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.