Photo of smiling female academic in university library with the words 'early career fellowship applications.

How to apply for an Early Career Fellowship

If you’ve recently completed your PhD or are currently working as a postdoctoral researcher, you may be thinking about whether to apply for an early career fellowship and if so, how to position yourself as a strong candidate. In this article, you’ll learn what the purpose of a fellowship is, what you need to have in place for a successful application, what you have to write about in the application, and what you can be doing now to get yourself ready.

What are early career fellowships?

Early career fellowships are personal awards offered by major funding bodies to individuals rather than an institution. The award enables you to take forward a research idea and begin building a career as an independent researcher in your own right rather than being employed on someone else’s research project.  

You usually have to apply for an early career fellowship within 3-5 years of completing your PhD although this varies widely between funders and schemes.

The fellowship award will cover the costs of your salary, either completely or in part, and will therefore allow you to conduct your research at a host institution. The idea is that with a fellowship, you will be able to dedicate the majority of your time and energy to your research, allowing you to focus on strengthening your knowledge, skills, and experience; on developing your research leadership; and on forging an international reputation in your field. 

An early career fellowship will bolster your track record for future applications for academic positions, or may even lead to an offer of a permanent academic position from your host (or another) institution. 

In short, it is primarily intended to be a launchpad for an academic career. However, it’s worth noting that the skills you develop during a fellowship can be transferred to and, indeed, are highly sought after in research and development settings outside of academia.

Early career fellowships are awarded in the UK by the UK’s Research Councils, the National Academies, and by various charities such as the British Hearth Foundation, Leverhulme Trust, Wellcome Trust, National Institute for Health & Care Research (see links below). 

How will you know if you’re ready to submit a fellowship application?

Given that early career fellows are selected based on their potential to make a positive, long-lasting contribution to their academic discipline, the sooner you start taking action to demonstrate your potential and position yourself as a strong candidate, the better. 

Broadly speaking, there are two aspects to this:

1)    Building up evidence to show you have a track record of academic activity. 

2)    Developing a research vision to show you are already thinking like an independent researcher and future research leader.

What will you have to include in your early career fellowship application?

It’s important to understand that the research you’re proposing to undertake during your fellowship cannot simply be an incremental reworking or extension of your PhD research. It must be a new avenue of inquiry and you’ll need to have thought it through in great detail. Your application will need to include:

  • the overarching aims of the research;
  • the significance of the research: why it’s important/necessary/timely & how significant it is in the overall scheme of things;
  • the key objectives that you intend to accomplish during the project;
  • a detailed workplan of activities to meet these objectives and the methodologies you plan to use;
  • details of any new collaborations and partnerships required to complete the fellowship;
  • the anticipated deliverables (i.e. outputs) in terms of publications, reports, data sets, etc.;
  • the impact it’s likely to have within your research field and/or on society more generally (which could include culture, policy, services, quality of life, environment, etc.) as well as the anticipated extent of that impact;
  • information about the institution/department that will be hosting you, including details of the research carried out within it and the relevance of that research to your project;
  • the story (aka ‘narrative’) of your research career so far: the things you’ve accomplished, what you’ve contributed to the field of knowledge, how you’ve engaged with the wider research community (e.g. collaboration, networking, taking on positions of responsibility, peer review), ways in which you’ve engaged with stakeholders, how your research findings have been disseminated, and the difference (i.e. impact) that your research is already making to your field and wider society;
  • details of your publications: what’s in preparation, what’s been submitted for review, and what’s already published; along with details of other types of research output (see below).
  • your personal and career development plan (and that of your team, if applicable) for the duration of the fellowship, and the likely impact the fellowship will have on your career trajectory, over and above other forms of funding (the ‘added value’ of the award);
  • the costs involved, including a breakdown of what you intend to spend the money on (e.g. salary, consumables, research trips, organising a workshop, small pieces of equipment or software, etc.);
  • referees/reviewers – selected strategically in order to provide the funding body with an informed opinion on whether the project is worth funding and whether you have the appropriate expertise to carry it out.

Developing a research vision

This list of things you’ll be writing about in an early career fellowship application provides an indication of questions and activities you can start engaging with now (if you haven’t already) to position yourself as a strong candidate. The intention here is to begin thinking, feeling, and behaving as an independent researcher and future research leader. 

Generating research ideas

Look at the current state-of-the-art in your research field: Where are the gaps in knowledge and understanding? What research questions and challenges have captured your attention in the last year or two? What experiences have you had that have made you think “I’d love to explore that further?” What’s engaging your attention currently? Who’s doing work that intrigues you? What challenges is society facing that you’d like to address? What sort of contribution would you like to make to drive forward that mission? Looking back on your experiences so far, are there unifying themes that might suggest a possible focus for research?

Determining the significance of your research 

What are the current thematic priorities for the funding bodies in your area? What do they see as the biggest challenges that need to be addressed? What problems, issues, needs or trends (PINTS) are emerging in your research area that need to be addressed? How significant are these? Which PINTs to you care about the most? Which ones would feel most satisfying to work on & why?

Considering potential impact

What sort of impact would you like to have through your research? Looking back on your career in 20, 30 or 40 years, what sort of outcomes would make you feel proud? What difference would you like to have made through your work? (N.B. This applies to both academic and non-academic careers.)

Who might be the beneficiaries & end-users of the research you’re proposing to do? What needs do they have that you could address?

What can you do now to learn more about knowledge exchange & impact so that you can develop your research vision with these in mind? Check out training in your current institution and watch this short video on communicating research outputs.

Identifying a suitable host institution

Which departments and research institutes are doing work that interests you? What links do you have with them? How might you connect with them and learn more about the work they do? 

