Things I wish I’d known before beginning my first fellowship application

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research-studies_000I am in the final year of my PhD and have just submitted my first application for post-doctoral fellowship funding. Why did I apply for a fellowship? Well, I have developed a desire to answer some rather specific research questions. As far as I know, there are no principal investigators out there looking to hire someone to do the work I want to do. So, to continue to work on the questions that I feel driven to answer, I must forge my own path. Of course, this is a good thing. It is nice to feel so motivated by my research questions. However, the road to completing my first application has been long, stressful and riddled with uncertainties. My senior colleagues tell me that this par for the course. Indeed, they tell me it is usual to have to go through it all several times before succeeding. I have been told that it is important to be resilient. I have been told that it is important to persevere. However, there were a lot of things that I was not told before I began working on my application – often because I didn’t know where to look or who to ask. So I am writing a few of these things down, in the hope of smoothing the path for other early career researchers in the Faculty who are brave enough to apply for their own fellowship funding.

DISCLAIMER: I haven’t actually got any funding yet and I don’t claim any particular expertise in getting fellowships. I am simply sharing my experience of the process. I want others to benefit from knowing what I didn’t. So, in no particular order, here are the things I wish I had known before starting work on my first fellowship application:

You need plan things a LONG way ahead. I started thinking about applying for a fellowship during my second year of PhD. Even planning this far ahead was not enough to save me from having a gap between the end of my PhD and the earliest date I could be awarded funding.My current application (to the Medical Research Council) has an eight month lead time from the application deadline to the earliest funding date. On top of this, it is recommended to spend at least six months working up the proposal. So that is a total lead time of fourteen months from starting work on the proposal to getting funding. All this is assuming that I get the first fellowship I apply for, which, I am told, is extremely rare. Of course, the time from submitting the application to getting funding will differ depending upon the funder. However, there is a lot to consider when putting together your application. You will often need to find sponsors (established researchers who will support your application and, subsequently, your work, should you be funded), a mentor (an impartial person who can offer independent career advice during your fellowship) and collaborators (who may contribute expertise or materials to your project). For many funding bodies, detailed budgets, project and communications plans are required. You may have to think about how you will guarantee that your work will have an impact (be useful to society or viable in industry). You may even need to involve patients and the public in the design of your research. All of this takes time.

Other people are very important. The application process is very much a collaborative one. Don’t expect to sit alone at your desk compiling your application and then sending it off without telling anyone about it. Prepare to share. Be ready to unveil your ideas, even when they are rough and ready. Be ready to ask others for their help. I have had a lot of help. My PhD supervisor has been both supportive and constructively critical. (He has also politely ignored the weeks during which I have barely touched my thesis or publications because I have been working on my application.) My sponsors have been brilliant. They have met with me at regular intervals throughout the application process, helped to shape and improve my ideas, and have read numerous drafts of the application. My proposed collaborators have been similarly helpful. They have talked to me about my proposed studies and have written letters of support for my application. My mentor has supported me, read drafts of the application, critiqued my CV and kept me sane. My internal reviewers have given useful feedback (yes, there is an internal review process and it does take a while). No less than ten people have given their time to review the full version of the application and at least another six have contributed to honing the initial research ideas. The good folk at the Careers Service have helped to polish my CV. The two research support officers at my sponsoring Institute (where I will work if I am funded) have put a substantial amount of work into sorting out the budget for the proposal. And last but not least, my long-suffering friends and family have supplied abundant tea and sympathy along the way.

There are services and organisations that can help with your proposal! If you are developing health related research, you can contact the North East Research Design Service for support in developing your ideas. They can offer support with tricky things such as intellectual property and clinical trial development. They can also help with patient and public involvement and can put you in contact with a specialist patient panel. Similar services exist for other research fields. Why not talk to other researchers within your field to find out what kind of support is available to you?

There is a lot of support available from the Faculties and University. Research and Enterprise Services can offer you a lot of guidance on funding and support with your applications. There is often additional support within each Faculty too. The Faculty of Medical Sciences, for example, has a fellowship group with representatives in each Institute. The Faculty Fellowship Group can advise on your application and their representative in your Institute can provide advice that is specific to your field. Check with your Faculty’s Research Funding Development Manager to find out what support is available.

Ask whether your Faculty can assign you a mentor. I was on the fifth draft of my application before I realised that my Faculty offered any central support. If you plan to apply, let the Faculty know as soon as possible (Faculty of Medical Sciences applicants should use contact details on the website). This is important, because if you are assigned a mentor, they can support you through the application process – something I feel I would really have benefited from, had I known sooner.

The Newcastle University Careers Service can help. The Careers Service can offer support and advice on tailoring your CV and, if you succeed in getting to the interview stage, they can help with interview preparation. If your CV needs padding out, the Careers Service can also help with skill development.

There is plenty of training available. It is not just the Careers Service who can help you if you need to beef up your portfolio of skills. There is a wide range of training courses available from both Faculty Graduate School training programmes (for SAgE, FMS and HASS) and the Staff Development Unit. Some of the courses are particularly helpful if you need to think about the impact of the research you are proposing, or how you will communicate your findings to a wider audience (as we are often asked to do in grant applications). For example, I recently attended a workshop on “Evidence Modelling”, which was designed to help participants identify the likely impact of their research and assess whether it aligned with their goals and values.

There are lots of sources of funding out there. Admittedly, my first choice was to try for funding from the Medical Research Council However, there is life beyond the Research Councils. There are lots of other funding bodies out there, which offer grants directed towards early career researchers. The list is too long to include here, but many of them are listed on Research Professional

If you are still reading at this point, then congratulations! You may well be persistent enough to survive the fellowship application process. I hope that this blog has been useful and I wish you luck in your quest for funding.


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