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Exposing fellowship myths

Image: Gallant's Photography [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Three misconceptions that have the power to stymie applications

Establishing independence is crucial for postdocs who want a career in academia, but many shy away from seeking fellowship funding that would enable this to happen.

In 2016, I undertook a research project funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education in the UK to try to understand why this was, and to identify what had helped certain researchers to get a fellowship. I spoke with 25 fellows—13 women and 12 men—from a range of disciplines in eight UK research-intensive universities and discovered not only what had helped them with their bids but that there had been several enduring myths that deterred many from applying in the first place. Here, I discuss the three main ones. 

1. There’s only one type of fellow

People often don’t apply because they feel their ‘face doesn’t fit’. Yet I found a diversity in the profiles of research fellows: their sense of self-confidence, their career mobility, the number of fellowship applications they had put in, their networks and support systems, and their motivation for applying for funding all varied greatly.

For the 25 fellows I met, the mean time from PhD to fellowship award was 4.4 years, and the median number of applications a fellow had made was three, although for some up to eight applications had been made before succeeding—demonstrating the importance of perseverance.

The need to demonstrate independence by moving institutions is often cited, but my findings did not bear this out. More than half of the fellows stayed at their original institution, and 10 had been working within the same department since starting their PhD.

In addition, eight of the fellows had taken at least one parental leave career break. Therefore, the myth of mobility and a lack of personal ties (with the associated gender disadvantage it creates) should be challenged.

More important than specific ‘types’ of applicant are the attributes they have, and the potential research leadership qualities they can demonstrate.

2. It’s all down to you

Full responsibility for gaining independence is not down to you as the individual postdoc, and success is not solely the result of positive thinking or a ‘can do’ attitude.

It is important, given rising pressures on research careers, to recognise the complex relational and cultural tensions within which your career develops. There are systemic structural barriers, career bottlenecks, and well-documented gender and ethnicity inequalities. Although some were able to do so, most early career researchers needed support in overcoming these and in writing a fellowship application.

My research showed that your successful development is influenced by your principal investigator or mentor giving you the encouragement to take up career-enhancing opportunities, to spend time identifying and generating ideas, and writing them into a project proposal.

Look around at your place of work and see what else is already available to you. Most institutions now have a well-developed set of workshops and one-to-one support for early career academic development. If you don’t see what you want, why not suggest it?

3. It’s all down to luck

Fellowship success is often written off as luck, both by award holders who will regularly say, ‘I was really lucky to get the funding,’ and by aspiring fellows who say, ‘I’m just not that lucky.’

But luck alone does not lead to success. Individual agency—our capacity to take action and to make our own choices—is a greater predictor of postdoctoral career success than luck. That is not to say there isn’t an element of luck. Due to increasing numbers of high-quality funding applications, and diminishing research budgets, not all excellent applications get funded. However, putting yourself in the best possible position, demonstrating your leadership qualities and getting all necessary help and support will mean your chances are drastically increased. 

To feel ‘ready’ to apply for a fellowship, seek out opportunities to lead small projects through which you can pursue your own ideas. Securing a small amount of funding to conduct pilot research, such as a summer studentship, or internal funding call, gets you a track record of funding. It will also get you real data to back up your later applications, and the experience of the ‘whole process’ of research—from idea and application development, to project and people management, to reporting and disseminating.

But don’t wait to feel ready or to be invited by others. Be an agent of your own future. Be bold and make the most of your experience, your position, your contacts—and your luck—to secure your fellowship.  

Kay Guccione is head of researcher development at the University of Glasgow, Scotland

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com