your heart and soul into it, feels like personal criticism. I really wasn’t very good at that before and I’ve learned how to manage it, how to step out of it personally, through practice, and just see the criticism associated with the research study (most of the time at least)!

    What the fellowship has allowed me to do is to develop and own my own research area. To get away from working for someone else on their agenda, and to have the freedom to make my own decisions, to say yes to opportunities, to follow up my results and choose the next direction, and to succeed and fail on my own terms rather than at the will of someone else. I feel more in control now, it means a lot to me to have that control over my career. The biggest change is in how others see me, or maybe it’s in how I think others see me. The transition to my new role took some consideration about how I wanted to be seen by others, to make my mark in the new role. I’ve had to really reflect on that and I still am, I probably always will be regardless of the position I am in.

  3. Fellow says

    I had the idea I would apply for a fellowship when I was still at PhD level so early enough to have time to prepare for it. I discovered they existed because a postdoc in another group got one, I wondered what it was all about so I asked her and we went for coffee to talk about it. She explained, and I thought to myself I’d go for it, I thought ‘I can do that’. Once I knew about it I really fancied it for myself. So being motivated from the PhD onwards meant that I was aware that publications were the currency and was geared up to get as much as possible towards my future imagined application.

    When started my postdoc and moved universities, I made sure in the first year that I got all my PhD stuff published (and a couple more) to keep me on track for this future goal. I properly clicked back into thinking about it in a meeting with my supervisor, we got into a debate over the next direction of the work I was doing. He could see it was important to me to choose my way forward and so he let me give it a go. I was proved right and so I got a couple more papers. He thought I was good at writing, and so he asked me if I’d considered a fellowship – I said I had. So then once he knew what I was aiming for, we could get together and start to put things into action. The first thing we needed to do together was to sit down and figure out how the projects and ideas were going to be carved up, what we had each brought to the projects, what we were comfortable taking forward.

    That conversation with him helped define what my emerging specialism was, it helped me see my USP and how I fit into a gap in the current research. As the opportunity presented itself, and we talked about it, I began to connect the dots and a number of old ideas began to come together to form an idea about who I was and how I could sell that. I then started to look around at the opportunities available, and see where I fit. Some were too soon, I didn’t want to do a rushed job. I gestated on it for a year, writing and refining. It was constant reevaluation, it totally changed over the course of that year. Giving it thinking time, helped it mature. I revisited it, looked for gaps, added pilot data. After 3-4 months I sent it to everyone I could to read. They all told me it was shit. My supervisor said “go and read some successful applications, there’s a trick to it”. So I read lots of them. I sat and made a table and looked to define the parameters they had in common. What I was missing was how to spin a story. They all started off with a bold heading, a big claim to hook you in. Then they were able to spin a detailed narrative down to a big question – their research question. By then time you get to the question part, you can’t believe we don’t already know that, and it seems like that’s the most important question in the world. So, I threw the old one in the bin and this time I wrote it like a crime novel. I sent it back to my internal referees again and waited with bated breath. Before it was like they couldn’t see the science or see if it was good because they just hated the story. After I got the story right, they could very easily help me get the science right. So I submitted it.

    What motivated me all the way along was that I really wanted to know the answer to the question I was proposing. That, and I didn’t know what other job I could even do. I wasn’t a person who always wanted to be a scientist. I had a very shaky start to my career, I totally failed my first year undergrad. But I really felt like I didn’t want to do anything else. I had no idea if I was good enough, and my supervisor was honest he said I have no idea if you’ll get it but you’ve got to try. And the idea of knowing the answer to the question kept me going because I like knowing things that other people don’t know and achieving things other people don’t achieve. I had real irritation that I couldn’t work it out and it needed more work. 8 years later I still haven’t totally got it sorted! I’m still motivated to know the answer though.

    The other people who supported me were my family, particularly my mum who is of a clinical background and was able to really help me separate myself from the project. She helped me take a more dispassionate view of the project, that kept me on track and out of obsession and panic. It became, at times, the be all and end all and it felt like all my worth had become embodied in the paper this was written on. The criticism at that time felt so personal and my mum was there to get my head back out of my own arse and give me that perspective. She kept saying I was no worse off if it failed because I had the skills and experience to work something else out. She said “you’ve never had a day out of employment since you were 16, you’ll find another way” and it was true.

