It’s about 18 months since I started my latest fellowship, and I am still a couple of years away from the feeling of impending doom that will no doubt accompany the last 18 months of my contract. So as I sit here on my temporary island of temporary calm I thought that I would share some thoughts and advice that I hope will be of use to anyone thinking of applying for fellowships themselves…
Make a note of your ideas
The most important part of any fellowship or grant is the idea. Yet in my experience ideas can be slippery, with flashes of inspiration occurring mid lecture/bus journey/transcendental stare out of the window, only to have vanished or lost their sheen by the time you finally get round to put pen to paper a week and half later. So next time you have an idea about that research question that has miraculously not been addressed yet, or how to test that tricky hypothesis, write it down as soon as you can!
This is probably the most important piece of advice for anyone writing an application. Fellowships often have several deadlines attached to them. They may start with an ‘expression of interest’ stage (a short abstract summarising your ideas), before the full submission a couple of months later, followed by interviews some months after that. Successful applicants may then get to choose their start date, but they won’t typically be able to start until several months after a successful interview. In my experience, you want to start putting an application together at least a year before you plan on starting your fellowship. Combine all of these deadlines with the fact that many people will be doing this with an “end of contract, poverty awaits” deadline looming over them, and forward planning becomes crucial! Personally I am not the most organised person, so identifying important dates and timetabling the application process in advance can make a huge difference.
It’s worth thinking in detail about which parts of the application will be most time consuming. Usually you will be required to specify exactly how much money you want to ask for, and to then justify your costs. This will involve asking very busy people from your finance department to help in calculating salaries, superannuation, overheads, underheads, and countless other exotic financial concepts you have no idea how to calculate yourself. It is definitely worth allowing plenty of time for this by telling them in advance of your plans. You may also need to get letters of support from mentors, collaborators, heads of department etc. so again, allow plenty of time for this.
It can be easy to delay getting started with writing– maybe you convince yourself that your ideas aren’t quite solid enough just yet, or you come up with some other jobs to get done before you start. However, I would suggest you prioritise your fellowship above all else and just get started. Often the writing process will help you to organise your thoughts and iron out any problems. The longer you spend writing it, the more polished it will be.
The art of fellowship writing
Writing a fellowship or grant application can be a bit on the strange side. Academic writing is usually about being very measured and considered in all that you say – backing all of your statements up with evidence, being conservative in your interpretations, and so forth. Yet a proposal is different – here you are trying to sell your idea -and yourself as a researcher- to the reviewers reading your application. So, instead of being conservative you will have to change your tone to one of optimism and self-belief. Acknowledge limitations of course, but don’t let them detract from the impression that here is a crucially important proposal, written by exactly the right person, that the review board would be crazy not to fund!
Submit several applications
Putting a fellowship application together can be a daunting process, but once you have submitted one, you have the basis for several further applications. With just a few tweaks you should be able to submit that Wellcome Trust application to the MRC and the NIH too! Success rates tend to be fairly low for fellowships (~10% is not unusual), so the more applications you submit, the better your chances. Depending on how deadlines fall, you may even have time to incorporate reviewer feedback on one application into the writing of the next.
Rejection is a (major) part of the process
Related to the above point, if you submit fellowship applications, you will get rejected. Funding bodies simply do not have enough money to cover even a fifth of the applications they receive, so even if yours is a great application, the chances are high that you will be rejected. Put another way, if you’re applying for fellowships you will need a thick skin. This shouldn’t put you off, but it is definitely worth being aware of. If anything you should anticipate and incorporate rejection into your plans – give yourself more time to submit applications, receive rejections (and feedback), refine your ideas, and submit again. The trick is to spend the time that you’re writing your application convincing yourself that you’re going to get the fellowship. Once submitted you can allow yourself to return to reality, brace yourself for the decision and get to work on back up plans!
Ask for help (and be willing to help)
Remember that you probably have lots of colleagues who have gone through the process that you are going through, so ask them for advice. In my experience the majority of people are more than happy to help. This is true at all stages of your application – ask for feedback on your idea from the funders themselves, as they can tell you whether your plans fall within their remit. Ask for feedback on your proposal from friends and colleagues as well. Remember that your reviewers are unlikely to be experts in your specific field of research, so asking colleagues with different expertise to you can be very useful in gauging whether your application is accessible to the non-specialist.
It can also be very useful to ask for help as you prepare for your interview. In the run up to my last fellowship interview I arranged several mock interviews with colleagues in my department, the feedback from which was invaluable. I even had meetings with several people I had not previously met. You will be surprised at how helpful people are willing to be! The flip side to all of this of course is that you must be willing to help others in return. If you are lucky and you get your fellowship then you will undoubtedly become one of those that people ask for help. So be sure to lend a hand, lest you invoke the wrath of the research gods and your results all become non-significant!