How to apply for a fellowship

Are you thinking about applying for a research fellowship? Are you not sure about how to apply for a fellowship? Or even where to start?

This article gives you the starting point for making a fellowship application including what to know before you make your application, general advice for writing your application, and what to do if you get through to the interview stage of the application.

Getting a fellowship is difficult. Ask pretty much any of your colleagues who have been awarded in their career and they will tell you how hard they had to work for it, and how many knock-backs they got before being successful.

So read on to find out more and give yourself the edge when it comes to your fellowship applications.

1.    Know what you’re getting yourself in for

You may have already discovered that the academic world can be a difficult on to work in. Sure, there’s the flexibility, autonomy and freedom to work on interesting things. But the flip side is the relatively short term contracts and limited career progression unless you manage to make the leap to a ‘permanent position’.

A difficult path

The exact situation varies from discipline to discipline, but the general route from a PhD is to work as a post-doc on someone else’s grant for a few years before making this progression to a fellowship where you control your own money, or a permanent lectureship position.

It is important to know the reality of the academic career path. Only 3.5% of PhD science PhD students will go on to become permanent research staff, and even fewer (0.45%) will become professors [1]. It is a tough environment.

Getting money to control your own research projects is key

Getting money to control your own research projects is a key step in an academic career. A successful fellowship can often be used to leverage a permanent research position at the end of the fellowship.

Fellowships are, however, difficult to get. Depending on which one you apply for the success rate is around 10 – 20% [2]. People often have to apply for many over several years until they get one on which they can build their career. Even very competent, hitherto successful people may struggle and find they have to keep applying for several years. There are so many people applying for so few positions or fellowships that there is necessarily a large degree of randomness and luck involved.

Be honest with yourself about how long you are willing to commit to trying

Given the reality of the academic career path, make sure you are honest with yourself about how much and how long you are willing to commit to working towards an academic career.

If, after all that you are considering an academic career, then read on to see how you can best increase your chances of getting a fellowship.

2.    Getting into a position to make an application

For all the talk of how difficult it can be to get a fellowship, the first hurdle is to get into a position to even apply.

Demonstrate independence

The most important thing is to demonstrate independence as a researcher. A bare minimum specification for applying for a fellowship is first author papers without your PhD supervisor. It could be that you came up with the idea, took and analyses all the results, and wrote the paper – but the review panel will not know this. Independent papers are crucial evidence that you can work independently.

Find time to work on your own projects

Find time to do your own work. You may be employed as a post-doc to fulfil a specific task, or find that much of your time is spent supporting other research members, but try to negotiate with your supervisor/manager to arrange some time where you can pursue your own research interests. If this proves absolutely impossible, there are of course 24 hours in a day in which you could make time for your own work. A good target is around 10-20% of your time spent on your own projects, which is an hour or two per day over a 40 hour week.

Many companies allow their employees time to work on their own projects. Google and 3M are two large examples of companies who recognise that out of some of these personal projects will come patents, products and profits

If you do have trouble negotiating this time try to find a sympathetic senior colleague who could help convince your supervisor it’s a good idea.

Be original

When you are doing your own work try to avoid republishing your thesis or variations of it. Fellowship reviewers are generally going to be looking for ambitious, potential leaders in their field. Incremental changes to familiar, established work is unlikely to convey this. Think of your thesis as an arrow pointing to the next area of new, exciting work, rather than the area you have to work in indefinitely.

Without wanting to get into the impact factor debate [3], but you will be in a better position if your papers have made an actual impact in the field. There are of course other ways to demonstrate this, but it won’t hurt your case if you have highly cited papers, or paper in Science or Nature.

What’s the big idea?

I had been under the impression that you needed a ‘great idea’ to even apply for a fellowship, let alone have half a chance of getting one. In fact what is far more common is to have a number of papers in the same area (see “Be Original”, above).

Your cluster of papers in one area will be timely, important and all the other things reviewers are looking for. This body of work forms the basis of the fellowship: to fill in the gaps between the existing papers, to continue lines of enquiry, and to answer questions unearthed by your previous work.

Apply before you *think* you are ready

People have been awarded large fellowships without many invited talks or any awards or patents. So don’t worry if you don’t have these things and convince yourself you are not ready. You don’t know who will be on the panel and what they will want.

Make sure you apply for your fellowship before you feel ready. You can always convince yourself that you’re not quite experienced enough or you need one more paper before your application will be perfect, but the sooner you start applying the sooner you can get the experience of the process that may be needed to make a successful application.

You are special

Think about what you have done that no one else can do. Your set of experiences in work and life is unique – turn that into your proposal. A good way to look for your unique area is attend conferences relevant to you and to keep an eye out for talks or sessions outside your usual realm of expertise. This can be a great opportunity to expand your research horizons and might give you the spark of originality that could really help your application.

Taking control

If you’re applying for a grant with a more established researcher (perhaps as a named post-doc), make sure you negotiate early on (or perhaps before submitting the application) which areas will be ‘yours’. Which papers will you be first author on? Which will you write? Which equipment will you be responsible for? Which projects will you manage? A joint application is a great way to demonstrate independence, but these more established researchers may well have forgotten what is like when just starting out and might need a reminder that it would really help you out to divide work up this way.

3.    Making the application:

If you know the reality of the fellowship game and you’ve got some rough plans on what your research area will be the next step is to write the application.


Finding support

This article can get you going, but it is also very important that you seek guidance from your university – perhaps there is a research development or research innovation office. Or find people in your school or department who have already successfully applied for fellowships.

Get advice from people in your group or department who have been awarded fellowships

And make sure you find out specific details about the fellowship you are applying for – they can be different and have different requirements.