    Then it came to the interview, I threw up before I went in, I was really nervous. Between submitting it and attending the interview I convinced myself I wasn’t going to get it. On the day I felt like walking in and saying “I’m crap, I’ll go”. But I survived it. The panel feedback was that they liked that I could acknowledge what I didn’t know. That I could admit that I had things to learn and where there were shortcomings but that I could also recognize the strengths of the proposal. They said “It’s hard to walk the line between confidence and arrogance and you did it.”

    I was elated when I got it. Really delighted. Two months later it actually started and I was thrown into a panic again though. I sat there in an office with a new computer and a grant code, and the weight of expectation on my shoulders. I felt really under a lot of pressure to perform now. I talked to some other fellows, and found that they related to that so that was comforting. Throughout this I learned how to be really self reliant, getting the fellowship only started the process of research independence, I wasn’t independent as a decision maker when I got it, but it afforded me the right conditions to become independent in my own decisions over the next few years. I was unimpeded, in that I could simply do what I wanted to do, but also there’s no one there to pull you out if you make a mess of it, you are on your own in the sense as the buck stops with you. But there are colleagues, people to talk to, you can’t be a recluse! No one is truly independent though, we can’t be, research is a community of peers. You’re never independent of what everyone else is doing, or of the literature. This notion of independence as isolation is bullshit. I just let it go, the sense that I have too do everything myself and be alone. Really it took me another 8 years before I really felt the confidence in my decisions. Only in the last year I think I’ve properly established myself and fully made that transition.

    A year in to the fellowship I spotted an opportunity for a big grant. A few of us in the department had a brainstorming session for new grant ideas and it was in that group I presented my idea. And, because that’s what we do, a lot of other people said it was bollocks. And they were lecturers and above and I seriously experienced a wobble, thinking they might be right. One person in that group came up to me and backed me up. He said if you think it’s a real and valid question, don’t let other people put you off, you should go for it. And I thought about it and I fundamentally believed I was right. Having got the fellowship I thought, well someone thinks I’m good enough to make my own mind up, and I then felt driven to prove them all wrong. So I gave it a go and I got the grant. 5 years later this has opened up a huge research area for me, a lot of my work has gone on from that first question. It’s a brand new research area. When I it that I nearly backed down, I get cold sweats. I worry when I think how close I was to doubting myself.

    I often get asked if it’s a good idea to move for a fellowship and that staying in the same university for mine must have made it easier. But you know I think it’s harder to be seen in your new role by others if you stay in the same place. Some people never see you as an equal. To some people here I’m still seen as that undergrad with blue hair. But I don’t regret it and I wouldn’t change anything.

  4. A Fellow says

    I submitted my proposal in October 2012. In the months before this, my university had supported the development of my draft proposal by asking members of the funding body’s peer review process (normally previous successful award winners) to read and comment on the project I was proposing. This anonymous feedback was helpful in shaping the proposal to fit the style and criteria of the funding call. I was already very determined to apply for the scheme and don’t think that my determination was influenced by the internal feedback. However I do think the feedback improved the quality of the application.

    I had previously been to events to meet funders and to chat about my research ideas and my experience. However I got a sense they just weren’t very interested in what I wanted to do. I felt I was being fobbed off – they were using a lot of management speak and negative body language, and it was really clear to me they didn’t identify with my research area. I believed the work I wanted to do was important and interesting – and I also needed to secure substantial funding to achieve my targets as a probationary lecturer. These experiences with funders made me frustrated and disheartened. However, on reflection, they did signpost me to a different funder who might be interested in the research themes I was proposing. I periodically followed the funding calls of this funder, and after a few months one appeared that was looked like an exact fit for my research; I knew that I should definitely go for it.

    I thought I really fitted with that call and because of that I felt confident in applying. The call read like they were looking for someone exactly like me, who could do what I do. Although I had no direct experience in the funder’s research field, I knew that my strengths and track record of publishing in two related areas could combine perfectly to fit the call and be a unique offer. I felt that what I had to offer was novel and good quality. That gave me a lot of confidence that I could write all the sections of the proposal and be successful. I discussed it with a colleague from another department and, via his comments, went through several iterations of the proposal. It can be painful to have to rewrite, but I got a sense that the proposal was improving and I gained further in confidence.

