FIRST PUBLISHED IN ISSUE 105 (2012)
The path from aspiring researcher to independent principal investigator is a hard one and, despite promises of ring-fenced cash from research councils to support independent fellowships, many are put off from even applying. Is this pessimism warranted and, if so, what can be done? This account is a personal view of the fellowship system, and how to make it work for you.
We are all familiar with the situation: you are doing well in either clinical or basic science training, getting some papers, some invitations to speak, and helping out on writing grant applications. It’s all going well, but how to take the next step to independence? The system that’s in place to help involves fellowships. These are offered by a range of funding bodies, research councils, Wellcome, and disease-specific charities. Their objective is to find and fund the researchers of the future. The mantra applied is ‘person, place and project’.
''Their objective is to find and fund the researchers of the future. The mantra applied is ‘person, place and project’.'
The level of achievement is dependent on the level of the scheme applied for, and the disease-specific charities may also be looking at the content of the work published to date. The emphasis is on quality rather than quantity, but too many applicants are put off applying for fear their publications are not good enough. In a field such as ours, where the top specialty journals carry an impact factor of less than 6, a balance between top specialty and some supraspecialty articles will buy an entry ticket. Additional marks of esteem include awards, grants and invitations. A background of sustained high-level activity, such as international appointments and collaborations, on a background of excellent undergraduate and postgraduate grades, helps.
There is anxiety amongst panel members that established investigators may use fellowships to fund their lab. Therefore, to optimise training, candidates are often encouraged to move, spend some time abroad, and to offer a strong justification for remaining within their current lab environment. The host institution needs to demonstrate a track record and infrastructure to support fellows in transition to independence. Frequent questions to candidates at interview are ‘What will be yours at the end of the fellowship?’ and ‘How does your fellowship project differ from the programme grant held by Professor X?’. Therefore, prospective fellows need to have frank discussions with sponsors/mentors at an early stage to ensure appropriate support.
The project should be ambitious, address a major question, and include clearly defined training components. A project which will require application of several approaches to address the core question will be more attractive than one which is centred only on a single methodology, as this mitigates the risk of things not working out. It is helpful to be explicit in writing who is doing what, and from whom the training/mentorship will come. Areas of overlap between host lab and the fellow can be beneficial, but should be described clearly, and the management of time, effort and resource explained. Fellowship panels have limited breadth of expertise, and rely on expert referees, but typically will require an interview. Therefore, it is very helpful to the non-expert panel members, all of whom will vote, to provide a lucid lay abstract. If they are not interested after reading this then the application is sunk! Summary diagrams, flow charts, and Gantt charts are also very useful.
'The interview is the final stage in securing your award. Getting to this stage is the objective of the paperwork. Getting through the interview requires additional preparation.'
The interview is the final stage in securing your award. Getting to this stage is the objective of the paperwork. Getting through the interview requires additional preparation. The panel like to see a short, logical and plausible presentation of the topic area to be addressed. After this, an enthusiastic candidate able to answer questions in a clear succinct manner is gratefully received. Good body language is essential: look like you want it! Often the discussion will centre around concerns that the project is not feasible as written, but that with such a strong, enthusiastic candidate the risk of failure is minimised because ‘they will find a way to make it work’. Equally, sometimes the panel feel that it is a kindness to prevent a candidate embarking on a research fellowship which they do not fully embrace!
The interview will require serious attention to detail, and should be rehearsed, in front of a naïve panel of critical judges. A chat over coffee with your mentor is NOT useful preparation! If you are invited to speak for 3 minutes about the project, ensure you do just that. Do not overrun, as you will be stopped, and this will throw you off balance and leave a bad impression. Likely questions are easy to guess, and having coherent answers prepared and rehearsed calms the nerves, and contributes to an air of efficient organisation. Try not to ask questions at the end – the panel are unlikely to know the answers, and you leave on a rather awkward note!
2006, 2007, 2009 MRC Clinical Training Fellowships Interview Panel
2012 MRC Clinical Training Fellowships Interview Panel
2007–2011 NIHR Trainees Co-ordinating Centre Postdoctoral Fellowship Panel