Someone writing next to an "i"

Crafting the perfect fellowship application is tough. One of the big problems is being able to write strongly about ourselves. After all a fellowship is a personal funding award. We have to ‘sell the product’ – us. But how?


#1 I before we except after me

When I was at school (yep, dinosaurs roamed the earth) we had this saying “i before e except after c”. But there were so many exceptions – it didn’t really help at all. But in a fellowship application, I always goes before we. For the majority of you, I’m expecting that your research is a collaborative endeavour. When we report our research in journal articles, we tend to say we. That’s the convention. But a fellowship application is a sales pitch about you. I. Me. Mine.  And that’s the biggest shift to start with, and the one that most people find really hard. It is hard enough face to face!

Every sentence where you start describing your research, think can I start with an “I” statement? I created. I lead. I instigated. I gathered a group of collaborators together. People often feel that it’s overdone, but I think it’s usually just because we’re not used to writing in this way of how to ourselves. It will be impossible to start every sentence that way but focusing on you is essential. Come out of paper writing mode and into fellowship application mode.

Now, be truthful. Are there any other names on your fellowship application? Have you given other people a bigger weight on your proposal than you? I was working with a very lovely researcher. She had done a fantastic job of presenting the scientific case. It was really exciting! But there was so much about where she was going to do it, and who she was going to do it with, that she was lost in the mix. There was so much about other people, I was always left feeling “do we need this person in order to do the research?”. (The answer was absolutely we needed her by the way). Yes, we need others. But you’re bringing them together, you’re creating this new piece of knowledge or technology, whatever it might be. It’s you, the nexus in this fellowship. Every time you mentioned someone else’s name, I want you to think, did they need to be in there? Have I emphasised my relationship with that person? I am going out and seeking this person to collaborate. I’m gathering the set of collaborators together. I’m going to lead on the project with these people. It is all about you!

#2 A liberal sprinkle of you in *every* section

Depending on which fellowship you’re applying for, there are lots of different sections in the application. Every fellowship is different but let’s view that as a challenge! How can I shine in the section about methodology? Work packages? Don’t leave it all to the “personal career section”.

Every section is an opportunity for you to put in why you are important to the project. A fellowship is a personal award – that science or research isn’t going to happen without you! Therefore, even in your methodology section, you need to say why you are the best person to be delivering on their science. You have built up a series of techniques. You have put together some programming with some experimental work. It is you that is pulling it all together.

You are also bringing your own personal network. So your friends, collaborators (probably not family) are resounding to your banner call.! But you’re bringing the people that you know, to that project. It’s a new piece of research, it will have to be novel, to be funded for a fellowship. So I want to make sure that you take a liberal dose of I’m going to do this and I’m going to do that and sprinkle it in every single section.

 #3 What flavour researcher are you?

Vanilla? Rum and raisin? I’m much more of a mint choc chip girl myself. One of the key problems that I see in fellowship applications is that I’ve had to wade through a couple of pages until I get a sense of who this person is and what they’re actually going to do. They might have described at a very high level. Think about a genetics project. You can be a completely computational geneticist. You can be the pipette sort of geneticist (sorry, physicist here). You can do a huge variety of scientific roles within genetics.

A project title isn’t enough, I need to know what you do, what you’re bringing. There’s often an implicit assumption in the way that people write about themselves. You need to be explicit about what you do in a fellowship application. And why, again, you are fantastic for the fellowship.

You need to tell me early on in your application, or in your CV, which usually goes along with the fellowship application, what type of researcher you are. Quite often I look at people CVs that go in for fellowships. I’ve got a career history. I know they’ve been a postdoc for six years and yet I have no idea what they do! You’ve got to put yourself in the reviewers shoes. I’m giving you some money to do some fantastic research for three years, five years, however long it might be for that particular fellowship. What am I going to get back? Who am I putting my money on? What do you actually do? Are you a programmer? Are you an experimentalist? Are you a mixture of both? Are you a social sciences researcher, and again, that’s a huge broad brush, we need to tell our funders exactly who we are. Some ideas of using LinkedIn to help you can be found here.

This helps us in a very authentic way to lay out our credentials. So people usually have a problem with “I’ve led on this, and I’ve done that, and I’m an extremely brilliant researcher”. But you have credentials!  You don’t have to come across all salesy.  Absolutely, you can say, I am this type of researcher, and therefore, in an ideal position to deliver this project for you. Funding bodies are looking for deliverables. One of those is that you are going to go from here up the academic food chain!  But papers, books, journals, patents, all sorts of outcomes will come from your research. But they won’t know that until they know what flavour you are. What type of researcher are you?

#4 Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.

This very trite phrase, isn’t it? But none the less true! When it comes to writing an application, what often gets lost? And I think is hugely sad? Your passion for what you! Your drive. Why do you get up every morning to do what is probably really tough stuff? If you’re a postdoc, it’s not easy being a postdoc. Why do you give up and do that? My friend who’s an academic who sometimes says “I’m very tempted to go and work in Tesco”. Some days because it’s is just so tough. But then she’ll reconnect with what really excites her about her research.

The success of your fellowship application is tied into that authenticity of who you are. Your very unique trajectory to where you’ve got to. So some of you might be looking back at your CV and think this doesn’t really make any sense. I started in maths, and then I did a master’s in computational stuff, and now I’ve ended up in a biology department. Don’t say doesn’t make any sense! Actually, that’s a fantastic trajectory, to discover something new. To open up new doors. I think those novel ideas for fellowships often come in the gaps between the traditional silos that we have in our universities. So embrace the fact that you’re on unique. Tell us that you started in maths. So you’re very strong, theoretically, you’ve then got the computational skills. And now you can talk to people outside your field and apply it to biology. Who wouldn’t want to give someone like that some money for a fellowship?

So I would say that you really need to embrace who you are, tell us what your passion is. Don’t let that get lost in the very formal way that forms are set out. But if you do not convey passion and excitement for what you do, and why you are the best person to do it, then, you know, why is the funder going to believe it?

Need another pair of eyes on that tricky fellowship application? I can help …

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