Introduction to fellowships
A fellowship is a prestigious personal award that typically funds your time and your research expenses. While the aims, duration, and value will vary, all fellowships are an investment in you and your research. There are a range of different types of Early Career fellowships available, providing the opportunity to build an independent research career, diversify your expertise, return from a career break or change direction.
Reasons to apply
Fellowships are only awarded to the most competitive candidates and can set you up for a successful career. Holding a fellowship can reduce (and in some cases remove) your teaching obligations and provide you with protected research time. Most fellowship schemes also include generous professional development and training opportunities. A fellowship can often be a gateway into a tenured academic career. Even if you are not successful, going through the application process is an important experience as it can help you focus and clarify your research ideas and provides writing and interview practice. It also gives you the opportunity to gain important feedback from both mentors and colleagues as well as the funder and external reviewers. This will be critical to your future career success.
Focuses of a fellowship
There are three main focuses of a fellowship: Person, Project, and Place. This means that to be competitive, you need to be able to demonstrate that:
- you are the right person for this fellowship.
- the project is timely, ambitious, and realistic.
- the institution where you want to work offers the right environment for you to complete your research and to become an independent research leader.
However, this does not mean that you need to get vast amounts of evidence and experience before you apply. Fellowships are designed for you to develop – so it is more about demonstrating your potential as a future research leader. Below are some tips to get you started on this – don't think about them all as a must do – think about the areas where you have specific gaps and focus on strengthening these areas to start.
This is all about you – who you are as a researcher and what you have done/want to do. First, it is important to define your skillset and areas of expertise. If we ask most postdocs how they would define themselves, they start by saying “I am a postdoc in …". To be competitive, it is important to change the narrative in your head, so instead of “I am a postdoc in …”, you should be saying “I am an expert in …" or “my areas of expertise are …".
Second, it is important to demonstrate your expertise by outlining your achievements. Essentially, we want to know how people know that you are an expert in your given field. Crucially, these should show that you are starting to develop independence. This means that all your evidence should not be linked to the work of your PI or supervisor. It is particularly important to focus on those successes that you have led on. In the best-case scenario, they will not include your PI at all.
These achievements can be outputs (papers, patents, or shared data), dissemination of your work (invited talks at conferences or contributing to/chairing a conference panel), prizes or awards (including any funding: think about any small pots of funding you could apply for, such as small equipment grants, travel grants etc.), and recognition of your work outside of the academic setting (such as sitting on a government committee or forum, learned society committees, or other forums/networks).
Third, it is important to demonstrate how your outputs have impacted the field in which you work, and beyond. This is all about the outcomes of your work. Your publications tell a story and are a dissemination tool for your work but you must also demonstrate what has changed because of your research. This can relate to changes in thinking, new knowledge, or progression of approaches, methods, or models. Part of this may be about the network you have generated, what impact have you had on them?
Finally, it is important to have thought about these factors not just for what you have done, but what you want to do through your fellowship – this will form part of your career development plan. Who do you want to be when you finish the fellowship? What will you have achieved? What impact will that have had? For this, it is important to assess the necessary skills and training that you will need to complete your research project. There is support available to help you with this, including from your mentor or Head of Department, and the support offered by Research and Innovation Services (RIS).
When writing your fellowship, the key is to think about how you are going to convince the reviewing panel that your project addresses an important and timely research question. This is not just an interesting question, but one that the review panel think is worth them giving you a substantial amount of funding to answer right now. So, it is critical that you understand the audience who are going to be reviewing your application and what their priorities are. Make sure there is a clear link with your research question and the strategic priorities of the funder. We suggest looking at the key strategic priorities and delivery plans for funders in your areas as soon as possible and then use this information to inform the theme of the question you want to answer. Don’t try to fudge an existing idea of yours into theme or priority if it is not a logical fit. Reviewers will see this from a mile away and you will have wasted a lot of hard work. However, you do not need to wait for a specific call to come out before you start writing, if you have a good idea of the themes that the funders have said they are interested in (these are their strategic priorities). You can then start to formulate your question in advance.
Your question needs to be creative, experimentally testable, ambitious (but a logical extension of current knowledge and not a leap into the unknown) and should generate new knowledge into your areas of interest. Sounds easy, right? So, it is vital to give yourself enough time to get this question right. Take time to think about your ideas, listen to what colleagues in your research area are saying are the future challenges, and talk to your peers, and mentor/trusted senior academics about your question to get their feedback before you even started writing.
This is important because your funders want to have a guarantee that you will have the support around you to complete your research project and develop into an independent research leader. You have chosen Bath because it is the best place for its benefits to you and your line of research. Now you need to convince the people reviewing your application that this truly is the best place for your research and for your career development. Use the recent University of Bath Strategy, and your faculty or departmental strategic objectives to link your research goals with the ambitions of the university. Importantly, you should have a conversation with your Head of Department or Director of Research before you start your application process: outline to them your ambitions and discuss with them how they are going to support you. This could be in the form of financial or (office/lab) space support, PhD studentships, mentorship, or the guarantee of a permanent position once your fellowship is complete. Additionally, talk to them about where they see the department and its research priorities in the next 5-10 years, and where you fit in with that.
