How to win a Research Fellowship…or at least up your chances!

books This post is for early career researchers who might be thinking about    applying for an academic research fellowship such as an Early Career Fellowship. In it, I reflect on an interview I gave about my experience of being successful in getting funding from the Leverhulme Trust for an Early Career Research Fellowship. The interview gave me time and space to reflect on the process of writing a funding a bid, and to think about what it was that might have made it successful. I begin by introducing the project that I took part in and follow this up with some hints and tips for developing a successful Fellowship funding bid.

FSA_LOGOFellowship Ahoy!: The research project

Fellowship Ahoy! is a research study funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. It explores the role of self-leadership in the development of research independence, a key part of which is developing a research idea and applying of funding. The project is lead by Dr Kay Guccione at Sheffield University, who I met to discuss my experiences.

What attracted me to the project was the rationale for the research in which they use the word ‘luck’. The project website outlines this most succinctly; ‘securing a research fellowship award is a highly competitive process where applicants must demonstrate potential to become an independent future research leader. A portion of success in gaining a fellowship is often attributed to luck, both by the award holders themselves and by aspiring fellows’. Thinking about the process of gaining a Fellowship made me challenge this notion of luck. I have a tendency to think that I must have been lucky to have had my proposal accepted but thinking this way actually detracts from the hard work and the blood, sweat and tears that goes into writing a bid that your next career move relies so heavily upon. I decided to take the opportunity to take part in the project a) to cement in my mind that getting this fellowship was more than just lucky and b) to contribute to academic citizenship more broadly by providing evidence for others who may want to apply for a fellowship.

What I learnt

  • You may not get it first time. Persistence is key: I applied for the Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship three times and was successful only on the third go. This is not to mention the other small grants I also applied for! During my interview, Kay confirmed to me that in her research so far, winning one first time is an exception rather than the rule. When you receive the dreaded Email that says that you haven’t won it this time, that the field was competitive and of 850+ applications we could only award 100, that we can’t give you feedback due to the volume of applications etc, it is really difficult and emotional. You have no idea why you haven’t got the funding this time, you are back to the drawing board and have to decide if you apply for jobs instead or try again next time. In short, you don’t know if your application was strong or not. The important thing is to try again if you can and if that is what you want to do. I never submitted the same project twice. Each time I developed my ideas into something else; similar but something else. It was only on the third attempt that I felt slightly more confident I would have a chance. This was for several reasons that I describe in the remaining bullet points.
  • Make the most of your professional relationships. The interview with Kay helped me reflect most on the people who have supported me throughout the development of all of my funding bids. I cannot take sole credit for winning this funding because I had a lot of guidance and help along the way. A senior colleague at the Open University, for example, inspired my ideas and helped me to produce a project idea that allowed me to push my research agenda in a way that might appeal to the funders. Her intellectual interests took me in a new and unexpected direction and also opened up opportunities to meet the person who would become my Fellowship mentor. I also talked about the project idea a lot with colleagues with similar interests. My advice is to make use of your professional network and pursue every opportunity you can because you never know where it may lead or how fortuitous it may be.
  • Find the right mentor and the right department for your project. For my final attempt at applying, I found an opportunity to move to a different university. In all of my previous applications I developed projects that meant I could stay in the same place. I don’t think this helped me, especially as the funding body I was applying for stated that a move of institution would be looked upon favourably. While developing my third application I met someone I really wanted to work with and who agreed that she wanted to work with me. We had met before and we shared similar interests. Her research had explored low-income grandparenting which related to my own interests. I rang her up and asked if she would like to mentor me with project. She was hugely supportive and from that point we worked together. She helped me to develop my application by looking at drafts of the original proposal and with her knowledge and expertise about the department, helped me to locate the project in a way that justified moving to Leeds.
  • Find resources that will support you to write your bid. Writing a bid is a time consuming process and one that you invest a lot of yourself in. It is not always easy to find resources to support the bid writing process so getting advice and guidance can be a bit tricky. I attended lots of training courses at my university to find out how to write an effective bid, but I also made use of my online support networks and got colleagues to read through and comment upon each of my drafts. I also got my hands on bids that had been successful previously to see how they were structured and how they were written. These were a useful model for improving my own bid.
  • Write a bid that builds on the research narrative you have worked hard to develop. This may seem obvious but writing a bid that in no way relates to your research expertise is unlikely to get you the funding. You need to be able to locate your project in a way that demonstrates that you, and only you, are the best person to do this research. You also need to show that through this research you will develop your expertise through a publishable piece of research. I have always tried to be very strategic in developing my academic CV. I have thought about what I need to do to demonstrate my abilities and I built my successful funding application in a way that built firmly upon my existing expertise. Since getting my PhD, I have made sure that I am published in the area of men and masculinities and family, I have presented at relevant conferences and I have led my own research seminars. The project I am doing now builds on my original interests in men and masculinities and family but also connects research expertise I gained in my research post at the Open University.

As these bullet points hopefully demonstrate, I wasn’t just lucky. I put a lot of hard work, time and energy into getting this Fellowship, something I want to celebrate but also share with others. I also want to thank those people who supported me throughout the process of applying for funding. Writing a funding application is certainly not something you do independently. It requires you to build and make use of strong professional relationships, to think strategically and to push past the emotions associated with previous failures.

* The Fellowship Ahoy! project has it’s own dedicated research blog and Twitter account. If you are thinking of applying for a bid you might like to keep an eye out for great resources in the future.

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