By Abigail Woodward, on 19 May 2023
This post is written by Dr Laura Horsfall (Research Fellow, Research Department of Primary Care and Population Health)
Academic fellowships are a fantastic opportunity for researchers to advance their independent careers, develop new skills, and expand their knowledge base. But they are also very competitive, and the application process can be challenging for many reasons. As someone awarded three post-doctoral fellowships at UCL, I want to share ten personal strategies that eased my fellowship journey and improved my success rate. These are aimed at early and mid-career researchers new to the process or those who have already applied and want to make future submissions easier to manage.
The most crucial advice I can give is to start early. It takes time to develop bold research ideas, identify data sources, carry-out feasibility work, build your training plan, recruit your collaborative team, conduct public involvement, write all the sections, receive feedback and communicate with potential referees. Did I forget the costings? There’s a lot to consider! I started six to eight months before the submission deadline to complete these numerous (sometimes arduous) tasks to a high quality.
2. Develop a submission plan
Applying to multiple fellowship schemes will increase your chances of success, but juggling several submissions is challenging. Creating a spreadsheet with deadlines, documentation (e.g., support letters), and completed sections can help with the workload and feel like you are making progress. Last year, I submitted three mid-career fellowship applications in three months and without the plan, I would have missed at least one of these deadlines. Share the submission plan with your line manager and discuss the possibility of establishing at least one Meeting Free Day (MFD) each week. This was the only way for me to carve out focussed thinking and writing time in an increasingly email/meeting-driven hybrid-working world. On these days, I blocked my calendar, disabled alerts, and added an automated email response to let people know I may not respond until after my MFD.
3. Do your research
This might seem obvious given our line of work but before you begin the application process, it is essential to thoroughly research the fellowship programs and organisations funding them. By looking through strategic reports and signing up for email alerts, I developed a recyclable work programme touching on the emerging research priorities of several funders. I also looked through lists of past awardees on funders’ websites to see what projects are successful and the amount of funding typically awarded. You can also reach out to UCL staff from these lists – I’ve found awardees are always happy to engage and offer insight.
4. Tailor the application
As well as topics, each funder prioritises certain aspects of research practice, such as public involvement, engagement, communication, and impact. Again, it’s important to stay on top of developments. For example, The Wellcome Trust recently published a report on improving research culture, so I ensured that I wove personal and departmental examples of positive culture throughout my proposal.
5. Request feedback
Don’t be afraid to seek feedback from colleagues, mentors, others who have successfully applied for fellowships, and members of the public. I also received indispensable input from the UCL Research Coordination Office for Life and Medical Sciences and the NIHR Research Design Service.
6. Don’t skip skills from other sectors
Many researchers have spent time working in other sectors besides academia, which can enrich the diversity of skills, experiences, and networks in universities. Sadly, the traditional format of academic CVs, which strongly emphasises publications and grants, can effectively overlook other valuable work experiences. The good news is that The Wellcome Trust and UKRI acknowledge these problems and have switched mainly to a “narrative CV”, which allows you to talk about your career journey and boost skills that might be overlooked. I spent the first decade of my career outside the university sector and have highlighted my early exposure to line management, leadership, and positive work practices in my fellowship applications.
7. Highlight person-years of research activity
Make sure any career breaks and part-time work are clearly highlighted. A review panel member once commented that I had produced few outputs in the past three years. In fact, I had created two significant outputs, but they were children, and the panel member had skipped the section detailing my parental leave. Since then, I have mentioned career breaks and part-time work in more than one section, so they are noticed. Our research outputs are often judged in terms of “years since PhD viva”, but I use the correct denominator “person-years of research activity,” which neatly accounts for career breaks, part-time working, and non-research roles. Can you tell I’m an epidemiologist? I use this term in career summary sections; hopefully, it will catch on one day.
8. Be persistent
Rejection is part and parcel of all successful academic careers, but fellowship rejections hit on a more personal level than a manuscript or a project grant. Remembering that there is a high level of competition is essential – even fantastic candidates will be rejected. Plus, initial bad news may not be the end game because many schemes allow you to resubmit. I have eight more fellowship rejections than acceptances under my belt, but the valuable feedback from review panel members, often international knowledge leaders, led to iterative improvements with each submission.
9. It’s ok to find it hard
Applying for one, let alone sequential fellowships is a hard slog. It can be lonely and boring side-lining research activities to spend weeks writing about your achievements, hypothetical projects, and data management plans. There’s often a contract end date looming to add to the anxiety. Be open with your line manager about any challenges to your mental health during the process. I also found the support of a mentor extremely valuable for navigating the submission period and making career contingency plans.
10. Celebrate every submission
As a sector, we focus a lot on those visible research outputs with less recognition of the effort and value of our research “inputs”. So celebrate each submission as a significant achievement and learning experience. One of the few perks of fixed fellowship deadlines is you can plan ahead – dinner out, a trip away or simply a day off to decompress and think about something other than directly incurred costs.