When writing the host institution justification use concrete examples of names of things and justify why you need these things. For instance, don’t say ‘I will attend a career development course.’. Instead write ‘I have identified leadership as a key skill that I need to develop, so that I can successfully work with the different collaborators in my interdisciplinary project and supervise PhD students. Therefore, I will attend GW4 Crucible during my fellowship. This programme will enhance my experience of leadership, collaboration, and interdisciplinarity.’ By giving a name and when you will do this makes it seem real; like you are serious about doing it as opposed to a wish and a whim. Likewise, give names of experts in your department and detail how they will contribute to your research and training – for example through mentoring or future collaborations (again, make sure they are concrete examples). Paint a picture of a nurturing, busy and exciting research environment using explicit examples: departmental seminars with external speakers, training courses, lecture series, facilities, and outreach events – and crucially, explain how you will fit into this environment with the activities you have planned.
Top tips for writing a successful fellowship application:
- Fellowships are a personal award and vary in what they offer. Make sure you choose the fellowship that is best for you.
- Plan ahead. Having enough time to develop your proposal is essential. Different schemes will have different deadlines – be aware of this so you aren’t rushing to meet a deadline.
- Feedback - Getting a second (or third and fourth!) opinion will strengthen your proposal and identify gaps. It can be useful to ask both experts in your field and non-experts to feedback on your proposal.
- Talk to others who have applied for fellowships or have sat on fellowship assessment panels. Additionally, looking at examples of successful applications can be helpful. Have a look at our successful proposal library.
- Write the application with the reviewers and panel members in mind. Be familiar with the assessment criteria.
- All research has risks. Make sure you identify these and explain your backup plans.
- Give evidence that you are ready for this fellowship and have a clear training and development plan. Most funders will provide guidance around what they expect.
- Host organisation- provide clear justification for your choice of host institution. What resources does Bath have that will benefit your research?
- Identify collaborators who can contribute to your learning and provide advice and expertise in different areas.
- If you get through to the interview stage, organise at least two mock interviews to help yourself prepare for the real thing. It is also useful to consider if you would benefit from interview coaching.
Getting support and advice
If you are considering applying for a fellowship to be hosted at the University of Bath, first contact the research grant development team at email@example.com.
Your Head of Department and Director of Research of the department in which you will be hosted are a great source of information. Not only do you need their approval to submit, but they can also provide vital information about the department’s research environment and available facilities and expertise. In your research environment statement, you will have to justify your choice of host institution. A letter of support from the Head of Department is often required as part of the application. A supportive and enthusiastic letter can really strengthen your application.
For fellowship schemes that require a supervisor and/or mentor, that person can offer useful advice and feedback on your application. Their involvement in the development of your project is essential.
At the university, there may be people who have been awarded similar fellowships or have even sat on a fellowship panel. They can provide important insight to the assessment process, tips to improve your application and their personal experience of applying. There are also a range of activities organised by the University which you may also find helpful e.g., funder visits, Q&A panels, pitching sessions and training courses.
The university has a range of professional services to help you write a high-quality application:
- RIS can assist you with your budget, proposal development, peer review, interview practice and advice on funding opportunities and intellectual property
- The Public Engagement Unit can advise on building links with the public and other stakeholders
- Library Research Services can help you with your data management plan and using data analytics to showcase your publication record
- Amy Birch, Researcher Development Manager in RIS, can advise on career development, leadership and training
Depending on your research area and the scheme you are applying for, there may be services outside the university who can assist. For example, the NIHR Research Design Service.
Finding a fellowship
There are many fellowship schemes available through a variety of funders. To search for funding opportunities in your area of interest, you can search Research Professional and access a training video.
Below is a list of commonly applied for fellowships:
- UKRI Fellowships
- AHRC - research, development and engagement fellowships: early career researchers route
- EPSRC- postdoctoral, early career, established career
- MRC - Career Development Award, Clinical research training fellowship, Clinician scientist fellowship
- NERC - Independent Research Fellowship
- NERC - Knowledge Exchange Fellowship
- STFC – Ernest Rutherford Fellowship
- UKRI - Future Leader Fellowship
- ERC Starting Grants
- HEE-NIHR Integrated Clinical Academic Programme - pre-doctoral, doctoral, clinical and senior clinical lectureships
- Leverhulme Trust - Early Career
- Marie Sklodowska-Curie Individual Fellowships
- NIHR fellowship programme – pre-doctoral, doctoral, advanced and skills development
- Royal Academy of Engineering
- Royal Society - University Research Fellowship
- Royal Society - Dorothy Hodgkin
- Wellcome Trust - Early Career Award