    I had been recruited back into academia by that colleague three years previously, so he was an ex-PI of mine. We maintained the relationship when I moved roles and, on reflection, he set up the processes by which we could still be in contact through various meetings we were both at. I feel he really understands the way I work as a person, and what I’m trying to achieve in the long-term. We have research interests that are aligned, and we work in similar ways. Sometime we clash, which is to be expected; but mostly we get on with each other, both personally and professionally. I think that I would always have applied for the funding without his input, but it was helpful to have his eye on it and the benefit of his experience, and also knowing that I had his support. He helped give me the best chance of success after a lot of frustration.

    A great piece of advice I had from another senior colleague when I was writing my applications was to own the process and get it written. She told me than an application can’t be written by committee, otherwise it lacks coherence, and advised me to take responsibility for writing the narrative and shaping other peoples’ contributions so that they fit. I also did a lot of moaning to my partner at the time whenever I lost confidence and was feeling crap and useless. Her emotional support and encouragement was really instrumental in helping me overcome the self-doubt that creeps in sometimes.

    What the fellowship has allowed me to do is to take time out of other commitments – basically 50% of my teaching and admin load. The fact that the department had to make a formal commitment to a reduced load as part of the proposal helped ensure that the load actually did reduce. That was the only support my department gave me actually. The reduced load has been really helpful to me. It has allowed me the breathing space to focus on the research and my personal development as a researcher, Being able to afford to employ a research associate for a year has moved the project forwards and has given me management experience.

    Developing the skills to build and manage a research team was identified in the professional development plan I had to create as part of the application. That was one thing I identified and worked on in sessions with a mentor. Another area for development was managing my multiple workloads on different projects and combining them. However I over-estimated what could be achieved as a part-time researcher, with the result that I over-promised on the research deliverables. I’ve managed to get a 6-month extension to the project and that aggravated the funders. They’ve threatened me with sanctions if the work is not completed by the revised deadline. I feel under quite a lot of pressure at the moment!

    My biggest learning point actually was that the project was too ambitious. I have to say that it’s easy to be overambitious in the proposal because it needs to look good and stand out – you want it to be impressive – but it also has to be achievable. Of course, reviewers consider both risk and value-for-money when assessing a proposal, but I think they will still tend to favour highly optimistic plans. Particularly over-stated was the ‘research impact’ section of the proposal. I promised to deliver a lot of outcomes here and, in hindsight, I should have taken more care to be clear that I was delivering ‘pathway activity’ not necessarily final impact outcomes like policy and process change. It would have been more appropriate to be measured against pathway progress, looking at the connections I made, the processes I developed and used, the channels of communication – there is only so much you can realistically achieve at 0.5 FTE in 2 years.

    Another learning point was that I needed to think much more clearly about the timings of what can be achieved when. In year 1 of the project I ended up giving a lot of project updates, and talks where I didn’t have much to say. All that should have been left until a later point, where these activities would generate more value. I recognise though that at least I have some experience now of what I should be doing; well, more of an idea of what I should be doing. I’m continuing to improve as a research leader, feel I am better equipped to write my next grant, and then – if I win it – how I will go about managing it.

  5. Double Fellow says

    I had two fellowships, they were actually from the same funder, one for my PhD research which I spotted because a colleague was applying and I thought, I can do that. I looked at the criteria, followed the flow chart of eligibility criteria, and though yes OK I fit. I thought it was worth a shot, it’s a low probability of success, but I knew I had a chance. I got it on the second attempt in the end, and I got some really good feedback from the funder. I had another linked one after that, a post-doctoral fellowship, to continue the work. I hadn’t really realised actually, I hadn’t thought about doing a post-doctoral fellowship at all, but then I became aware through a colleague, almost by chance, that this was an option because the funder likes to keep investing to keep momentum on the project. I looked at it and though, yes, I can do that with this project and I put the application together – it was much quicker and easier the second time. It was well worth going back for that second time as this type of fellowship buys you time out to consolidate the research from your PhD, to get the papers written, go to conferences, to get pilot data for the next funding application, you don’t get that luxury if you are changing projects after your PhD to do a post-doc somewhere else.

  6. Stu Johnson says

    When I was thinking about applying I went to a fellowships day, an event where the funders came in to speak, and we heard from current fellows. Actually seeing those fellows up there was a bit disheartening to me. It seemed that they had all done really well and had been planning to get an independent fellowship from before completing their PhDs, so comparing myself to them it seemed even more unachievable; I thought maybe it wasn’t for me after all, I felt less confident. In the end I did apply though after waiting enough time and putting the work in to making my CV as strong as I possibly could. I applied for one fellowship, before I felt ready, just to get the experience of writing one and going through the whole process. To my astonishment I made it through to the final interviews but unfortunately got no further. I tried not to get too disheartened though and took the positives from it. So I applied for a different fellowship a year and a half later and again made it to interview. This time I emailed a current fellow who got the same fellowship I was applying for, to see if we could have a coffee and a chat on what the interview was going to be like. That was much more encouraging and reassuring. He was really helpful, since he’d been through the same interview before – and we’ve been good friends ever since!

