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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.

Behind the scenes of science: working in science funding at Wellcome Trust

SophiaDonaldson25 October 2017

Wellcome

Dr Dev Churamani completed his PhD in Cell Physiology at UCL (whoop whoop!) and is now a Senior Portfolio Developer at Wellcome Trust. He’s spoken at two of our careers events for researchers in the past, and now he’s kindly agreed to give us a careers case study for our blog.

Tell us what you’re up to now

I work as a Senior Portfolio Developer within Wellcome’s Science Integration, Structures team. We manage, oversee and co-ordinate some of our major initiatives and schemes. We also lead on cross-Science and cross-Wellcome projects, for example the Francis Crick Institute.

How did you move from academia to your current role?

I think I decided academia wasn’t for me during my PhD, which is a little ironic, because after my PhD I spent 6 years as a post-doc in a UCL lab! I enjoyed working at the bench, but I realised early on it wasn’t something I wanted to pursue long term. So for me it was always more about when was the right time to get out. I was enjoying the job and the lab. But after a few years it felt that if I knew academia wasn’t the career for me, that was the point I had to leave and move on to something that was. So I started looking for new challenges.

My first non-academic job was with the Food Standards Agency. The role was part funding, part policy, but it was a fixed-term post, and a microbiology role, so didn’t fit perfectly with my background. From there I saw an advert for a role within Wellcome’s Cellular, Developmental, and Physiological Sciences team, and my skills and experience seemed to fit what they were looking for. I first joined Wellcome as a Science Portfolio Adviser, predominantly looking after the cell biology portfolio. In that role I had a science remit, looking at science grants, and doing portfolio analyses to spot gaps and trends. After three years, I moved to my current position, which is broader in remit, rather than focusing on a specific area of science.

What does your normal working day look like?

I’m sure most interviewees say this, but there is no normal working day. In my first role with Wellcome, a typical working day would involve answering some emails, and maybe shortlisting some grant applications, or having a discussion with an applicant – either pre-application, post-application, or post-decision. Pre-application would be offering advice. Post-application might be explaining the next steps. Post-decision would either be an easy conversation with a successful and happy applicant, or a more in-depth conversation explaining the committee’s decision-making process, and offering advice for how the committee thought the application could potentially be improved.

In my current role a typical day involves less talking to applicants. More often I’m speaking with external stakeholders such as other funding agencies and collaborators, and I’ll be involved in writing reports.

What are the best bits?

The people are fantastic at Wellcome, and although I’m in a small division, it’s a very collegiate atmosphere. My current role has given me exposure to larger projects and allowed me to work in a very self-directed way – for instance I’m currently working towards a review of the Francis Crick Institute. In my original role, it was rewarding speaking to applicants. From my experience working in academia I had seen the struggles academics faced in trying to get grants, so it was nice feeling as though I could help with that process.

And the challenges?

One of the biggest challenges is keeping on top of a very wide range of science. To get my head around really diverse subjects that are quite removed from my background is tough. It’s helped by the fact that I have great colleagues, who can give me their perspectives from their areas of science.

It’s also not working in the lab. So if you’re someone who really enjoys the lab, a transition to this type of role may be difficult. Also, in academia you have a lot more ownership of your work, you have first author publications you can say are yours. This role doesn’t lend itself to that; you’re part of a much bigger picture. Although you may own your work at a local level, once it goes from you it’s no longer yours. Any report submitted at higher levels may have had many eyes on it, and may not resemble what you started with. You have to be comfortable with that.

Does having a PhD help?

Within our division certain roles, including mine, require a PhD. I think this can vary between research charities, but that’s the case for Wellcome. In terms of day-to-day, most useful are the clear and concise communication skills I developed during my PhD. I work with several people, of varying levels of seniority, on multiple projects, and have to convey myself clearly, especially when working with external stakeholders. I also give presentations to different audiences – varying from lay to very specialist – so that’s a skill I regularly use.

What’s the progression like?

People move around within the organisation, or they may move into other related organisations like universities, other charities, or the civil service. It’s possible to progress within the organisation but that depends upon building a network and seeking out opportunities. Within the division, because it’s small, progression can be harder, although I have now moved up to Senior Portfolio Developer from my initial role.

What are your top tips for researchers interested in this type of role?

Talk to people. Seek out employees within research funders and ask them about their experiences. You’ll be surprised that many people will be happy to have a discussion. Attend careers fairs and networking opportunities – I know UCL Careers has people like me speak at events for PhDs. This will give you a really good idea of what the role is like, which will help you work out if you’ll like it, and help you show your motivation.

 

Photograph from Matt Brown.