Thinking about applying for a fellowship can be daunting and often feels like the next big pressure felt as a postdoc since finishing the PhD. I know this as well as anyone as I have put off deciding if I wanted to pursue one or not for 3 years. Last year I committed myself to go for it and have recently been awarded a 2-year NIHR Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) Dementia Fellowship (partnered with Alzheimer’s Society). In this blog, I’ll be reflecting on preparing for the application, the application process and what I’ve learned from the experience.
Preparation is everything
Even as I’m writing this it sounds dumb but the biggest factor in being awarded my fellowship was around 6-12 months earlier actually committing to pursuing one. Pretty obvious you say… well yes, no, maybe. Essentially I spent 3 years as a postdoc working on projects and avoiding making that decision. To Be honest with myself I was intensely burned out after my PhD. Even the thought of going into another big commitment was terrifying, let alone the idea of putting energy into applying and being unsuccessful. So I took the super healthy option of avoiding the issue. It was only after a period of feeling like I was drifting did I miss the feeling of having a project that was mine that I decided to commit to getting my own funding. Once I committed and began having that conversation with my supervisor it was much less scary, she supported me 100%.
This may not seem like fellowship prep in the traditional sense but looking back deciding that I wanted to go down that route and being vocal about it was so valuable. Every conversation with colleagues I would mention that I’m actively looking and if they see any opportunities to pass them on. I started getting advice from fellows in my department, I found there were some with funding for dementia research from funders I hadn’t considered and honestly just having a number of people’s encouragement helped make the process less daunting.
Mentorship was a huge part of helping me make a successful application. I had my line manager I work with day to day, another senior academic for informal mentoring. Although I have a great relationship with my line manager after working together for 8 years, getting a little bit of outside perspective on what my skills are and how best to present myself from someone detached from my day to day work was helpful. I also highly recommend the ARUK group mentoring I took part in. Myself and a small group of ECR’s were mentored by a senior academic, although at times it can be uncomfortable it forced me to share my ideas, practise presentation and interview skills in a safe space with everyone at the same stage as yourself. The best piece of advice I got from this was forcing myself to carve out a few hours a week just dedicated to career development, improving my CV, thinking about research ideas or doing some training and being strict about preserving that time.
Finally in preparation I think the scariest part of applying for a fellowship for me was the self doubt in my own ideas. I would constantly think “ This would be really interesting but nobody else will think that ” and I really don’t have one piece of advice to solve that. All I can say is that having that wide network of people I was talking to slowly gave me the confidence to share my ideas more.
Applying and Being in the Right Place at The Right Time
In my experience being open minded about putting my ideas into a fundable project was very important. Over a number of meeting with my mentors I would share what I wanted to do and sometimes they would agree and sometimes they would suggest I do something different for reasons ranging from lack of data sources or sometimes that I wouldn’t enjoy some of the work it would entail. It could feel a little uncomfortable having my ideas challenged in hindsight. They were right and I’m glad I changed a few things.
My experience is probably different to others in that the turnaround time for the fellowship application was very rapid. I was very lucky that in the first round the positions for the fellowships were not filled. It was after this that I was approached to consider applying. Previously I had never considered ARC funding as my research had not totally aligned. This is really when all those months of telling everyone I was looking to do a fellowship paid off, someone thought of me when previously they didn’t think it was something that would interest me.
At first I was put off by how quickly they wanted to get an application in. However, having to do it quickly meant I did not have time to have as much anxiety as I usually would about these things. I did find the application tricky, it was very broad, a three page cover letter covering my skills, research interests, outline the project, how it would meet the ARC priorities and costs. I asked to have a meeting with someone from the North East and North Cumbria ARC which really helped me. I was able to understand what research was being done in those priority areas, what kind of applicants they were looking for and the research culture.
I was then granted an interview. I usually don’t like giving advice on interviews because I don’t think I’m great at them myself and everyone has a different style. What I can say is that it wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be. I was lucky in that I only had a one to one interview and they were very friendly. If I was forced to give advice I would say prior to the interview I was too worried about the small details of the project, how will you treat the data, what kind of modelling will you do and so on. I was pleasantly surprised that they were very interested in what my longer term plans were and how I could use the fellowship to continue in dementia research.
My big takeaways
Putting yourself and your goals of getting a fellowship and not being shy about it was really fundamental to me getting the ball rolling, getting my ideas together and making things happen. For me I was very lucky that a lot of things lined up and I was in the right place at the right time, but in hindsight spending time having lots of conversations and making sure my name was at the front of people’s minds meant I was more prepared to dive into an opportunity when it did present itself.
I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time convincing myself my ideas were not worth pursuing. Let’s be honest lots of them were but it was better to have that confirmed and separated out from good and ultimately successful ones improved. On this note seek out as much help and advice as you possibly can!
I was very surprised at how when going through the application process the key things they were interested in was me as a researcher and what my personal career goals were. I was wasting time worrying about having all the small details of the work nailed down when in reality having an interesting project and a good team of people to support you make that happen was way more important.
In the end the biggest barrier to me getting funded was myself. Imposter Syndrome had me convinced that I was good at doing other people’s science but my own wouldn’t be good enough. It wasn’t until I got support from trusted mentors that I had the confidence to overcome that feeling.
Dr Connor Richardson is a Neuro-epidemiology Research Associate in the Newcastle University Population Health Sciences Institute. Connor is the research statistician for the Cognitive Function and Ageing studies (CFAS) multi-centre population cohort. His research interest lies in using advanced statistical modelling and machine learning to measure dementia risk. Connor blogs about his research, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and sometimes his Pomapoo’s.
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