Are you thinking of applying for a fellowship? Do you know what a fellowship is?
The PFDC and PFDC Reps Network have collated FAQs based on questions that are typically asked by postdocs who are starting to think about a fellowship as their next career step and those who have started preparing to apply for a fellowship. This is not an extensive list but is a great starting point for getting to grips with the fellowship process.
1. What is a fellowship?
Fellowships are designed to support individuals and their projects at a host institution.
In general, fellowships aim to facilitate research independence, enabling you to start to work on your own research vision and research agenda. Depending on the career stage and purpose of the individual fellowship they can enable you to:
- start growing your own research group,
- promote international mobility,
- help you train or transition into a new area,
- return to work after a career break or working part-time.
2. Why should I do a fellowship?
A fellowship is an opportunity for you to be the Principle Investigator (PI) as opposed to a postdoc position, where you are typically hired on someone else’s grant. If you have your own research ideas which you wish to pursue, a fellowship can give you the opportunity to focus on your own research.
A fellowship can make you more competitive for the next stage of the academic career path as it is evidence that you have:
- your own research vision
- secured your own funding
- a track record in the field
- started to establish your independence or show the potential to be an independent researcher
- started to build your own network and reputation in the field
3. How do I know when I’m ready to apply for a fellowship?
There will never be a perfect time, although that isn’t to say that you can’t start doing your research! Fellowships vary in criteria, purpose, eligibility and career stage they are aimed at. You need to understand the requirements of the scheme you are going to apply to, to understand if it’s the right fit for you.
In preparation to help you know if you are ready, reflect on these key points:
- What has been your contribution to the field?
- What are your academic achievements and successes?
- Update your academic CV – see the Academic CV Tipsheet
- Think about your key achievements regarding research outputs, independence and leadership, impact (academic and non-academic), funding and external recognition. – See document for more details.
Talk to others
- Speak with your PI – discuss during your PRDP what your future career aspirations are
- Speak with current fellows, other postdocs, an academic mentor
- Book a one-to-one with the PFDC to discuss your career goals
Become a panellist for the PFDC Mock interviews
As a panellist, you get to see what is expected at a fellowship interview as well as seeing what a successful application looks like to get the candidate to that point – more information here.
4. How do I come up with a fellowship idea?
A fellowship is an opportunity to embark on your own independent research towards your research vision and academic career path.
You need to decide what space you want to occupy in your field based on your unique skills, experience and expertise - use these to develop your innovative/novel idea/proposal.
To help you develop your fellowship idea and research vision use the questions on the research vision tip sheet.
A fellowship is often a pathway to independence and the opportunity for you to be the PI, to pursue your own ideas and to lead your own research agenda.
Consider what is the best next step for you: another postdoc? be named researcher on a grant? or applying for a fellowship?
5. Is my publication record good enough?
This is a commonly asked question with no easy answer. It very much depends on your discipline, the role you are applying for, and how many years postdoctoral experience you have.
The best people to answer this question are your peers. You should ask your PI, senior colleagues or collaborators for their opinion.
Many organisations have signed The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), where they move away from using journal-based metrics, such as journal impact factors (JIFs), in assessing the research achievements of staff or candidates, and you should also be aware of it.
6. Do all fellowships have ‘years’ post PhD’ as an eligibility criteria?
Check your eligibility carefully in the funder’s website and guidelines. If you have any questions, contact the funder.
Some funders have removed ‘years post PhD’ and instead have moved to ask the applicant to consider their skills and experience (relevant to their career stage) against what is expected for the different schemes or fellowships. For example:
- MRC - Skills needed to win support
- EPSRC - Who can apply and when
- UKRI Future Leaders - Person Specification
In all cases, you need to evidence your achievements and successes and showcase your upward career trajectory.
7. How do I know which fellowship to apply for?
Fellowships vary on career stage and purpose (based on the funders mission/values).
You need to research which is the best fit for your research vision and whether you are eligible. Check the priority areas, themes, and the categories funders list on their websites. What is their current remit and how do you fit? If in doubt, check with the funders for clarity.
Please note you can have multiple applications being developed, written and submitted at the one time, but check with the funder if there are any restrictions on submitting parallel applications. It is your responsibility to notify funders on outcomes of other funding applications.