Actions you could usefully start doing now include:

  • reading the latest papers from that department or research group;
  • reaching out to one of the authors to express an interest in learning more about their work;
  • explaining your intention to apply for a fellowship and talking about the ideas you’ve had to gauge the response;
  • organising a panel discussion or workshop to bring specialists together;
  • making a point of meeting people that interest you at upcoming conferences and networking events;
  • connecting with colleagues in your field on social media and following their posts, or signing up to receive their latest blog articles or podcast episodes, etc. 

Once you’ve identified a potential host institution, familiarise yourself with the strategic priorities of the institution as a whole and the unit/department in which you’d like to work (search for ‘research strategy’ or ‘research & innovation strategy’ on the websites); check whether your proposed research aligns well with those priorities.

Demonstrate emerging research leadership potential by reaching out to potential partners and collaborators (if the scheme to which you’re applying allows this). These people may bring expertise to your project that you perhaps don’t have yourself and which the project needs in order to ensure success.

Preparing a career narrative

Start drafting the story of your research now. Even if a fellowship application is a year or two away, gaining experience of preparing different types of biography can help you to reflect on the key messages you want to communicate about yourself. 

Types of bio include: your departmental web profile, social media profiles, small grant applications, your own blog page, as a speaker for a conference, as a workshop leader, as a policy advisor, or as a guest on a radio programme.

Bear in mind that a narrative CV is not just objective facts; it’s going to help a funding body (or an academic employer) understand you as a scholar, a colleague and as person. Identifying sources of energy, enthusiasm, satisfaction, creativity, and engagement can help you bring your story to life.

NB: It’s hard to find examples of narrative CVs online, the reason being they are by nature personal. But you may be able to find a colleague who’s willing to show you what they produced for their own fellowship application. Keep an eye out also for specialist workshops on storytelling in your current institution or elsewhere, as well as online training.

Preparing relevant publications and other research outputs

What types of publication would be best to work on in order to position yourself as someone who has the relevant expertise to carry out the project you’re considering? You can think outside the box here; research outputs are not just limited to the publication of peer-reviewed journal articles, they can include:

  • books/book chapters and monographs;
  • data sets;
  • policy guidance/amendments;
  • intellectual property;
  • public exhibitions;
  • live/recorded performances of creative works;
  • and so on.

Remember that most UK institutions and funders are signatories of the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) which puts the emphasis on assessing research on its own merits rather than using publication-based metrics.

If you’re short of publications, are there mini projects you could set up or collaborate with others on in order to generate some initial findings that might inform your fellowship proposal?

What other channels might you use to disseminate your research findings and raise the profile of your work? A blog? Social media updates? Interviews on radio? 

Identifying suitable referees/reviewers

As you develop your research ideas, consider who might be qualified to comment on your proposal. This may not be someone you know personally but nearer the time of submission, you’ll need to contact them to ask whether it’s ok for you to nominate them as an expert referee/reviewer, therefore it’s worth thinking ahead of time who might be suitable. How does their work align with what you’re proposing to do? Keep in mind that there must be no conflict of interest for your nominated referees/reviewers, i.e. they mustn’t have any vested interest in the project you’re proposing. (For further examples of conflict of interest, see the Je-S Handbook guidance here).

Developing a longer-term vision for your research

Importantly, where do you see your research going after the fellowship? Admittedly, that might seem like a long way into the future too but it’s important to demonstrate to funders that you have the capacity to think creatively, strategically & independently as a researcher. 

Thinking about your future career plans

Although your focus at the moment is likely to be on the short to medium term, funders may want to know what your plans are post-fellowship. What type of academic career path do you envisage aiming for: teaching & research? Research only? Why? How might the fellowship experience be a launchpad to what comes next?

Next steps

  • Look at the relevant funding bodies for your discipline now, even if you’re unlikely to apply for a year or two, as this will help you to prepare your application and position yourself as a competitive candidate. 
  • Explore the early career fellowship schemes they currently offer and think about how they would support your career aspirations. 
  • Check the eligibility criteria for your chosen schemes and what the application form requires; use this information to work backwards and map out a plan of action to strengthen your profile. 
  • Familiarise yourself with the strategic priorities of the funder (outlined in their delivery plans) and ensure your proposed research aligns well with those priorities.
  • Ask yourself: Would you be a good investment for the funder? If so, why?

Sources of early career fellowship funding

UKRI Research Councils

  • Overview: AHRC, BBSRC, ESRC, EPSRC, Innovate UK, MRC, NERC, Research England, STFC
  • UKRI funding finder: see what funding opportunities are available through the UK’s nine Research Councils

National Academies

Examples of other funding bodies offering early career fellowship awards

Research Professional

  • an online database of funding opportunities that you can tailor to your subject areas. (NB This is a subscription resource so you need to be on a university-networked computer to set up an account.)

Where to get help?

It’s best to seek help and support with your fellowship aspirations as soon as possible as it’s easy to underestimate how much time it can take to craft a competitive application.

Funding bodies will have guidance to support applicants but you should also consider:

  • finding a mentor to discuss your ideas with;
  • contacting the research services division in your university to express an interest in applying for a fellowship and checking what advice & training they can offer;
  • talking to successful fellowship applicants to gain insights from their experience.

You may also find it helpful to discuss your career plans more generally & in confidence with someone not connected with your current employer. If so, feel free to get in touch with me using the link below or look for other qualified careers professionals with experience of higher education on the UK Career Development Institute’s professional register

With thanks to Dr Liam Morgan, Organisational & Staff Development Manager at Cardiff University, for his valuable input to this article.

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