    The biggest thing I had to overcome in the process was my fear of interviews. Going through the first unsuccessful interview gave me some experience and at least I had some idea of what would happen next time. For the first interview I spent a lot of time practicing and going through the kind of questions I’d get, trying to be able to think on my feet and answer questions sensibly and come across as a confident person, as these are all things that are sought after in a fellow. I spent some time every day with my supervisor at the time going into a tutorial room for a practice interview, he was a massive help to me – he gave up a lot of his time for me and I wouldn’t have got the fellowship without his help. I had a mock interview too, a few profs from the dept kindly gave up some of their time to give me a practice interview, that was really useful, not nice, but useful. I felt much better about the second interview (the fellowship I got) as I knew what to expect from the first time round. So be prepared to keep going in the face of adversity – never give up!

  7. Matthew Bryan says

    I’m an engineer/physicist by training but I have a research fellowship funded by the British Heart Foundation – getting fellowship funding has allowed me to apply my knowledge in a completely different areas of research. Previously when I had applied for lectureships and other research finding I had been thinking in terms of my research background in materials, developing projects based in and around the team of researchers where I’d done m PhD. We had some good ideas, developed some side projects together and the funny thing was that because we’d developed it all together, no one quite wanted to claim it take it away from the others, and take it forward on their own and that’s what a fellowship forces you to do, to own a project. It didn’t feel right to do that with these projects, it seemed wrong to claim what was a collaborative effort for myself. Though when I look back I do feel I missed an opportunity there, holding back. I got a place on the Crucible project – a group development event for researchers designed to promote networking and interdisciplinary working. There I met another researcher who listened to me talk about my work and suggested I get in touch with someone she knew. I followed that lead up and met someone else in a totally different discipline but it was clear that we had something unique to say by combining approaches, and I developed a project though this and several more conversations to find a funder and develop the proposal. I got the funding and although it’s intense new learning to get up to speed with the background of a totally different field, I’m glad I followed that lead and made it happen.

  8. Art Fellow says

    I hold a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship that started very recently. I received this fellowship because I was able to demonstrate not only my track record, but also that I was doing a good project with the right people in the best place for me. And to get to that point I had to go out and meet those people. We all know that networking is important in academia but it is not an activity that I find natural, nonetheless, I am very glad that I did do it; it was essential to my career progress and for obtaining my current position. I made contact with my now host department months before for something else entirely, to join a research network in my subject area, though I had been scoping out the people and the place with fellowships in mind prior to this. Through that network I met some great people and I was invited to give a talk, and to do a small piece of funded work for them. My advice is to network, but to ensure that the networking is being done with a real intellectual (not just career) goal in mind. Networking and schmoozing for no reason is unbearable and unhelpful, but if you push yourself to make contact with that brilliant scholar in your field and end up having a fascinating conversation about how your projects connect, then that can lead to the sort of excitement that really is the reason for doing academic work in the first place. Networking involves joining in, joining networks, getting involved, and it’s worth it. You have to put yourself out there to meet the next person you will end up collaborating with, and ultimately the collaborative work that I have been engaged with and continue to work on has been the most stimulating and enjoyable in my career.

  9. New Fellow says

    After my PhD I really wanted to go and work in the USA I didn’t want to stick around in the same place. Also I had a sense that research could be done quite differently there, more as a team, and I really wanted to have that experience, and get that on to my CV. So I set about to make that happen through a fellowship award. Getting the award was plan A, it would be fantastic and enable me to go and work there. But there was also a plan B, an understanding that even if I didn’t get the fellowship I would have still gone because my contact there was happy to have me come over and hire me as a postdoc – so that released a lot of pressure. It made me feel more comfortable that I was going to be able to go anyway. I actually went for the post-doc interview there first, and that’s when I mentioned I was applying for funding and we agreed that would be OK for me to come as a fellow too, even though that would mean a shorter time working there, so a less good deal for him really, but he was OK with that, he really supported me and my career – so I knew that was the right collaborator for me. I really like having back up plans! Actually I interviewed with some other places too in the USA, so I could choose one that would support me and to see what they could offer in terms of the quality of the culture and the working environment. Being able to be part of a team and getting on with the people I work with is important to me. My advice is when you choose your collaborators don’t just go for prestige or because they look good on paper – go with a place you can really achieve because you are happy and motivated because you are enjoying it and you really want to learn with people who help create the best working conditions.