Things to consider in order to narrow down your choices:
- Don’t listen to myths – do your own research
- Look at the eligibility criteria – check carefully it can change
- Speak to PI/peers/current fellows - use your network
- Discuss in your PRDP
- Have a look at a list of current or past fellows in your department to see what fellowships have previously been sponsored
- Speak to Head of Department / Sponsor / Mentor
- Check with the funder
Some funders provide guidance related to which schemes are available at different career stages:
8. How do I choose a sponsor? How do I approach a potential sponsor?
Some fellowships will require you to have a sponsor or mentor at your host institution.
It is your responsibility to find a sponsor to support your application and mentor you through your fellowship. Consider the following points when starting to think about your sponsor:
- What is the role of the sponsor for that specific call? Different funders have different expectations of the sponsor within the sponsor-fellow relationship. You should be aware of these.
- What do you want/need from a sponsor? This will vary depending on your individual fellowship i.e. you maybe choose your sponsor based on their research area, your training needs, availability of equipment/data, their network, their mentoring approach, their reputation in the field or for mentoring early career researchers.
- What kind of working relationship will you expect? The choice of sponsor has been cited as one of the pivotal relationships for career success.
It is important to have a conversation with your potential sponsor about yours and their expectations and your future working relationship.
For example, the ICRF application form requires the sponsor to consider the Sponsor-Fellow expectations (details below).
You can use these points to help consider what you need to discuss with your potential sponsor for the fellowships you are applying for.
ICRF Sponsor-Fellow expectations
Please explain how you would support the candidate if they are successful and outline what they should expect in terms of their working relationship with you as their sponsor, including the following:
(i) Development of a fellow’s independent research career: Explain what you will do to help the fellow develop their independent research career. This could include supporting their interactions with colleagues within Imperial and also in external research communities and networks.
(ii) Collaboration and authorship: Please explain how you would guide the fellow with respect to their research and how you would expect to collaborate with them. Please indicate what the fellow should expect with respect to authorship of their papers, including co-authorship with you as their sponsor.
(iii) Resources: Please explain what resources would be immediately available to the fellow to assist their research. This could include departmental funding, allocation of a PhD student, the opportunity to supervise Masters projects, access to computing facilities etc. For experimental research programmes, please outline the laboratory space and equipment that would be made available to the fellow and please indicate how the fellow would be able to develop their own independent research programme in your laboratory.
9. Where do I find funding opportunities?
You should start by doing your research and finding out what is available and what you’re eligible for.
A good place to start is the Research Councils, your research area specific funders and charities webpages, you can also follow them on i.e. Twitter for any updates and call announcements.
Use your network, speak with current fellows, your PI, mentors to get further advice and suggestions. Who are the main funders for the department you wish to host your fellowship? It is likely that your research idea if it aligns with the departments' research strategy, will also align with these funders.
Imperial has a subscription to Idox GRANTfinder 4 Education, an online provider for research funding information offering a searchable database of funding opportunities with the option to subscribe to alerts – further information available on the Idox GRANTfinder 4 Education page.
PFDC host a range of Funder Showcases and Funder Briefings which highlight the fellowship opportunities individual funders have to offer, as well as providing the opportunity for current fellowship holders to share their expertise and experiences of the fellowship application process through to interview top tips. Subscribe to the PFDC Newsletter for updates on PFDC Funder Showcases and Funder Briefings.
Below are some resources that may help you identify funding opportunities. This is not an extensive list but a good starting point:
- PFDC Fellowship Opportunities table
- PFDC Funding Opportunities Webpage
- Imperial Managed Funding Calls
- Research Office – Imperial’s Research Office website offers extensive information on funders and funding opportunities, as well as support for preparing a proposal and managing your project.
- EURAXESS funding search tool from the British Council - lists schemes that fund travel to conferences, meeting organisation, short visits, longer fellowships. Results can be filtered to show only those appropriate for early career researchers.
- ECRcentral Is a central platform for early career researchers to find research fellowships and travel grants and to share experiences, resources and feedback.
10. Should I stay at Imperial (in the same group/dept.), move to a different group/dept. or move to a different host institute?
Some fellowships/funders will require you to move group/department/host institution/country -you should always check the guidelines.
Mobility is great evidence of independence. If you choose to remain in the same host group/dept, consider how you can evidence your independence and how your research is significantly different from your PhD supervisor or your former/current line manager. In a fellowship, you are required to justify your choice of host. Whether you stay at the same institution or you move to a new host institution, you will need to evidence that it is the best place for you to hold your fellowship and potentially start to build your group.
