Tips for making early career fellowship applications – how to tell funders what they want to know.

A couple of days ago I made a post about what funders of early career fellowships want to know – explicitly and implicitly. In this post I’m going to focus more on how you give them that information. So, for instance, how can a potential research fellow show that they will deliver value for money, or that they are an academic of the future?

Here, I’m going to offer a few tips based on the successful applications that I’ve read and the presentations by successful applicants that I’ve heard. However, there are other ways to get good ideas about how to write a successful application – go to those presentations and read those applicantions for yourself, for a start! Also, if you’re lucky enough to be a researcher in a University like Manchester which has a large number of academics who serve on funders’ peer reveiw panels you might be able to get some top tips from the people who actually contribute to the funding decisions. You can also go directly to the funders themselves with questions about your application. Most of them want to encourage a large number of good quality applications, and so will be willing to answer questions about what they want to see in applications.

Having said all that, here are my top tips for starting to articulate what those funders are looking for…

How to show you’re a potential academic of the future

  1. Tell them about any academic achievements that set you apart from the competition. Most applicants will think to mention any publications, conference presentations or edited volumes that they have been or are currently involved in.  However, you can also mention any peer reviewing that you have been invited to do, any awards or funding that you have won (even small amounts), posts that you have managed to secure or keynotes or invited talks which demonstrate that you are an (or the) expert in a particular area.
  2. Show that you are starting to establish a network of useful contacts inside and, if applicable, outside of academia.
  3. Make sure that you have clear plans for your future career development which will help to make you a credible candidate for an academic post at the end of the Fellowship. As I mentioned in the earlier post, these early career fellowships are often as much about your potential and future as an academic as they are about your proposed project. Show that you have an understanding of academic work and its timescales, as well as a grasp of which aspects are under your control, and which will rely on others. For instance you might promise to submit articles to three journals and/or submit a proposal for a monograph to a publisher, but you should be wary of promising that your articles or book will be published. Submission of articels is under your control while publication relies on a whole host of other people and their timeframes. The panel will want to see that you have a realistic plan for your outputs and that you understand the nature of academic work – this is reflected in plans which are ambitious enough to make an impact on your CV, but realistic enough to actually come to fruition.

How to show your project will be value for money

  1. Don’t repeat work that has already been done (by yourself or someone else). Early Career Fellowships generally represent a fairly significant investment in you and your project so show that you are going to be able to make good use of work that has already been carried out (ie other texts, your PhD research, exisiting datasets, etc).
  2. Show that you’re going to be able to hit the ground running by thinking about your proposal and plans in advance and being as concrete and detailed in the proposal as possible. So, for instance, rather than just saying that you’ll publish three papers, give working titles (or at least say what the papers will be about) and mention the journals that you’re planning to target. If you’re planning a monograph you could give a working title and/or say something about how it might be structured, as well as some of the publishers that you plan to approach. Have any planning or networking discussions that you can in advance of writing the proposal – that way the panel can be reassured that the right people have already been consulted and the wheels are already in motion. They can therefore be confident that you can get started on day one, rather than spending the first months of the Fellowship planning and making arrangements.
  3. Be ambitious about what you promise to achieve, but also be realistic. This is a difficult balance to strike, but the panel will want to see that you are going to stretch yourself without wasting time on plans that are clearly too ambitious for the timeframe of the Fellowship. It’s also important that you deliver what you promise in order not to tarnish your reputation, especially with big funders who you might want to come back to again later in your career.
  4. Think about how to maximise your potential outputs (within academia and/or outside). Will your research be of interest to people in other disciplines? If so, how will you make sure that they know about it and have access to it? Is it of interest to policymakers, the public, the government, etc? Again, if so, don’t just say this – show that you have a plan for how to make people aware of your research and give them access to it (for instance through non-academic publications, non-academic talks, your network, etc)
  5. Show that you have the skills and experience to deliver what you’re promising. If you’re promising to write publishable research, mention that you have already been published in the past or that you currently work as a peer reviewer. Having completed your PhD on time is also a good sign that you can manage a research project lasting about the same amount of time that most funers would give you for a Fellowship. Your previous experience will back up your claims and reassure the panel that you can (and indeed already have) deliver on your promises.

How to show that your research is worth funding

Clearly, you need to show that you are excited and interested in your research area, but that is not enough to get it funded. There are several different ways to argue for why your particular project should be funded and you might (and probably should) use more than one in your proposal.

  1. Show what is new/original/innovative about your research. There are several ways in which the project might be original or new. It may be that you are using new data to answer an old question, or old data to answer a new question. Perhaps you are inventing a new methodology or a new conceptual framework. You might be investigating a country, text, group of people, etc that have not been studied before or you might be bringing methods from one discipline to another. Spending a little time reflecting on what is new about your research, and being able to summarise it in a sentence or two is really useful for a variety of academic tasks (inlcuding writing conference abstracts and networking) as well as writing Fellowship applications.
  2. Perhaps a slightly different way to think about the previous point is to establish what gap or niche your research fills. This would involve saying a little bit about the broader context in which your work sits, but also making it very clear where that previous work has fallen short. You also need to explain why the gap that exists is important – just because something has not been investigated, does not mean that it is worth studying. There may be a good reason why the gap exisits, so you need to argue that filling the gap is ‘necessary’, ‘important’ or ‘essential’ to further understanding in the area in which you work (and maybe outside it too).
  3. Show impact outside of your immediate research area if not outside of academia. The greater the influence of your work, the more important (and therefore worthy of funding) it might appear to be.

How to talk about your methodology

  1. Be clear that your chosen methodology will answer the question that you have set yourself.
  2. Think in advance about the details and any potential barriers that you might face. How will you select your sample? What’s a suitable sample size for the time that you have on the Fellowship? Are there potential ethical implications that might prevent you? How will you identify interviewees, gain access to them and get them to give you the information that you need? Try to pre-empt any qualms that the panel might have about how you propose to carry out your research.

In my final post on applying  for Fellowships I’ll cover some of the ‘basics’, including the kind of language to aim for, what happens if you don’t get funded and how to get started.


One thought on “Tips for making early career fellowship applications – how to tell funders what they want to know.

  1. Pingback: Applying for the ESRC Future Research Leaders Scheme – Top Tips from the recent workshop | Research Staff Blog

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