  10. Mellow says

    I had a lot of support for my fellowship applications and I really found out a lot about myself, the way I work, what I’m good at, what I need to work on. I learned that when pushed in mock-interviews I very quickly became confrontational with negative body language, and so I did a lot of work to change that response and I struggled with it. The way you communicate in research is so important. I came to realisation that to get the fellowship there’s a lot of soul searching you’ve got to do, I learned a lot of things about myself. I think that’s where the support from others comes from, to help you do that introspection on who you are and why you want to do this. You need support from other people to know that. Feeling supported in your endeavors comes from knowing this is the right thing to do because you’ve spent time thinking about it rather than just catching a ride that leads you to the fellowship, it’s because you have worked very hard for every step of the process, you’ve thought about why you’re doing this. It filled my mind with thinking about how I could weave everything I’d done, every decision, into a cohesive narrative that made it look like I’d been working towards this all my career – you can only work with what you’ve got, at the point of application you need to have all the skills in place, you need to think about what you need to do to get ready years beforehand. Going through that process has been really helpful to me on a day-to-day basis in understanding myself and how I work, the next challenge is the gradual honing of the skills to lead my lab group and manage the other people in it.

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  12. My advice is to be honest with yourself and appreciate what your strengths are and aren’t as early as possible, be aware of how well you’re doing and benchmark against others. The people you are competing with are going to be strong. Be aware of what their credentials are and examine your own motivations, and track record. Even if you are really enthusiastic and have known for years that you want to be a research leader, still, in the sciences, if you don’t have a steady and impactful publication record in good journals it’s very unlikely you’re going to be successful with fellowships. Don’t leave it too late to get that stuff on to your CV. Start early, choose your path, and who and which labs you associate with wisely. It comes down to the fact that there are so many people with such good CVs, and they will be selected before you if you aren’t aware. Appreciate what the research career can give you, and what you need to give to it, and put yourself in a position early to get what you require on your CV. If you don’t have that track record, then think about playing to your strengths in where you go and what you do next.

  13. Anon says

    My advice is to get as much help as you can. Get people you trust to rip your application apart. Get people to really task you, as a person, and a scientist and help you know exactly, why you’re doing it and what you want out of it. They need to really question you, examine your motivations for this, why you want it, and what it means to you – because you will be asked all this stuff in the interview as well as being asked to to justify the science. Those were the toughest questions, not those about the research work. They will ask you why your proposal is a fellowship and not a research project, why does it matter if you do it, why should they trust you. These are things that when you’re just a jobbing scientist you never think about, not formally anyway, about how you and your work fit into the bigger picture. Someone else has always been thinking about that for you, and that’s the step change, the fact that your navigating for yourself now. Seek out anyone who you can talk to and get this understanding in shape, they can’t tell you, but they can question you about it, the silly basic question like “So what’s the point of all this?”

  14. Anonymous says

    I like the challenge of applying for funding not just because I see that it’s such a great step up for researchers in their career if that happens, yes that’s really important, but also because I like the pure challenge. It feels like you’re sort of “he who dares wins”. It’s about stepping up and enjoying the challenge for it’s own sake and daring to do something. I know that might scare off a lot of people though. I actually use that thinking to motivate me to go for it, working on the idea of, ‘wouldn’t it be great if it happened’. I’ve let that spur me on and I’ve found strength in that when I have to step up to the challenge. If I’m ever asked for advice for aspiring fellows I say it’s to their benefit to split the whole thing up into two different pieces. One, the challenge and success of submitting something, getting the application in – always properly make time to celebrate that success, go for a drink, however you celebrate. And the second piece if you get it, it’s a massive extra bonus. If you don’t celebrate the success of completing and submitting a big piece of work it’s going to be really hard, you’ll always feel empty about it. I try to think about it like that, and it helps with resilience in rejection, you get one out of two. Similarly always think about the next one when you’re waiting for the decision on the last one. Never get to a point where if it’s a no, that’s all you have. It’s much harder to write the next thing off the back of a recent rejection.