The 3P’s Tipsheet offers guidance on things to consider when choosing the place to be holding your fellowship.
11. Can I hold my fellowship in a part-time basis?
Yes, this is possible, however, you need to talk early with your sponsor about part-time and flexible work arrangements and contact the funding body if you have queries regarding this.
Most of the funders consider applications for fellowships on a part-time basis if this has been agreed with the host institution and the sponsor. Usually, at least 0.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) must be dedicated to the fellowship, and the length of the fellowship is extended accordingly.
See example guidance from UKRI on Career breaks and flexible working.
Some funding bodies will accommodate changing your fellowship to part-time, you will need to discuss this with both your host institution and the funding body.
There are specific fellowships for researchers that require part-time and flexible working, for example, the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship scheme from the Royal Society.
This scheme offers a recognised first step into an independent research career for outstanding scientists and engineers who have a current need for flexible support (i.e. need to work part-time).
12. I left academia for a career break or a career change. Can I apply for a fellowship?
Yes, there are specific re-entry fellowships designed for you to re-establish your research career after a career break.
Different funders will have different eligibility criteria, so we advise you to always check the funders' websites and guidelines.
Some re-entry fellowships include:
13. Can I teach during my fellowship?
In general, fellowships protect your time from teaching commitments, however, it is possible to teach if this has been checked and agreed with the funding body and your host institution.
As an illustrative example, UKRI fellowship holders may spend up to six hours a week (pro-rata for part-time applicants) on other commitments and related activities which will enhance their career development (for example, teaching, demonstrating, peer-review, other funded projects or business-related activities).
Discuss opportunities, your time allocation for the duration of the fellowship and expectations from your host early on to protect your dedicated research time and to build in time for career development opportunities.
14. How long will it take from my initial fellowship idea to submitting my application?
It is never too early to start. From experience, it takes a minimum of 6 months from initial idea to submission of an application.
Importantly, you need to know the submission process:
- Are there internal deadlines – at department level or institution-wide?
- What are the funder submission deadlines?
- Do you need to submit an Expression of Interest (EoI) or preliminary application before submitting a full application?
- What documentation is required for the application?
- What supporting documentation is required i.e. letters of support, a letter from the Head of Department?
- Who signs off your application? Is it your sponsor, the Head of Department or the Research Office?
- How do you submit your application? Do you use a Funding Management System (i.e. Je-S)? Do you submit the application or does the Research Office submit on your behalf?
- Do you need to submit your application to the Research Office prior to final submission i.e. for final approval and institution authorisation?
Understand how to apply
Some departments/faculties here at Imperial have webpages outlining their processes for fellowship applications:
Please note you can have multiple applications being developed, written and submitted at the one time, but check with the funder if there are any restrictions on submitting parallel applications. It is your responsibility to notify funders on outcomes of other funding sources.
If you are working on multiple applications at the same time – do not cut and paste – tailor each application to the specific scheme/call/funder.
Blog about the application process
Read former PFDC Postdoc Rep, Katerina Kandylaki’s application story – ‘Road to grant: 1. The proposal’
15. How do I plan the budget? Who can help me with developing the budget?
A fellowship application will require a budget; you should check the guidelines for eligible costs (i.e. salary, staff, consumables, travel, outreach, open access publication fees, equipment). You will often be asked to include a justification of resources in your application with a rationale of your costs.
We recommend you:
- Speak with your host department
- Speak with the Research Office at your host institution
- Check HR for pay scales and the Research Office on how to factor salary increments
16. When do I apply for ethical approval?
Imperial provides guidance on Human Research Ethics - This website provides information on how to obtain ethical approval for (Non-NHS) health and non-health related research involving human participants and or their data or research which has a current or future human impact. Supporting Ethics Applications for maximum research benefit and minimum risk of harm.
They provide support on understanding ‘What is ethics’ and ‘Do I need to apply for ethical approval for my research proposal?’
Imperial provides details and guidance on Animal Research – This website provides information on current animal research, Imperial’s policy statement for animal research, information on the principles of the 3Rs (replacement, refinement and reduction) and details on how Imperial’s animal research is strictly regulated by the Home Office and overseen by ethical committees.
Speak with your line manager, sponsor or department colleagues and check with the funder to clarify any concerns around Research Ethics.
It’s important to also ensure you are up to date and complying with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the UK Data Protection Act 2018. Imperial has a dedicated Data Protection team to support you with Data Protection queries and a website with all the latest GDPR information.
