How I got my fellowship – and how you might get yours

In my previous post I wrote that I recently got awarded a very competitive BBSRC David Phillips fellowship! And I promised I would dedicate a post to this. Applying for this fellowship has been a lengthy, exiting, and exhausting process, which has taught me a lot about how to write a grant proposal and how to prepare for such an important interview. Although I have applied for grants previously, none of them was anywhere near as much work, and as stressful, as this one.

So, here I will outline the points that I think are crucial for being successful in getting a very competitive fellowship like a BBSRC David Phillips fellowship. I think these points, together, can greatly improve your chances of being successful. But who am I that I think I have advice on this? Well, since 2008 I have applied for seven personal research grants (a Royal Society Newton International Fellowship, a Dutch Rubicon fellowship, a L’Oreal For Women in Science fellowship, a British Ecological Society Early Career grant, a Royal Society International Exchange Grant, a Royal Society University Research Fellowship, and a BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship), of which three were successful. If you consider that the average success rate of this type of grant is around 10%, then that’s pretty good. Moreover, I think I have learned a lot from applying for these grants and getting feedback on them, and I believe that as a result, I got better at it. Also, I regularly review grants for a range of funders, and I think this has improved my own grant writing.

Here are my tips.

  1. Come up with a good and exiting idea.

This is where it all starts. Obviously, a good grant proposal has to be based on a good idea. I often hear my peers complain that they don’t have any good ideas for future research. I have never struggled to get ideas, and to me, reading is the key to this. I think it is crucial to keep up with the literature, and especially with recent papers in the top journals in your field. As an ecologist, I always read Ecology Letters, trends in ecology and evolution, nature, and science. In particular, papers that propose new concepts or frameworks can get you thinking (although the authors of these papers are likely to be working on the ideas that they propose already!). While reading recent papers that are relevant for my research, I always think about my own results, try to identify knowledge gaps, and, hey presto! The questions just bubble up. And if they do, I write them down in a file called ‘research ideas’, which I keep on my computer.

OK, so once you have your idea, then, present it to your colleagues. Try to include both experts and non-experts – this will help to tweak the idea and to formulate it in a way that is sexy and appealing for a lay person.in the Faculty of life sciences, we have grant clubs, in which you can present your grant proposal ideas in front of a group of colleagues – this greatly helps to formulate your idea and to develop the proposal.

Finally, funders like exciting ideas, but they also like safe ideas. Therefore, it is very important to include relevant background and present some evidence or preliminary data to show that your idea might work.

  1. Write an excellent grant proposal.  

Although formats differ, a grant proposal always consists of several set components, that should all be intricately linked.

Background/ introduction

Why is your research important? Why should it be done now? Which knowledge gaps will it address? This section should be the real eye catcher and should enthuse and convince people who are not experts in your field. Also, for fellowships, which are personal grants, highlight in this section why YOU need to do this research.

Questions, hypotheses, objectives

Pretty obvious, this one, but you’d be surprised how many grant proposals don’t have these!

Preliminary data

If your idea is moderately wild, you will have to convince the funder that you can actually do what you promise, particularly if you are trying to move to a new research direction. Including preliminary data is crucial for this. I included preliminary data of the technique I wanted to use to analyse root exudate profiles in my BBSRC application, and this was mentioned as a positive point in the review reports. So, if you can, include some preliminary data in your proposal.

Methods

I like my methods, every single thing I describe, to link back to my questions and hypotheses. For every method or technique I describe, I specify which hypothesis or question it will address. And this includes stats!

Even for short format proposals, such as the Royal Society URF, you’ll probably end up including these components in this order, though not necessarily with these headings.

Then, for RCUK grants, there are things like Impact Statement, Justification of Resources, Flow Diagram…. Although these items probably won’t prevent a grant from being funded if the science is excellent, they might make the difference when two grants are equally strong. So, take these, however annoying, seriously!

Needless to say, start writing your proposal well before the application deadline – I think I started mine three months in advance. Read the scheme notes thoroughly, so your proposal won’t be rejected because of something silly like the wrong font size. It’s also useful to create an account, and have a good luck at the submission website and formats, sooner rather than later. In addition, your financial department might want your budget a while in advance of the deadline, and if you are submitting an RCUK grant, they will want you to submit on JES a couple of days before the actual deadline.

Finally, get help!!! Have your proposal read by experts and non-experts, and use their comments to make it better. Some universities even have an internal review procedure to make sure their proposals are of the highest quality.

  1. If invited for an interview, prepare as if your life depends on it (‘Fail to prepare, prepare to fail’)

When you’re invited for an interview, you’ll get an email detailing the duration and the format of the interview, and probably with the names of the committee members. You’ll definitely have to give a presentation, which will likely be very short, followed by questions from the panel. For the BBSRC David Phillips fellowship, it will all be over in 20 minutes: 10 minutes for your presentation, then 10 minutes for questions.

