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Fellowship application tips from UCL Research Facilitators

SophiaDonaldson10 June 2019

Money is crucial in research, and fellowships are a great mechanism to secure the money to pursue your own research ideas. In May four of UCL’s research facilitators kindly came to UCL Careers to deliver a workshop on “Writing a Successful Fellowship Application”. All three of UCL’s Schools were covered by Dr Jen Hazelton, Jacob Leveridge, Dr Melanie Bradnam, and Pascale Fanning-Tichborne, who also brought in two current fellowship holders, Dr Miranda Sheild Johansson (Leverhulme fellow) and Dr Lluís Masanes (EPSRC Early Career Research fellow). If you missed the event, they plan to run a similar workshop with us once a term – so check out our website for updates. But in the meantime, here are 5 top tips I took away from the session:

1) Know your funders

Perhaps it sounds obvious, but you need be aware of everyone who might be keen to give you money, whether they be Research Councils, charities, trusts, societies, the EU, your home country’s government etc. You should also know how they and their various funding streams differ in their focus, their reviewers, and their approach. Some may require very scientific applications, others may prefer a lay style. If you don’t do your homework, you risk missing opportunities and pitching your project ineffectually.

To help you, UCL subscribes to GrantFinder (https://search.grantfinder.co.uk/education), which you can use to research possible funding sources. And the research facilitation offices offer one-to-one appointments where you can chat through your options (as well as get feedback on your applications – see contacts for your school here: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/research/about/contact), and newsletters to which you can sign-up to ensure you don’t miss deadlines.

2) Know the deadlines. ALL the deadlines.

Some funding streams have limits on the number of applications that can be sent per institution. For these, UCL operates an internal triage system where applications are first sent to research facilitation offices who will oversee a process to determine which applications get developed for submission to the funder. The internal deadline is (obviously) before the funder deadline – so if you don’t investigate this and only work to the funder deadline, you may find you’re too late. To avoid disappointment, sign up to research facilitator newsletters, check their websites and ask around your department to see which schemes operate an internal triage system.

3) Seek collaborations, partnerships, and support BEFORE you apply

The majority of funding applications will be rejected, so it can be tempting not to approach potential academic collaborators and industry partners until you know you’ve secured the money. But this is NOT the most sensible plan. Your applications have to seem well researched and doable to convince funders to hand over their cash – if you don’t actually have collaborators on board yet, your project may not happen. And just as importantly, your collaborators may offer valuable insights and advice to strengthen your applications. Rest assured, people understand funding may not come through first time, so aim to convince people that you and your project are worthwhile, and build good working relationships that can last through more than one funding call.

4) Be specific

About everything. We all know research methods and ideas can evolve over the course of a project, but funders want to know exactly how you’re going to be spending your time and their money. It makes you seem like a good bet. Those collaborators and partners you’ve already secured (a la point 3)? What exactly will they offer you? Support? Training? Expertise? Access to equipment? Why do you need it? And why are they the right people to offer it? Which methods will you use exactly, and why? What are your key outputs? And when will they be completed? And if you really don’t know yet, then be clear how you will decide and what will influence your decision. This doesn’t mean being overly technical (unless the funder requires it). It means showing you have a clear plan.

5) Interviews really count

If a funding application process involves an interview, said interview really counts. Applications will likely be given scores/ranked in the first round, but the message from the workshop was that the scores are almost reset for the interview. So everyone is on an equal footing and in with a shot. If reviewers have highlighted weaknesses in your application, be ready to address these in your interview (and always address them in writing too if given the chance). If progress has been made in your research/plan since you first submitted the application (and these processes can take a while, so interviewers might expect progress!), this is your chance to update the panel. And practice! We offer practice interviews, and even more importantly when it comes to funding interviews, so do the research facilitators, and your supervisors/departments may well do too if you ask!

Best of luck with your applications!

Many thanks for the workshop go to:

Dr Jen Hazelton, Senior School Research Facilitator, for The Bartlett, Engineering, and Mathematical & Physical Sciences, Jacob Leveridge, Deputy Director of Research Facilitation for UCL Arts & Humanities, UCL Laws, UCL Social & Historical Sciences, the UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies and the UCL Institute of Education, and Dr Melanie Bradnam and Pascale Fanning-Tichborne, Strategic Research Facilitators for the School of Life and Medical Sciences.

