As a PhD student at the University of Manchester, I attended this morning a workshop presenting early career fellowships. I’m sharing here some notes about it as it may be valuable to my readers.
The workshop was organised by Dr. Radha Boya, who currently holds a Royal Society Fellowship at UoM. In a first part, different fellowship awardees gave us advice to craft a fellowship application, and this was followed by UoM research support teams presenting the help they can provide. In here, I aim at presenting the main advice from part one presentations.
In the European research system, tenure-track positions are not common. A few years ago, it used to be possible to get a permanent position directly after a postdoc (or a PhD), but that has never become easier with time. To compensate for this, many funding institutions (ERC, Research Councils UK, European Commission, Wellcome Trust, The Royal Society, The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, etc.) as well as research Institutes/Universities award early career fellowship for researchers that have enough experience to carry out their own independent research, but lack recognition to secure a permanent position. These institutions usually look for future research leaders with promised world authority on specific topics. The fellowships are usually tenable for 3 to 5 years, after which the fellow ideally obtains a post in the institution in he/she was awarded the fellowship. In this sense, this is comparable to the US tenure track system (with the exception one is not entitled “Assistant Professor” but just “Fellow”).
During the workshop, some guidance was given by successful fellowship candidates. A common ground for fellowships include a career summary (CV, personal statement, awards, career history, qualifications, list of publications), a research proposal and financial details about the proposed project that aims at selecting candidates for interviews. One of the recurring advice to craft the application was preparation. Before starting to write anything, it has been advice to think about the main idea and the structure of the application package. It has notably said that finding a good idea is almost getting half way. However, the research proposal should show adequacy with the candidate’s background: you may not propose something you’re not familiar with, or would not be able to justify preliminary experience. The personal statement should be oriented the same way. Never forget it is a strictly personal document, that usually writes where the writer’s interest stem from. The workshop panel also highlighted that applicants should feature independent research with a novel and individual idea. In no way this can be an extension of the candidate’s supervisor/P.I. research topics.
Overall, these two documents (along with the curriculum vitæ), should show the panel that the candidate is the best do carry the proposed research from submission date (not five years after the proposal!). It has also been noted that some funding agencies care a lot about hot topics. This does not especially mean that you should select your project depending on what hits the headline of top academic journals, but rather try to uncover and highlight the hidden value of your idea. Thinking about the bigger picture may help: for example highlighting the energy applications of some unknown photo-electric materials may be a hot value you’re not thinking in the first place. It was also reminded that a candidate that loves what he/she does would certainly be more successful that a candidate choosing hot topics to merely be read.
Based on all of this, devising a research proposal can be summarised in addressing the following questions:
- is the proposed work novel?
- is the proposed work feasible? i.e. has the applicant done related research before, has he/she a clear plan to achieve it?
- why does the project matter in the global picture?
- is the applicant the adequate researcher to carry it out?
Finally, when designing the financial details, it was noted that funding agencies would not select the cheaper projects, but rather based on the envisaged success of the project. Remember that your institution may provide guidance for this part.
What happens after?
The successful applicants would be offered an interviews. Keys for success again includes preparation. The panel told us to get feedbacks from previous colleagues that may be the best to judge our work and ask adequate questions. Having a mock interview organised with researchers outside of your field can also be valuable, as all the judging panel may not directly work in your research area.
If success is not in the cards, remember that the fellowship applications usually have very low success rates (10-15%). This means you should not discount yourself based on first rejections. In this case, you may apply again and again, by always building on feedback from past applications. Don’t be salty about a rejection for a very selective fellowship, but rather try to get feedback that will help you to strengthen future ones.
Would you have other advice for early career researrchers? Let’s discuss this on twitter!