Tips for making Early Career Fellowship Applications – the ‘Basics’

Happy New Year all!

In this final post on applying for Early Career Fellowships, I’m going to cover some of the ‘basics’ of the application process. When I run workshops on applying for Early Career schemes, people tend to roll their eyes and/or emit loud sighs when I get to this bit, but, having seen applications for Manchester’s Simon and Hallsworth Fellowships, I am 100% certain that people still make these ‘obvious’ mistakes. So, without apology, here goes:

Before you start:

  • Check that you are eligible for the scheme that you are planning to apply for. If it says that you have to have been awarded your PhD, don’t apply until that is the case. It doesn’t matter how much of an academic star you are, your application will not make it past an initial sift if you’re simply not eligible. If, however, you have any doubts about whether or not you are eligible, make sure you contact the funder to check.
  • Check that your potential host institution will support your application. Some Universities will not support Leverhulme applications, for instance, so make sure that they are happy for you to name them on your application. It is also helpful for your host institution to be aware that you are planning to make an application sooner rather than later.
  • Also, get to know your host institution well. It’s worth actually being in touch with someone (like the Head of Department) as s/he may be able to give you useful information about the direction of the department or the support on offer to researchers that is not freely available on the website, and which might strengthen your application.
  • Try to get hold of some successful applications and/or speak to some current award holders. If you are able to see a couple of successful applications (you can sometimes get these from the Research Office at your current institution or potential host institution), spend some time really analysing them rather than just giving them a quick skim. Look closely at how successful applicants have argued why they and their research should be funded.

When you’re writing the application:

  • Start early so that you have plenty of time to review and refine.
  • Proof-read the application (or have someone else proof-read it for you). Don’t rely on a spelling and grammar check – there are errors that only a careful reader will identify. For instance, if you have changed the date that you’re planning to submit an article by, you may need to change this in more than one section to ensure that your application is consistent. A spell-check will not do this for you.
  • Try to have a couple of different (kinds of) people give you feedback. A supervisor or PI is likely to have experience of applying for grants and can give you useful feedback on the persuasiveness of your application. However, s/he may not be the best person to give feedback on your ‘lay’ summary, which needs to be understandable to non-subject experts. When you ask for feedback give polite deadlines so that you’re not forced to work on several versions of the application in parallel.
  • In general, try to avoid jargon and acronyms as your application may well be assessed by reviewers who are not in your immediate discipline.
  • If you have any queries or problems, contact your potential funder. They are keen to encourage good quality applications and will therefore help you to make the best application possible.
  • However, you should also stick to all deadlines and instructions rigidly. Most funders receive many more applications than they can fund so don’t give them an excuse to reject your application on a technicality.

After submission (and if you’re not successful):

  • Get back on the horse. Clearly no-one enjoys rejection, but the success rates of many of the big funding schemes mean that the vast majority of applicants will not be funded. Many of the award-holders who speak at the funding workshops applied to several schemes (often several times) before they were successful – it is extremely rare for someone to get the first Fellowship that they apply for.
  • The thing that the successful applicants have in common is an awareness of how they improved their application each time they submitted it. They have all been able to talk about the key differences between their eventual successful applications and the ones that didn’t quite make it (and none of them put it down to ‘luck’). If you aren’t funded, try to think critically about the potential weaknesses of your application (this might include having applied to the wrong funder, or having chosen the wron host instuitution) and address them before applying again.
  • If you are given feedback (or you seek some out), make sure you act on it.

So, those are my ‘basics’ – maybe not as interesting as wrestling with understanding exactly how to tell funders what they want to know, but potentially as important in writing a successful application. Good luck to anyone who is currently in the process of applying for one of these Fellowships!

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