17. What support does the PFDC offer to help me with my fellowship application?
The PFDC team will support you at every stage of the fellowship process. We offer a whole host of different services to support you with your application, these include:
Workshops and Courses
- What’s your Research Vision?
- Starting to think about a fellowship application
- How to write a lay summary
- Pathways to Impact
- Fellowship Interviews
* Subscribe to the PFDC Newsletter for updates on PFDC Pop Ups Funder Showcases and Courses.
Interview preparation - Mock Interviews & Mock Interviews panel member
Review applications – one-to-one appointment
- Idox GrantFinder
- Academic CV
- What’s your Research Vision
- The three Ps – Person, Project, Place
- Work Packages
- Writing a lay summary
- Research Impact
18. How long will it take from submission to receiving the award and starting my fellowship?
The timeline from submission to award to starting your fellowship will vary depending on specific schemes and institutional processes, check funder webpages, funders sometimes share the process timeline – i.e. peer review timescale, prioritisation panel, shortlist dates/period, interview dates/period, outcome dates/period and expected start date for fellowships. Use this information to plan your submission – it could be a year from submission to being awarded the fellowship.
The period of time between the announcement of the award and your actual starting date will vary based on the funder. Sometimes you will be informed of the outcome but there will be an embargo on sharing this news. Between the announcement of the award and actual start date, you will need to sign a contract and go through any institution processes.
The Research Office Post Award team have a list of Golden Rules for main funders which outlines some of the processes required.
Blog about the application process
Read former PFDC Postdoc Rep, Katerina Kandylaki’s application story – ‘Road to grant: 2. The agreement preparation’
19. How do I respond to reviewers’ comments?
Be polite, take a breath and don’t get offended.
Don’t rush your response, this is your opportunity to clarify any areas of confusion or weakness within the application, highlighting the importance, the significance of the project and also of you as a candidate.
UKRI provide guidance for Future Leader Fellowship (FLF) candidates on how to respond to reviewers comments – page three is a useful summary for responding to any peer review comments not just FLFs - see the full document here.
20. How do I prepare for a fellowship interview?
Fellowship interviews will vary according to the funders. Your invite letter should explain what is expected of you, as well as logistics such as time and location. Read the invite letter carefully.
The time between receiving your invite letter and actual interview will vary according to the funder. Some funders will publish interview dates in advance – when applying make a note of these dates so you can plan accordingly.
Interviews will vary on: focus, panel size, time, presentation request and question type.
For interview questions they may focus on the technical aspects of your proposal or more on you the candidate, your motivation and career aspirations, it’s important to prepare yourself for a range of questions.
How to prepare:
- Re-read your application and CV
- Note down any updates to your research proposal or your CV – i.e. new publications
- Read - Preparing for your fellowship interview
- Book a mock interview with the PFDC.
- Have a technical mock interview with your department
- PFDC has a list of academic interview questions to help you prepare
- Practice your presentation – make sure your personation addresses what you’ve been asked to present and runs to time!
- Attend the PFDC Pop up – Fellowship Interviews
- Speak with current fellows – ask them about their experience of fellowship interviews
- Become a mock interview panellist - To experience being on an interview panel and have the opportunity to experience ‘the other side of the table’, volunteer to be a panel member on our mock interviews by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
21. How do I deal with rejection – at application and interview stages?
Fellowships are competitive, and as with all funding in science, success rates can be <20% mark.
Therefore, as with your scientific publications, some fellowships will be rejected. It’s important to acknowledge that this is part of a scientist’s role and that all researchers will have experienced a fellowship, grant or paper being rejected at some stage in their career. For fellowships, it’s important to make use of feedback and use it constructively in future applications and at future interviews.
Some funders will provide feedback at the application stage, although it is less common. You may get reviewers comments if your application gets to peer review stage. If you don’t get feedback from the funder on your application, ask your sponsor, line manager and colleagues for feedback to strengthen the application for next time.
At the interview stage, you may receive reviewers’ comments and feedback from the funder. If you are rejected at the interview stage, you can ask for feedback from the panel (unless the funder clearly states that feedback won’t be provided). Discuss this feedback with your sponsor, line manager and colleagues.
How to deal with this rejection?
You need to build resilience, below we have included links to support provided by LDC at Imperial.
More and more academics are sharing their career paths, including the successes and failures – it’s important to understand that it’s unheard of for someone to secure every fellowship or grant they apply for.