Are you thinking of applying for a research fellowship award?

I’m currently running a research project called Fellowship Ahoy! that asks researchers who score prestigious research fellowships just how heck they did it. I have been zipping around the country (as you may have seen on the project Twitter account @fellowshipahoy), visiting other universities and collecting the intricate and interesting background stories that lead up to being awarded that rare and elusive fellowship award. I’ve now talked to twenty-five unique and very different fellows and really enjoyed it.

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I am doing this project for a couple of reasons:

The first is intellectual curiosity – we just don’t know much about the professional lives, strives, small niggles and big decisions of this group of people, and the LFHE wanted to give me some money to do it.

The second is because I want to make sure the development programmes I design and contribute to as part of the Think Ahead framework, and the strategy we use to steer them, is actually current and robust and based in evidence. That’s the essence of research-led service design.

When I talk to post-docs who thing they maybe aspire to a fellowship I commonly hear:

“I’m not ready for a fellowship”

“You have to be independent, to be able to do it all yourself”

“I don’t have any good ideas”

“It’s so competitive, it’s not worth trying”

“I don’t have time”

But hear this. When I ask people how they got the fellowship they tell me (and you can read so much more on the project blog here):

I was awarded a fellowship in 2013 after a couple of years of hard work on project development, applications, and interviews, drafting and redrafting. It was the 4th fellowship I had applied for, and the second I was interviewed for. I wrote more applications but then decided not to submit them because it just wasn’t right at the time…

“When I was thinking about applying I went to a fellowships day, an event where the funders came in to speak, and we heard from current fellows. Actually seeing those fellows up there was a bit disheartening to me. It seemed that they had all done really well and had been planning to get an independent fellowship from before completing their PhDs, so comparing myself to them it seemed even more unachievable; I thought maybe it wasn’t for me after all, I felt less confident. In the end I did apply though after waiting enough time and putting the work in to making my CV as strong as I possibly could.” 

“I thought I wasn’t ready but where I work there was an expectation to apply externally, so I went ahead put in three applications for fellowships. I didn’t get the first one but I did get good feedback on what was weak about the application and I rolled this feedback into the second application. This was a process of creating so many versions, about 15, and making iterative changes, refining, talking to people in the know, and tailoring for each funder. I really advise you to talk to as many people as possible and get their input. By the time my application went in I really was ready and I could only have got ready by getting involved and applying.”

So, you can see from even just these few stories why this study seeks not to generalise and to say ‘hey, here is the magic formula for success’ …because I think there isn’t one – you can make it work for you. Rather it seeks to show you just how different the routes to gaining a fellowship are, and how different the approaches and personalities of the fellows are. I urge you not to be put off starting your fellowship journey just because you feel ‘you don’t fit the type’, ‘ you’re not good enough’ ‘you haven’t done the right things’, or ‘your ideas aren’t good enough’. The selection process is competitive enough without you putting your own barriers in the way.

The key seems to be about deciding to actually pitch up and play the game – you’ve got to be in it to win it (if you like). And as all my fellows have told me, you have to get involved in active idea development to have that good idea, and you have to actually start the process of writing it to get your proposal ready.

Iterations and drafts, and drafts and drafts (ad nauseum) are your friend. So go and download the forms, and start that first draft today!