Research fellowships are often touted by institutions and funders as THE NEXT BIG STEP for postdocs by tempting fledgling researchers with the opportunity to apply for funds – either to conduct research themselves, or to set up their own research group of resplendent laboratory minions. However, like many things in academic research, fellowships are bizarre schemes that wouldn’t make sense in any context outside academia, and barely make sense even in academia. At the simplest level, fellowships are written by postdocs so that postdocs can eventually hire themselves at some unspecified point in the future.
It is quite simply, weird.
There are many obstacles in the way of an optimistic postdoc writing a fellowship proposal. These all contribute to what I like to call The Fellowship Fallacy! (cue dramatic music)
The First Fellowship Fallacy is Time
Postdocs are employed by other people on short term grants, with typical contracts typically ranging from a few months to a year, with some postdocs lucky enough to have job security for two or three years. As such, postdocs are often stressed out from regular work, worried about what part of the world they will be living in soon, and whether or not they have much meaningful choice in the latter.
Time is not something postdocs have.
But oh boy, fellowship proposals are time eaters. In fact, they are so good at consuming time, I think they should be used as a villain in the upcoming series of Doctor Who.
Assuming you have a brilliant science idea, and maybe some evidence for that idea, fellowship proposals can take anywhere between one to three months to write. They are big complex beasts, requiring you to pen various miscellaneous documents signed by very helpful people you probably didn’t even know worked at your institution. Once you write the actual thing it takes over 6 months to get a final decision from the funding agency you applied to.
So, to summarise the problem: it takes the best part of nine months to write a proposal and receive a decision on it… and in that time, postdocs must plan for other eventualities, often moving onto other labs, institutions, or countries. This does not compute.
The Second Fallacy is Complexity
The reason why fellowship applications take a long time to write, is that alongside requiring very good science proposals, most also require a long laundry list of ancillary documents. These documents serve some sort of purpose to the funder, but they also add considerable length and complexity to a fellowship application. Such complexities can be handled well by experienced grant writers (read Professors), but to your average early career postdoc, these extra requirements are a minefield that can sink your proposal without the science ever being given a fair hearing.
To give you an idea of just how complex this can be, here is a modest laundry list of all the documents I had to submit for a recent 3-year BBSRC fellowship:
- The case for support (i.e. the actual science bit)
- Justification of resources (i.e. why you need the money)
- Diagrammatic workplan – some crystal ball gazing in the form of a Gantt chart
- A letter of support from the Head of School (whom I still haven’t met).
- A letter of support from the head honcho of the host lab (i.e. telling the funder that your science idea is super-awesome!)
- A letter of support from nice collaborator #2 (i.e. telling the funder that they will let you use their toys and that you are a nice person)
- A letter of support from nice collaborator #3. See above.
- A letter of support from nice collaborator #4. See above.
- Pathways to impact statement (i.e. telling the funder you will get a paper in Nature, get a patent, maybe start a fancy company, and you will consider talking to the public about science. Maybe.)
- A list of publications (this is always too short, but you are a postdoc, not a professor!)
- A career development plan (i.e. what dull training courses will you attend?)
- A data management plan (i.e. that you won’t lose your data in the back of a taxi)
- A C.V. in a silly format that doesn’t let you list your actual accomplishments.
For each of these documents there were guidelines hidden in a very long, nebulous, multi-threaded PDF supplied by the funding agency, which includes all the details you need to know in an order that didn’t always make sense. I got the feeling that this is part of the process to scare-off all but the most valiant of optimistic postdocs! These guidance notes are quite reminiscent of those disjointed ‘chose your own adventure’ books from the pre-internet times, if every adventure ends up with your writing a fellowship application whilst feeling confused and tired.
The application complexity is further boosted to boggling levels because each separate document has its own guidelines and formatting, which is contained in various tables and appendices throughout the guidance. As a bonus, for half of the documents you must seek the guidance and/or signature of someone in your institution that you’ve likely never met before. Don’t leave it too late, or that vital person may be on holiday, sabbatical, or just in an overly-long staff meeting!
Whilst each document serves a purpose, I do wonder if such complexity is required right at the start of a fellowship application? I’m told that the success rate of fellowship applications for the BBSRC is less than 10%. That means that for every successful application, nine early career researchers see weeks of extremely precious effort go up in smoke. It is my feeling that a shorter, multi-round application process could help encourage high-quality applications without being such a massive time sink for many postdoc researchers who after all, are employed by many of the same funders to do research, not write fellowship applications!
The Third Fallacy is Duplication
Duplication is the Third Fallacy
Once you’ve assembled your exciting team of documents, you get to upload them to a portal. For the UK research councils, this is a website called JeS, which appears to be the website equivalent of a classic car: it putters along, is horribly inefficient, and it makes young people very nervous.
For fun, JeS often asks you to input large chunks of text that seem to duplicate the aforementioned documents that you submitted. Instead this time in raw text, without formatting, and in fewer words. For my recent application, I had to fill out the following JeS joy boxes:
- Technical summary (i.e. the science)
- Lay summary (i.e. the science bit the funder can put on their website)
- Partnership details (i.e. we didn’t read who you said you were working with)
- Academic beneficiaries
Why did I have to do this? I don’t know! Many of the boxes and uploads contain information duplicated in the uploads. Quite frankly, these sections of JeS applications are redundant and, to me, seem like a huge waste of time for all concerned.
