She learned more than she would like about the challenges facing early career researchers (ECRs). While her research focused on what fish and other marine animals can see (taking her to some wonderful locations), she has been passionate about improving the situation for ECRs, and involved in postdoc policy and career development training for many years.
An apparently universal need for accessible and effective career development training motivated Kerstin to leave academia and found PostdocTraining to offer career development training tailored specifically to postdocs and their institutions.
Winning a fellowship is a bit of a holy grail for early career researchers.
When these positions mean an independent salary, often accompanied by funding for research support, it’s no surprise that they are hotly contested and bring well deserved prestige.
Fellowships show you can win funding based on your track record and excel against stiff competition. They can also end up being the key to long-term careers in academia, increasing your chances of continuing on a full-time research path.
Given their potential benefits, it’s worth looking more closely at how to go about securing a fellowship.
Each funding scheme has its own rules and traditions, so the 10 steps outlined here are general observations based on what I – and my peers – wish we’d known when we started applying. Hopefully, they’re practical ideas for your own game plan.
1. Start planning early. Begin preparing at least a couple of years in advance. This doesn’t mean actually writing proposals, but you want to take the steps outlined here long before you start your application.
2. Research and shortlist funding agencies that provide the kind of fellowships you’re after. Most agencies periodically change their fellowship rules, or budget cuts may affect a key fellowship scheme relevant to your field and situation. You need to be aware of changes and have a Plan B and C in mind. Are there other funding agencies supporting your kind of research that offer fellowships? How about fellowships given by your country of origin (if you currently work overseas), philanthropic foundations, specific universities, or not-for-profit agencies?
3. Look at the funding rules early. Are you actually eligible to apply? For example, do you hold the right visa and are you within the allowed timeframe since completing your PhD? You don’t want to realise that your options are more limited than you thought when it’s too late, or inadvertently miss an eligibility deadline.
4. Pick out and attend relevant information sessions. Most institutions run information sessions every year for major funding schemes. These sessions are often excellent sources of tips on reading between the lines of the formal funding rules and application questions, and for getting the ‘insider’s view’ from people on selection panels.
5. Talk to those ‘in the know’. Ask recent winners of previous award rounds about their applications – what their track record looked like, how many times they tried before being successful, and so on. Make sure you ask several people so you get a good overview of what you need to achieve to be competitive and what’s likely to determine success. Attending information sessions will have given you a good sense of who in your institution are the experts at navigating the processes of particular funding agencies, and you can direct your specific questions to them.
6. Aim to fill in all the ‘line items’ in the application. The application form will tell you what kind of track record items are valued. While publications are obviously the main yardstick, don’t ignore opportunities to offer other evidence of impact such as conference presentations or reviewer duties. Familiarise yourself with the types of evidence usually sought, and aim to collect evidence for all the key items, to present yourself as exactly the well-rounded future research leader they are looking for.
7. Independence vs. support. When planning your application, think carefully to what extent you want to align yourself with a senior advisor as part of the fellowship. While there’s often the temptation to be as independent as possible, starting your own lab from scratch, for example, can waste a lot of valuable research time. Would you be better off conducting your fellowship under the wing of an established lab head with all the research infrastructure in place? Or do you have enough managerial and administrative experience to start your own lab quickly and not eat up the first six months of your hard-won fellowship?
8. Are you ready? Ask yourself – and others, if you can – honestly: “Am I competitive enough now to apply in the coming fellowship round?” If the consensus is that you are not likely to succeed this time, you might feel time spent working on your track record would be more productive for now than putting an application together. You may get conflicting advice on whether or not to apply. Some issues to consider in this event are:
- Does your institution expect you to apply to be eligible for other support, or to show that you are serious about your career? If this is the case, rather than plough ahead, start talking about your career plans to senior academics in charge and seek their advice. You may be able to agree that an application is premature now but that you should receive coaching to get you ready for next year.
- Are there limitations to the number of times you can apply for a particular fellowship? If so, be careful not to waste chances by applying when your track record is not yet up to scratch.
- Are you encouraged to apply ‘for practice’s sake’? Consider instead whether it would be worth practising your grant writing skills on a smaller funding scheme with a higher success rate (see also point 10).
9. Find mentors. If you have gone through Steps 5 and 8, you will already have discussed your potential fellowship application with a range of people whom you could ask to mentor you through the application process. Make sure you ask for help and some experienced eyes to look over your application.
10. Try early and often. Like any skill, writing successful grant applications develops through practice. Ideally, you don’t want your first application to be the all-important fellowship application that could make or break your career. Start early with smaller funding applications such as conference travel grants, funding for equipment, or small project grants held in your name. Success with these boosts your track record and provides valuable ‘social proof’ to funding agencies that you are worth backing.
In summary, a fellowship application starts long before you start filling out the form. It means targeted preparation, practice and coaching – things many postdocs don’t tend to plan for.
Success rates are often no greater than 10%-20%, but following a clear plan will put you well ahead of the pack. Good hunting!