For who’s a jolly good fellow?

It’s that time of the year again. The deadline for submission of applications for Royal Society University Research Fellowships (URFs) is today. I know four postdoctoral researchers who have submitted their proposal and now will wait anxiously for the next few months until they find out if they’ve been called for an interview. And then they’ll sweat a little more before discovering if they’re one of the lucky ~ 8% of those who’ve applied that have landed a fellowship.

A fellowship is increasingly seen as a rite of passage to an academic career (at least in many areas of physics). The bar for securing a lectureship has been raised dramatically since I was fortunate enough to be employed by the School of Physics and Astronomy back in 1997 (although it was still just the Department of Physics back in those dim, distant days). As I’ve said before — once or twice — I know for a fact that what I had in terms of “output” back in 1997 wouldn’t even get me on a shortlist these days; competition has increased dramatically.

I’ve not been a URF (or sat on a URF panel) but I’ve been an EPSRC fellow and have also been a member of EPSRC fellowship panels, so I’ve been on either side of the ‘divide’. I’ve been planning for a while to put together a list of tips/suggestions for fellowship applicants (based on my experience as a panel member), and given the day that’s in it, there’s no time like the present…

Have a mock interview.  I cannot overstate the importance of this. I’ve been rather surprised at the number of fellowship candidates I’ve met who had not sat down with colleagues prior to the day of the formal interview and had a dress-rehearsal. There is no better way to prepare than to have your colleagues, preferably those who have sat on fellowship panels previously (though this isn’t essential), give you a thorough grilling in advance. Quite a few universities now organise mock interviews as a matter of course but if yours doesn’t, don’t feel at all shy about approaching peers/colleagues/URFs/EPSRC fellows in your department and asking whether they’d be willing to do a mock interview with you.   (The same advice holds true for any PhD students who might be reading this and have a viva coming up soon…)

Assert your independence. Fellowship schemes targeted at early career researchers almost invariably are designed to select candidates who demonstrate original ideas, creativity, and the potential to develop an independent programme of research. There’s no better way to demonstrate your potential for independent research than being able to point to examples in your application (and in the interview) of where you — yes, you guessed it — acted as an independent researcher.

Although this may sound somewhat ‘disloyal’ , anything that can set you apart from your research supervisor’s/principal investigator’s ideas and goals is useful. Make yourself known in your research community by organising workshops or conferences; accept any (and all) opportunities for invited talks that come your way (regardless of how daunted you may feel); apply for grants where you can. Although I appreciate that opportunities for independent postdoc funding are thin on the ground (and this needs to change), keep your ear close to that ground and be alert to the possibilities of securing even small amounts of funding. The goal here is not to establish a £30M Centre-For-Universe-Leading-Cross-Disciplinary-Inter-Sectoral-Super-Duper-Science but to demonstrate that you can write a successful bid for funding).

Avoid boilerplate. There’s little point stating that your research has the potential to have a major impact on industry and that you’re going to work closely with your university’s Business Development and Innovation department — or whatever it’s called this month — to make this a reality unless you provide specific examples of just how you’re going to do it. Anyone can write non-specific boilerplate; it just irritates referees.

I’ve had my differences of opinion over the years with Athene Donald on the subject of impact but I fully agree with the points she made in an important blog post back in 2011 — Kidding Yourself (The Impact Saga Continues). Be specific. As someone who criticised the research councils’ impact agenda for many years, I’m obliged to say that, to their credit, public engagement alone is enough for a Pathways To Impact statement. This is particularly important if your research is on the fundamental end of the spectrum and far from application/exploitation/market. But, again, warm words and purple prose are not enough. Be specific about what you’ll do in terms of public engagement. (I should note that the Royal Society Fellowship scheme (like those of the European Research Council) is rather less focused on non-academic impact than are the UK research councils).

Papers in “those” journals matter. I very much wish that I didn’t have to include this point but, unfortunately, it’d be naive and rather disingenuous of me to avoid it. It’s not infrequently the case that members of panels tasked with reviewing fellowship applications outsource the judgement of research quality to the brand-names of the journals in which the applicants have published. I wrote about this problem at length previously for the LSE blog so I’m not going to revisit it here. I’ll just say this: In a perfect world candidates would be judged directly on their research achievements, rather than where they’re published. But let’s be realistic — this isn’t going to happen in academia any time soon. And yes, I’m indeed a hypocrite for pointing this out.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. The referees are looking for vision, originality, and novelty. They want to be excited by the scope of your project, not swamped by minutiae that mean little to anyone who isn’t one of the world-experts in your (sub-)(sub-)(sub-) field. You’re writing a proposal, not a comprehensive scientific paper. Aim to put across the bigger picture. This is particularly the case when your proposal is likely to be judged by a non-expert panel.

And, finally, keep an eye on the world outside those stereotypically gleaming ivory towers and dreaming spires. Don’t put your eggs all in one basket. Success rates for fellowships are exceptionally low, and the chances of securing a permanent lectureship (in physics at least) are anything but encouraging. If an academic career is your life-long ambition then go for it. But go for it with your eyes wide open and take the time to occasionally look outside the lab.