The Fourth Fallacy is Institutional Support and Security (or lack of)
The fourth fallacy is that fledgling early career researchers go to all this effort, with quite frankly, minimal support or security from their institutions in terms of time and career stability.
First of all, let’s talk about the time that it takes to plan and formulate research ideas. When I submitted the aforementioned BBSRC fellowship proposal, I was very fortunate in that my supervisor let me take a few weeks of regular postdoc time and turn that towards the research and writing required for a fellowship application. Even then it required work in the evenings and weekends. Other researchers elsewhere aren’t so fortunate in that they must work on proposals in evenings and weekends, whilst working their main research job.
How do institutions expect PhD students and postdocs to work extra hard to apply for fellowships whilst juggling their “regular job” plus a family and other commitments? It seems like a totally unsustainable practice, which probably contributes to the “leaky pipeline” of academia (which is more like an electrified obstacle course connected to a random number generator).
With these issues in mind, here are a few optimistic ideas of how institutions could support their postdocs and help with fellowship applications:
- Institutions could run regular fellowship support sessions that introduce the general concept of fellowships and their challenges. At my former institution, there were sessions that went into detail about sub-paragraphs of the European Marie Curie Fellowship schemes; yet I didn’t encounter a single support session about fellowships in general. It was simultaneous overkill and underkill, and totally missed the needs of most early career researchers.
- Institutions could provide additional security to postdocs on short term contracts, e.g. a few months additional funding for particularly promising fellowship applications. Otherwise, institutions may find that successful postdocs have, quite literally, moved on by the time the fellowship is awarded, and that their fellowship money could move on with them!
- Institutions could offer additional contract extensions or funding if postdocs disclose intellectual property ideas used within fellowships. Otherwise the first institution may have to negotiate with other institutions for intellectual property rights when the early career researcher moves on.
Now, I realise many of these suggestions would be met with cries of “magic money tree”, but institutions often stand to get a big pot of money from fellowship applications, so why not devote some extra resources to help early career researchers successfully apply?
The Final Fallacy is Feedback
I recently heard back about the BBSRC fellowship application. It wasn’t successful and the rejection came with no feedback. When I asked about feedback I was told that applicants may have to wait up to three months for feedback.
I steeled myself for a long wait.
And then the reviews came back within a week!
The reviews were very helpful: I appreciate the positive and constructive comments from the four anonymous senior academics who took the time to review the fellowship proposal and help me improve in future. However, the proposal ranking is very confusing.
BBSRC have four ranking categories:
- Exceptional (fund)
- Excellent (fund)
- Very good (fundable)
- Good (fundable)
- Not competitive (not fundable)
- Unfundable (what it says on the tin)
My proposal was ranked roughly 50/50 Excellent (fund) or Very good (fundable), which I was chuffed with. However, just because something is “fundable” doesn’t mean you will get funded.
Talk about mixed messages!
As far as I can tell, what the reviewer rankings actually tell the funder is:
- Exceptional = strongest recommendation to fund
- Excellent = strong recommendation to fund
- Very good = maybe fund this.
- Good = weakly recommend funding this.
I’d be very interested in the breakdown of the scoring of the fellowships that were funded. I’d bet that they all scored Exceptional.
Congratulations for making it this far. Ironically, just like the fellowship application process, this blog has become rather bloated, yet I haven’t even touched upon a myriad of other challenges that go with writing a fellowship application. For example, the difficulties of writing the impact and commercialisation statements and the financial planning required. I also haven’t touched upon post-PhD time eligibility cut-offs, or the idea that you can transfer a fellowship between institutions if you are successful!
In my opinion, the way fellowships are currently done has to change. Fellowships are the new norm in academia, yet these monstrous applications select only for those who can put in herculean amounts of effort above their regular research to apply for fellowships over and over and over. This is incredibly damaging to the morale and diversity of early career researchers. I’m not arguing that fellowship applications should be less rigorous, but I am arguing that fellowships need to move to a more streamlined application model, which is less wasteful of early career researchers’ time, effort, and morale.
The most obvious thing I can think of is to use a multi-stage application system to reduce the ‘start-up’ time required to apply for a fellowship. After an initial round, the best applicants (say top 30%) can then be invited to invest a large amount of time into supplying all the rigorous material required for the full-blown application. That way, both funders and early career researchers save time, and crucially encourage early career researchers to stay on this electrified obstacle course that we call academia.
Currently, there are only a few fellowship schemes that follow a streamlined application model, notably The Royal Commission of 1851 Research Fellowships and Branco Weiss “Society in Science” Fellowships. Some fellowships are multi-stage applications with institutions acting as gate-keepers (e.g. MRC Skills Development Fellowships). This is a bit better, but could still have problems due to biases within each institution. Most other fellowship applications seem to be big bloated monsters that exist to consume the time and effort of early career researchers who have little to spare. This over-long application actively selects against early career researchers who need to maintain any sort of work life balance, and is probably a negative filter that discourages many young researchers from academic research.
I hope that funders and institutions can understand the challenges that early career researchers are up against, and I hope they can change things to address these fellowship fallacies.