  15. Anon Fellow says

    I had been a postdoc for a while here and thinking quite seriously about my career, being on fixed term contracts, and simply needing to maintain a salary. I discussed with my wife what my (in fact our) next options were, and I decided that really, I liked my role in science a lot, and I wanted to stay. If you don’t get something, your work will stop and I couldn’t imagine what else I could do. I applied for an internal fellowship here designed to bridge the gap and help retain good people to apply for further external funding, and I got that post. At that time one of the interviewers on the panel told me that he thought I was ready to apply for an external fellowship. However, I am quite guarded as a person and when I commit to doing or saying something I want to be sure that I can fully be certain and defend my point, and I thought I wasn’t ready. Even so, there was now the expectation to apply externally so I went ahead put in three applications for fellowships. I didn’t get the first one but I did get good feedback on what was weak about the application and I rolled this feedback into the second application. This was a process of creating so many versions, about 15, and making iterative changes, refining, talking to people in the know, and tailoring for each funder. I really advise you to talk to as many people as possible and get their input. By the time the application went in I really was ready and I could only have got ready by getting involved and applying. The thing to remember is that there are exceptional people, with superstar CVs who get fellowships, and they are very visible as people, but they aren’t ‘typical’ research fellows. They are simply that, they are exceptional, but there is also space for the people who are good enough and put a lot of hard work in to writing a great project into a great application.

  16. This Fellow says

    In my fellowship I had the opportunity to, but I didn’t apply for any portion of money to employ a post-doc researcher to work on the study. In hindsight this was a mistake, or at least it flagged up at interview as something unusual that I had to justify. In my interview I became aware that they were asking a question about this that I wasn’t answering well. I hadn’t grasped the question, I had to ask them to repeat it in a different way, it was all a bit cryptic, I didn’t do a good job of answering it – though I must have been OK because I got the fellowship. So afterwards I asked someone I knew who was on that interview panel what that was all about. And he told me that they were asking why on earth I hadn’t asked for this money for a post-doc because it would have strengthened the case and shown my commitment to expanding the research team and becoming a research leader, growing a team. I realised at that point that I had received some poor advice. Well intended advice, but incorrect nonetheless, it was unintentional bad advice. My supervisor at the time of applying had said don’t apply for post-doc money because it will make you look like you can’t handle the work. Because he was more experienced I believed him and took the advice. There was a very clear point in the project where the work split into two clear parts, it was crying out for a post-doc to support it and now of course I don’t have a post-doc and it’s something I regret. It’s not always easy to know which advice is good advice, which is bad, and ultimately it’s you who’s applying for the fellowship, so you have to make the decisions.

  17. That Fellow says

    When I got my fellowship I had come to the UK for my wife’s job. I started applying for lectureships but also for fellowships too all at different places. I applied for the fellowship in 2012, in 2013, and then in 2014 here and was successful. All the time I was applying for jobs and making contacts and I managed to make a contact here, explain who I was, and get access to a visiting researcher position at this university, and also to the person who became my sponsor for the fellowship I now have. Over the two to three years I was here, I had applied for a lot of jobs with limited success, academic posts, researcher posts, though I had got some work teaching. There is no other option than perseverance to stay in academia. I never thought I would be good at being tenacious and making contacts to make it happen because I was always very timid and shy. It was something that I just felt that there was no other alternative to doing. My wife and I had been talking about it a lot, asking ourselves whether it’s better to be where you want to work, or where you want to live, for her it’s where you want to live, for me it’s about having a job I want to do. If I hadn’t got this fellowship I would have had to think about what to do instead of being in academia and I honestly don’t know what that would have been, or what I could have done. With that gun to my head I networked because I had to!

  18. One Fellow says

    I think that developing strategies for coping with the rejection side of things, for example with feedback, critique and criticism, is really important. This is definitely something you’re going to encounter all the time, it is an expectation of the role of being a researcher, it’s how the system works. And the thing is that there is definitely stuff you can do to mitigate the rejection, but you have work at it, and practice at it. I have tried really hard to cultivate a bit more faith in my ability, it’s something I do really struggle with, and it has been a good confidence boost to get the fellowship, as I am in touch with the funder and get to see them being excited that about my research. But it’s still hard to deal with the negatives. Get in touch and talk to as many people as you can about applications, talk it through, get perspective on what the feedback says. You will find that everyone’ comments are different, and you have to be the one to balance that, but the more opinions you get the more objective and balanced you can be. You have to go for it, don’t wait to be ready, and see the comments as free input into making your project better.