Allowing enough time

This is a big undertaking, so allow yourself at least two months to write it, or more if this is your first application, or you are not confident about your writing. Get advice from people in your school/department/university. Once you are happy with your application, see if they will read it for you.

Approaching a research group

An important part of a fellowship application is where you carry out the work. This maybe in the department you are already working in, but it might also be in another university or department.

If you will be continuing to work in your current department then you will already have a working relationship with the people you need to speak to. But you have to be a bit more careful if you are going to approach a different group.

Make sure you tailor your CV and covering letter to where you are contacting. How will you fit into that group? How can you advance that group? Go to their website and find out what they are doing. Look for overlap. For example do not only talk about CERN to a particle theory group who has nothing to do with it.

Send an email to make enquiries:

–          Be polite

–          Make them interested

–          Make ‘informal contact’ if there is an option on their website. It opens channels of communication and shows you are interested in that position and begins a dialogue.

Three simple questions

In your application and interview you need to answer these three questions:

Why this?

Why you?

Why now?

Let’s take a look at them in turn…

Why this?

This question addresses the body of work you are putting together. You want to convey the importance of the work to the field: that there is enough work for the fellowship duration and that it leads to more important or interesting work once the fellowship is up.

Demonstrating that you understand the bigger picture is very important. This could be from the point of view of funding priorities, or key themes and hot topics within your field.


Demonstrating how your work fits into a much larger future body of work is very important.

Absolutely key is that you make it clear this is the start of something bigger. That they will be funding the first steps in an important, exciting and relevant body of work that will continue well beyond the fellowship.

Why you?

Fellowship reviewers want to pick out the future leaders in the field. More than competence, they want drive and ambition. Be overly ambitious rather than modest: use terms like ‘leader’, ‘professor’, ‘new group’, ‘change the way people think about the field’. The panel do not want to award up to 5 years’ worth of money to someone without drive or ambition, who will not make the most of the opportunity.

Modesty goes out the window: they want drive and ambition

Try to convey evidence of spark, originality, drive. It is things like this that will separate you out from the other applicants.

Think about what you can do that no-one else can. What makes you special or unique?

Show that you are a future leader in your field…

Where did you graduate? When did you graduate? Where have you been? What fellowships have you already had? They are looking for flags for potential leaders in the field.

Doing your undergraduate, PhD, postdoc may count against you as they are looking for evidence of originality and independence. Bear this in mind and be prepared to answer questions on it and mitigate against this. Make sure there is plenty of counter evidence that you are original and independent.

Think about how you can demonstrate you have a track record of applying for money and getting it. Always make it clear if money has been competitively awarded, not just handed to you.

…or fake it until you make it

And if all that seems difficult: Fake it until you make it. Play the part of a successful, driven, ambitious research leader. Say the things they would say. As things progress you will be supported in making these things a reality.

Why now?

Your research plan could be great, you may have demonstrated that you will be able to deliver on it and will almost certainly develop into a leader of the field, but if there is not an incentive to fund you now, the panel may just assume you can come back next year without any detriment to them.

So make sure it is clear why your research needs to be funded now.

Why does it need to happen now? Is there an external timescale you can tie your proposal to such as observation time on a telescope, or the construction of a new facility.

If yours is an excellent application, but there are 5 equally good other ones which have to be funded now yours may well just miss out and you will be forced to apply again next year.

tie yourself to an external timescale – if they don’t fund you now, they never can

Remember who you are writing for

When writing your application (and in an interview) remember that the reviewer is very likely to be a non-specialist in your field, so be sure to convey the context and excitement in a way they can digest.

This is especially true if you are required to produce a lay summary.

A reviewer may well have as many as 30 or so other proposals to read as well as yours. Keep this in mind and make his or her job as easy as possible: make your highlights stand out and make it clear what the key papers and recent developments in your field are so they can easily find the context of your work.

Use definite terms and avoid weasel words. Make it clear that you have thought about the detail of your proposal.

4. What do do when you fail

Know your limits


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So you’ve found a few hours each week to carve out your own path and have applied for a fellowship. At this point it is very imporant to remember part 1: the odds are very much not in your favour; there is a lot of coin tossing involved, and there are few positions/fellowships available and many strong applicants.

Act like a gambler: know your limit, and stick to it.

Remember that you and your research still has an inherent value, irrespective of the outcome of your applications. Be prepared to keep applying, be stubborn and apply next year or for another fellowship.

But like a gambler in a casino you should know your limit and stick to it. Maybe it’s 2 years of trying, 3 years, 5 fellowship applications, getting to the interview stage. Or maybe you know that come what may, at all costs you want a fellowship and to make an academic career out of it. Work out your limit and stick to it.

Don’t let this one application control your life– have a plan B!

It is very important that you have a plan B. You will be surrounded by people who have ‘made it’ and for whom science has worked out. It may seem like an academic career, or this particular fellowship is the only way to make progress in life. But do not allow yourself to fall into the situation whereby everything depends on one application. Have a plan B. This could be alternative ways to fund your research if this application isn’t successful (which is likely), or a plan B for an alternative career path or line of work if you reach your gambler’s limit.

On the panel

This article was based in part on the notes I made during a fellowship application workship at the University of Nottingham. On the panel were: Igor Lesanovsky (ERC fellowship), Clare Burrage (Royal Society Fellowship), Richard Hill (EPSRC Fellowship), Mike Merrifield (Academic Staff), Ed Copeland (Academic Staff). Thank you very much to them for offering their words of wisdom.


[1] “The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity“, 2010, Royal Society



Further reading

A PhD is not enough!

CM Elliot – University of Illinois

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