…and if you’re applying for a fellowship today, or any other day, I wish you the very best of luck.

Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Rush fan. Father of three. (Not Rush fans. Yet.) Rants not restricted to the key of E minor...

4 thoughts on “For who’s a jolly good fellow?”

  1. “Papers in those journals matter”; you don’t like saying it and I understand why you are saying it anyway. But I think we do need to stop saying it. It remains true because we are saying it.

    The “URF scheme notes” do not mention impact factor or “those journals”. It does say that one of the three strands of the evaluation is the fellow herself, and, that her evaluation is on the basis of “the scientific merit of the individual: past achievements, research career to date, publication record, likely contribution to research field, future potential”. So the publication record is important but it only one strand of the evaluation of the candidate.

    Also in the notes, in the instructions for the publication list, it is said that “if your field of research differs from normal conventions, e.g. lead author, first author and publications in journal being the main gauge of success, please provide a brief explanation at the top of your publication list”. I think this would provide an opportunity for a candidate who has made the deliberate choice of ignoring the impact factor game to briefly explain her choice and why she wants her work to be evaluated on its substance rather than on where it is published.

    Of course a clear statement of the Royal Society explaining that they do not care about where articles are published would be better… but wait, the Royal Society is a signatory of DORA so it has effectively made such a statement.


    1. Hi, Raphael.

      As you know, I agree entirely that this is how things should work. And I understand entirely, and empathise with, your concerns. (Indeed, I had you in mind when I was writing that part of the blog post — I knew it’d be contentious!)

      That the RS has signed up to DORA is great. (I only wish that Nottingham would do likewise). But you know as well as I do that this is unfortunately not how panels work. (I wonder if you took a poll of all academics in the physical sciences how many would be aware of DORA?) You will have encountered just as many colleagues as me who place a great deal of stock in the nonsense of impact factors and for whom a paper in Science or Nature trumps all other indicators of a researcher’s quality. (Indeed, the editor of the Beilstein Journal of Nanotechnology — an entirely open access journal (free for the authors; free for the readers due to the munificence of the Beilstein Foundation) — continually has to highlight the impact factor of the journal in order to try to persuade colleagues in our field to publish there).

      Moreover, when it comes to the REF, and at least in physics, there is an unspoken — or sometimes not-so-unspoken — hierarchy of journals that maps onto the 4*,3* etc… ratings. Why do I strongly suspect that this is the case in other sciences?

      So I cannot in all conscience tell postdoctoral researchers that they shouldn’t care about where they publish their work and that they should ignore just what influence this will have on their future careers. I do not want those postdocs to be the “sacrificial lambs” as we attempt to change the system. My strategy instead is that every time I’m on a panel/reviewing applications/assessing candidates I’ll point out the nonsense of impact factors and the ludicrousness of a quality control system based on journal brand-names.

      When I do this, it’s clear that some of our colleagues aren’t exactly entirely in agreement with the suggestion that the scientific quality control/reviewing system is flawed. They see nothing wrong with the use of impact factors and brand-names. And until that attitude is very much in the minority I’m not willing to sacrifice the careers of postdocs and early career researchers in the group (or in any group).


      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Professor Moriarty,
    I have a few (lot of) questions for you:
    a) What does exactly you mean with the fellowship being a rite of passage in academia? It is just becoming another customary step, like doing a PhD, for example. Afterall, by no means one would be 100% certain of finding a lectureship afterwards the fellowship. Am I completely wrong?

    b) Would be easier, if you could at least give me an example of an appropriate curriculum for a PhD to apply for a fellowship. The idea of having its own ideas, organizing conferences, being able to demonstrate independence don’t really give a proper feeling for me. Let’s say someone in nanoscience (as broad as that can be) wants to go for a fellowship. How many years after the PhD would the chances be higher? How many 1st author papers? Do articles as co-author contribute or should they be neglected?

    Admire your blog a lot.


    1. Hi, Matthew.

      Good questions.

      (a) No, you’re correct, it does not mean that there’s a 100% chance of getting an academic position after a fellowship. However, a fellowship improves your chances considerably because it both demonstrates you’re capable of securing independent funding and, if it’s a research council or Royal Society fellowship in the UK, funds your salary for five years. I hate to bring this down to financial brass tacks but the latter can be very attractive to a department and can help smooth the way to offer a proleptic appointment.

      (b) I do not want to suggest specific numbers of papers etc… because it will differ significantly from field to field. Researchers in the group here have secured fellowships within 1 year, 2 years, 3 years, and 4 years respectively of their PhD. Co-authored papers certainly contribute! This is particularly the case in experimental physics where teams of researchers can often work on a particular experiment. Having first name papers is important, however, as is having papers where you can show that you were the corresponding author.

      Don’t hesitate to ask if you’ve got other questions.



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