Tips for making early career fellowship applications – what do funders want to know?

I recently ran a workshop on writing applications for post-doc/early career fellowship applications, and thought it might also be worth committing some of the tips that we covered there to this blog. In this post, I’m going to focus on what funders want to know.

The session (and therefore the tips mentioned here) was fairly general – the aim was to give participants some sense of what funders tend to look for in this type of application (ie for early career development funding). Although there are differences between schemes, when it comes to writing the proposal, most funders (and here I mean the main funders of Arts, Humanities and Social Science research like the AHRC, ESRC, British Academy and Leverhulme) seem to want to know the same information, some of which is explicitly asked for on the application form, and some of which might not be so clear to potential applicants.

Application forms for post-doc fellowships tend to ask for:

  • Basic information about you
  • An outline of the potential project – sounds pretty simple, but is actually quite hard to do really well.
  • An abstract and/or ‘lay summary’ which asks you to summarise your project in terms that an intelligent non-specialist (ie a collegue from a different discipline) would understand
  • A plan or timeline for what you will do over the course of the Fellowship (usually 2-3 years)
  • A nominated host institution where you would like to hold the Fellowship. Most funders like this to be somewhere other than the University where you did your PhD, but whether you want to stay in the same place or move, you’ll still have to make a good case for your choice of host institution.
  • Costings for the project or, if they are going to give you a fixed amount of money, how you’ll spend their cash. Usually the Research Office at your host institution will give you help and advice in costing your project and figuring out what you will be able to manage to provide with the research expenses offered.
  • Sometimes, funders also want additional information like a CV (if so, make sure you get feedback on that too in order to ensure it is as strong as possible) or a supporting letter from the host institution. Check what other information they’ll want so that you have plenty of time to get everything together ahead of the deadline.

In addition to the information that is explicitly asked for on the application form, funders also want to know several other things that are maybe less obvious. Most funders publish their evaluation criteria on their websites, and it is definitley worth checking these out when you make your application as they are likely to give you some other hints about what they’re looking for in your application. In general, though, most of them want to see:

  • Why they should fund your project (i.e what is new, significant, innovative, interesting or important about it), not just what your project is about.
  • Why they should fund you – early career fellowships are career development awards and, as such, intended to provide you with a stepping stone from PhD to academic career. Therefore, funders want to see that you are a potential academic of the future.
  • How you’re going to give them value for money. This isn’t something that academics tend to think or talk much about, but funders will want to see that you’re going to make the best possible use of the money (and time) that they give you. Often, they’re using public money to fund research and have to justify the choices that they make about who and what to invest in so they want to see that you’re going to use the money wisely.
  • Your methodology – funders often complain that applicants spend a great deal of time and effort telling them what’s exciting about the project, but fail to go into enough detail about their proposed methodology.

In my next post I’ll say a bit about how you might go about giving this information to funders in your proposal.


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