MRC created a tool to stop you missing funding opportunities

SophiaDonaldson25 September 2017

Navigating the academic research landscape is tough. Knowing what is expected of you at each career stage, and scouting available opportunities, can sometimes feel like it takes up as much time as actually conducting your research! So for medical researchers, the MRC has made a handy interactive tool to help. It categorises career stages, and tells you what you should be up to when you’re in them, like so:

MRC tool_crop

On the tool’s funding view, it tells you the type of funding available at each stage. And even more helpfully, it tells you which funders offer each variety of award. That frees up a little more time for you to actually apply for them! Have a play with the tool and see what you think.

MRC tool_funding_crop

 

Working in R&D and Innovation consultancy

SophiaDonaldson20 May 2016

AndreaDr Andrea Sanfilippo worked as a research assistant at UCL (whoop whoop!) and then gained a PhD in Theoretical Physics from the Fritz-Haber Institute of the Max-Planck Society. Now a Senior Research and Development and Innovation Consultant at Deloitte, Andrea talked to us about his career.

How did you move from academia to your current role?

I decided to move back to Italy for personal reasons and, at the same time, because the Italian government issued incentives for the “return of the brains” (R&D TAX incentives for researchers – and not only researchers – who studied at least 18 months abroad). Also, I was not willing to be part of the Italian academic system (pretty feudal unfortunately). Since in Italy there is a lack of opportunities in the Quantum Chemistry sector, I looked for other opportunities closely related to my scientific background. EU grants consultancy was one of them. Most university group leaders and professors apply for public and EU funding. I myself was awarded a Marie-Curie EU scholarship. Some general EU projects are made of consortia made of companies and universities. Hence, companies (EU consultancy or internal EU projects offices in companies) are often willing to hire people with a strong academic background (incl. PhD). During the interview I just provided my academic experience and willingness to support innovation.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

The daily activities consist of elaborating EU proposals (scientific, managerial and EU impacts parts), discussing with consortia or clients about new innovative project ideas, and setting up consortia made of universities and enterprises.

What are the best things about working in your role?

The fact you deal with many different realities, like SMEs and large enterprises, and you can experience the very different approaches to innovation and state-of-the-art technologies in various sectors.

What are the biggest challenges? 

The biggest challenges are that employer wants you to win as many projects as possible (consultancy companies get a “success fee” when the proposal is awarded EU funding, companies get the funding), no matter whether innovative ideas are good or not. For the same reason they may sign contracts with companies lacking skills and innovation potential. Sometimes you feel like a financial broker, since there is a certain level of uncertainty in the success of the proposals. These aspects can make this job quite stressful.

Is a PhD essential for your role?

A PhD is not essential, but it can make the difference. You have to write even 100-150 page proposals (in English language), and a person with a PhD usually has a much more organised modus operandi (they already organised their own PhD project for 3-4 years), expertise with academic English (incl. publications), a broader view on science, and stronger expertise in their own sector.

Where do people go from here?

Coming from a consultancy company, I see the following paths:

1 (short term) – EU office in a large company. Certain companies have even 10 people dealing with EU proposals writing. Such positions allow you to focus more in detail on a specific sector, instead of dealing with a plethora of different companies and areas.

2 (medium term) – Innovation Manager or Technology Strategist: you can manage R&D and Innovation activities, elaborate the best R&D avenues on a 5-10 years basis for the CEO, and manage R&D projects.

3 (medium to long term) – CTO. You can manage the entire innovation and R&D activities of a company.

What top tips would you pass on to a PhD student/post-doc interested in this type of work?

1 Ask yourself: where do I want to be in 5 years? Am I really interested in leaving the academic sector, maybe forever (5 years out of your PhD or post-doc, universities or R&D centres are no longer interested in hiring you)? Do you prefer to work for consortia in many different sectors or to focus on your own sector of interest?

2 Keep in mind there are a few companies in the EU grants sector, so it is a niche sector. A lot of people choose to become freelancers.

3 If you would like to keep focusing on your sector of interest, you might want to apply to EU projects offices in specific (large) companies. The “con” about being in a consultancy company is that companies often do not appreciate people lacking strong expertise in their sector.

Moving from Research to Research Funding

SophiaDonaldson27 February 2015

carolinedalton

Dr Caroline Dalton has a PhD in Cell Biology from UCL. In this interview, Caroline tells us about her decision to leave academia, and her current role as a Research Funding Manager at Cancer Research UK.

 

How did you move from academia to your current role?