  19. Health Fellow says

    I’m on a fellowship which has extended and built on my doctoral work. Applying for the fellowship was something that I had known for a while was an option for me and I had talked about it with my colleagues. There was never any pressure that I must go down that route, or that it was an expectation, but I was explicitly encouraged to go for it by my line manager and the director of my unit. I talked it through in detail with my line manager – both what the potential project might be, and whether it was going to be the right thing for me to do next. I was unsure whether I was ready to lead a research project, and quite daunted by the prospect – I didn’t know if I really wanted to apply or not. A couple of things helped me make up my mind. I took part in the Springboard programme which helped me take the time to think about my priorities and what I wanted, but also helped me think about some of the things that might be holding me back. While I was doing the Springboard programme, my line manager lent me a book(Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg) that reinforced some of this. In particular, it suggested asking yourself the question – “What you would do if you weren’t scared?”’. Instantly I thought, “Well I would apply.” It helped me see that I was scared about what might happen if I applied, and either wasn’t successful or was successful and then had to lead a project. It was at that point I thought well that’s it, I’m just going to do it now.

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  21. Not telling says

    When I first mentioned to my postdoc supervisor in my appraisal that I wanted to apply for fellowships he was supportive of it, and he asked me to go away and write down my ideas and come back for a chat about them and see if I was ready. It was good to have told him my intentions and put a meeting in the diaries because it made sure that I was definitely going to put some work into thinking about my ideas, shape them and developing them ready to talk to someone else about it. I’ve always tried to write my ideas down, even if I never go back and read them writing them down is important as it helps cement it a little bit more in your mind. I’d advise people who want to get a fellowship not think they have to have a big new idea but to just make time to sit and think, with each project, where you would go next with this, what’s the next thing you’d do? Especially coming to the end of projects it’s helpful to think about what there wasn’t time to do and use that as a starting point. Then start talking to people who know how it all works and see which ideas have the most mileage.

  22. Hot topic says

    Despite what people may say, it is possible to have a good relationship with a colleague that you are directly competing with for the same funding. A couple of times opportunities, funding calls, jobs, have come to my attention and I’ve forwarded them to her too. People thought I should not have done this, but I would rather be that type of person and have a good relationship with a close colleague and work together. I knew at the time that she may not send similar things to me but after I made the first move, she thanked me and now we have a great relationship and she’s been really supportive. We send things to each other to read and give feedback on, to help progress our work. I know we are often insecure in our jobs, particularly women I think, and that we are not on permanent contracts, but often on fixed term contracts, but finding an ally has helped. We’ve shared ideas, we’ve supported each other, it has been beneficial. There’s definitely been times when we’ve chatted and an idea has come to me afterwards and we are not sure whose ideas they were. You’re often working on similar problems, which you discuss regularly and there have been some occasions when I’ve thought something was my idea and vice versa, so it is crucial to be honest and open about these things and discuss them and I often find that they feel the same. Overall we bounce ideas off each other and I get ideas given to me as much as I give them away. Overall I find this a helpful relationship. We have talked it through openly and we acknowledge it’s difficult because we are going to the same conferences, we’re at the same meetings, it’s inevitable we’ll think of the same things, but it’s not insurmountable with a bit of open discussion.

  23. Tamsin Majerus says

    My fellowship is specifically for people who have had a career break and I’ve spent most of my working life on a career break. I have 4 children, and I spent about 10 years working 1 day a week, in research. I’d been considering my next move and whether that might be a fellowship, and I was thinking about writing applications. I realised that I needed to start by writing up all the papers I had been preparing, as I would need these on my CV to have a chance of success. What made the difference to me in getting things done was learning to be very strict about time management. I went on a professional development course at the University that taught time management techniques. So by the time I was awarded the fellowship I was actively and consciously managing my time much better. A big part of the application process was making the time to write the papers. Learning how to balance activities and schedule time to get this done was essential. An added bonus was the people I met all over the University through that course. My advice is always be opportunistic. Don’t let things pass you by, and don’t let people pass you by. When I was working 1 day a week I came in during my time off and I volunteered for things. I have said ‘yes’ to involvement in things across the University – Athena SWAN and running active learning sets for research staff, for example – and that has been a way of getting to know people and knowing I was a part of the place. This in turn was a way to feel that I was valued, that I would be listened to and maybe be able to use my experience to make a positive difference to the working lives of others.