In my case, I had a month between being invited for the interview and the interview itself, and during that month I barely did anything else. The interview was on my mind pretty much continuously. This may sound ridiculous, but this was quite literally the most important interview in my entire career – we’re talking about a five-year project with a postdoc and a technician, worth over one million pounds. But, more importantly, a fellowship like this can have a transformational effect on your career. So, a thorough preparation is not a waste of time!

The thing that helped me most was the mock interview with a couple of experienced and extremely critical colleagues. My mock panel included two present David Phillips fellows, our section head, and a former chair of the BBSRC Fellowship committee (committee E). They gave me a proper grilling, for 1.5 hours, which taught me that my presentation was far from perfect. I am 100% sure that I wouldn’t have got the fellowship with the presentation I gave in my mock interview. The messages I took home, and had to incorporate in my presentation and answering style, were:

  • Don’t repeat your proposal. The panel will have read this, so don’t waste your precious time on going through this again. Instead, highlight the importance of the research you are proposing, and the applications down the line. I felt that I put a lot of effort in this, but the committee wrote in my interview report that I could have stressed this even more!
  • Make a very strong case for why YOU are the person that needs to do this research, and why YOU should get this fellowship NOW. Include preliminary data or relevant recent unpublished data, or recent publications. Throughout the interview, don’t let an opportunity pass to fling in some more credentials, such as papers that have been accepted or grants that you got after submitting your application.
  • Highlight your independence and stress throughout your presentation that the proposed research is based on YOUR ideas.
  • The committee is likely to ask you something about when things don’t work out like you outlined them in the proposal. Think about safety nets and alternatives, and know the weaknesses of your proposal.
  • Make sure your presentation does not exceed the allotted time. Do lots and lots of practice runs to feel confident that it doesn’t.
  • Make a clear, slick, simple, and appealing presentation. Avoid cluttered slides. Here is mine: DE VRIES – BBSRC David Phillips presentation
  • If, during the interview, they give you the option to present sitting down, DON’T! You’ll make much more of an impression standing up.
  • Although academia is quite forgiving when it comes to dress sense, wear something nice, moderately formal, that makes you feel confident and good about yourself. Avoid tight clothes that feel sweaty or restrict your movements. Use layers, so you can easily adjust to the temperature in the interview room. A jacket and a shirt is always a good choice.
  • Google the people in the committee, read about their field of expertise, and think about obvious questions that they might come up with.
  • Even if you don’t feel confident, act confident!
  • Smile (although not hysterically so), and look the committee in the eyes.

Finally, when it’s all over and you are standing outside, shaking, hyper, not sure what to think: if it felt OK, it probably went well – most applicants tend to think they did worse than they actually did. Although this is easier said than done, try not to dwell on it. Relax, take a break, congratulate yourself with coming this far, reassure yourself that even if you don’t get the fellowship it was a useful experience, and then the wait begins….

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7 comments on “How I got my fellowship – and how you might get yours

  1. In the application guidelines they highlight that the “value for money” aspect of the proposal is extremely important. How did you deal with that? That would be really useful. All the best.
    Tanai

  2. Gitanjali Rai says:

    Hi Franciska, I am from India and I have managed to get a researcher in U.K who has agreed to support my application for newton fellowship. Though I am from a different background (Physical Chemistry), I would like to take your advice on writing a research proposal for this fellowship. I mean the length of the proposal, number of references, figures, moreover how to present it more effectively. Kindly take out some time to reply me as I am in the process to write one.

    Thanks

    Gitanjali

  3. […] I wrote in my previous post, I was awarded a BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship just before I went on maternity leave. The aim of […]

  4. Hi Franciska, This blog is great, very uplifting and full of useful tips. I am considering applying for the Sir David Phillips now, but I am a bit unsure my CV is competitive enough. I spoke with someone who had a SDP fellowship and they told me that papers in big journals are a must. My highest impact paper is on JACS (impact 14), but it is not on a broader journal like Nature or Science. I know this depends a lot on the project and person, but in your experience and the people you’ve talked to will I be wasting my time applying? I know all fellowships are competitive, but SDP is one of the most competitive if not the most competitive around (Congrats!). Thanks a lot.

  5. Hi Clarissa, thank you for your nice words! Yes, DP fellowships are very competitive, but as far as I am aware (obviously I am not a committee member, but I have spoken to quite a few people) it is not just about Nature or Science publications. I think what is very important is that you have a consistent, high quality and strong publication record that shows promise, and where you are the lead (or senior) author on a large proportion of the papers. And obviously, it is not just about journal impacts factors, but also about citations. So I would use the space in your application to really highlight the strong points about your publication record, and any impact your papers have had on the field. When I applied I had one paper in PNAS and several others in high impact but discipline specific journals. Hope this helps!

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