I had a bit of an ongoing battle inside myself during my PhD. I really enjoyed being in the lab, and the whole concept of science; finding a question that I’d like to answer, and working out the best way to answer it. But as I got further through my PhD, I became aware of the realities of a life in academia – the poor work/life balance, the lack of stability, and the scarcity of permanent higher-level positions – and I realised that a research career probably wasn’t for me.

So alongside my PhD and post-doc, I tried to get a sense of what else was out there. I knew I wanted to get out of the lab, but I also wanted to stay in science somehow, and by doing internet research, and going along to careers talks and events, I found out I had lots of options. I also tried a few things out to gage what I’d like most; I did a bit of public engagement in the form of ‘I’m a scientist, get me out of here’, I volunteered at a science festival, I went to a science policy workshop at Westminster, and attended various policy debates.

It turned out that I enjoyed all of these experiences, so when it came to job-hunting, my applications were actually fairly broad. But trying new things helped me to better understand the job roles that I was going for, and it also looked great on my CV and in interviews, as it demonstrated that I’d investigated the world outside of the lab. My first job coming out of research was working in policy for Breakthrough Breast Cancer for just under a year and a half. I liked the policy aspects of that role, however, I found I wasn’t using my science background enough, as the role was more health-service-focused. That’s why I moved into my current role as Research Funding Manager at CRUK – to get back in touch with the science.

Is having a PhD necessary for working in your current role?

A PhD isn’t essential for becoming a CRUK Research Funding Manager, but as it helps to have an understanding of the research environment, many of my colleagues do have PhDs. The role involves reading, understanding, summarising, and critically appraising research proposals, so I’m using a lot of the scientific skills I picked up in research. I also communicate with many different people and coordinate a variety of activities, so I’m using the project-management, organisation, and communication skills I developed in research too.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

I work on CRUK’s Clinical Trials Awards Advisory Committee, so the bulk of my role involves processing funding applications, and organising the scientific committee meeting that determines how funding will be awarded. Exactly what I’m doing each day depends very much on where we are in the review cycle, but it will usually entail things like answering queries from researchers hoping to apply for funding, reading research applications and writing an office summary of each one, sourcing appropriate peer reviewers for each application, checking the peer-reviewers’ responses, getting reviews back to applicants so they can respond, processing those responses, then preparing for and coordinating the actual committee meeting, and writing to applicants with committee feedback. There’s a fair bit of admin involved, but we’re assisted by Grants Officers who deal with a lot of the more basic administrative elements of the process.

What are the best things about working in your role?

It’s exciting to see the latest developments in science before they’ve even happened/been funded, and to be privy to the high-level discussions that happen at the committee meetings, and the expert reviewer comments on cutting-edge science. That’s the main thing that attracted me to the role. I also enjoy using my writing skills to craft responses to applicants reflecting the committee’s feedback on their proposals.

This is probably more team-, or CRUK-specific, than a part of the role per se, but the working environment is great. Everyone’s really helpful and open to suggestions for new ways of doing things, whatever level they or you are at. And there’s a much better work/life balance in this role than I would have had in academia, and it’s a permanent role, which obviously adds an element of stability that was lacking in research.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

In research I was extremely independent. It’s actually quite nice being part of a team now that’s trying to achieve something, as opposed to a single person trying to achieve something. But it does mean that there are a lot more people and processes involved in decision-making. In research, you’re pretty much free to try new things, as long as money and your supervisor allows. But outside of academia there are usually far more levels of bureaucracy involved.

What’s the progression like/where do you see yourself going from here?

I don’t know if there’s necessarily a ‘typical’ career path in research funding – there are lots of options. You could progress upwards in the team by applying for vacancies when they come up, like my managers have done. Or some people go on to do similar jobs in other charities and research funders, while others move to universities to manage grant applications from that side. Some people move on to more research-policy-focused roles, and potentially that might be a future direction that I might like to take. It also seems to be fairly common for people to move around and try new things within CRUK – I think that’s positively encouraged here.

What top tips would you pass on to current researchers interested in this type of work?

If you think you might want to work in research funding, I’d advise speaking to people in the area, and making sure you know what the funding landscape looks like. It can also help if you’ve been involved in the peer-review process before, so volunteer to review papers for journals, or ask your supervisor if you can help with reviews they’re doing.

And I’d definitely recommend using the UCL careers service! They made me far less terrified of the task ahead, helping me to identify and sell the skills that employers care about, which really boosted my confidence.