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  25. Go For It says

    I wasn’t sure I was an exact fit for the funding award I got, but I just went for it anyway. I think a definite thing that aspiring fellows need is to develop a quality, or a skill maybe, and get good at reaching out having a go and asking for help with things. People who aren’t willing to have a go at making connections and setting up collaborations, or getting people on board, asking for help with something are going to find this more difficult. I’d advise people to try to get better at it, practice and develop your willingness to reach out. My supervisor was very good at this, being professionally cheeky. Watching him talk to people he would like to work with at conferences in a very forward way put me out of my comfort zone sometimes but I learned from him that that’s the way things get done. When I was applying and I know there were some people in the dept. who had been successful before me, I simply went and asked them for help to read mine and to show me what they had had success with.

  26. Two Things says

    There are two pieces of learned wisdom I can share. The first with aspiring fellows and also actually a comment for the supervisors, the principle investigators who train and develop PhD students and post-docs:

    Firstly to the post-docs it’s about keeping moving, getting the PhD and moving on, always moving, looking for the next opportunity, never sitting back and thinking that you have plenty of time, you don’t. Get it all done now. Fellowships are great opportunities and the competition is fierce. Think – how do the panels decide? How do we decide as PIs and as organisations who we select, support and put forward for these roles? It’s not fair to give everyone the idea they have a chance to get a fellowship. It’s a real waste of someone’s time and energy if we keep them applying knowing they won’t get it and some of that is about the awareness to find out what it takes and examine yourself – do you fit the profile. There’s a tension there, on one hand you need to be in it to get it, on the other we can’t set false expectations, there just aren’t enough places.

    To the supervisors too, there are people coming out from their PhD to postdoc job 1, postdoc job 2, postdoc 3, postdoc 4 even and they never get further in academia. They are really good at research, but they don’t have what it takes to go to the next step on the academic ladder. They are missing the right qualities maybe? Awareness maybe? Advice maybe? I don’t want to blame them, they just don’t have what they need to get their own funding and move up. And there’s not enough space, enough roles for everyone to continue through the PhD and stay in post-doc roles. I sometimes feel that’s mean to keep people on their 3rd, or 4th or 5th postdoc if there’s no chance they will get their own group sometime. It’s not honest or fair to those in those roles.

  27. Anna says

    I submitted a few different unsuccessful funding applications before I got my Leverhulme Trust early career research fellowship (including a British Academy small grant, an ESRC grant and two Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship grants), but this one was the one where I thought I actually had a chance of getting the funding. After going through several iterations of the project and applying to stay at the university where I already was, I decided to be bolder. I reached out to a new contact at a different university and this person became my fellowship mentor. Having met her at a conference that I went to on behalf of my colleague, I felt that she would be really supportive. She also shared similar interests to my own and had experience of attracting funding. I also knew that my application would be looked upon more favourably if it meant moving to a different institution. In approaching my new mentor, I broadened my application, demonstrated how I would try new things and committed to going to a new place with new possibilities for developing my research career. I knew the application was so much better this time, with the new collaboration, the new way of positioning the work, and the new focus. I got plenty of advice and guidance from my mentor in terms of re-writing the new application so that fit the strategic direction of the department and university of choice and so that it demonstrated why it absolutely had to me who did the research and absolutely had to be done in the department of choice.
    On reflection, I think you have to play the game – it is time-consuming and emotional but the hard work can pay off. There are particular buttons you have to press, you have to be smart about how you position your research and really think about what agendas are trendy. I certainly did that this this time. I situated my research interests within a bigger picture and demonstrated how my work fit in the current climate. I think of it as a puzzle, being strategic and piecing bits of knowledge together, skills that I developed during my doctoral research and the career path that followed .
    I had actually left academia by the time I finally got my fellowship. I have a child who is nearly two, and my fixed term contract was coming to an end again. I panicked and necessity dictated I get a job elsewhere. I’d decided that was it. It was quite emotional as I had already committed to leaving academia and it had taken some time to settle in to a new work environment outside of academia. To receive the email months later saying I was coming back was surreal, but such a relief. I couldn’t turn down the opportunity and I am once again doing the job that I love.
    I have written about my interview experience with Kay that provides guidance and advice about getting a fellowship, in the following blog post: