How to write a fellowship application

Guide for fellowship writing

This guide is a summary of several workshops on ‘How to write a successful fellowship application’ as well as my own experience when it comes to apply for a fellowship.
In most cases, researchers might want to apply for a fellowship (aka ‘their own money’) when trying to find a postdoc position. Thus, I will use this example here but feel free to use this guide for your personal situation.

Do I really need a fellowship at all?

Short answer: yes! At least if you plan a career in academic research, you will have to show that you are able to write successful applications and attract money from a third party. Later on, you will compete with many others for rare faculty positions and your competitors will have this additional qualification. Another aspect is that you show with a fellowship that you invested time and effort into your own scientific development; a prestigious fellowship is seen as an award by many.
Finally, you are more independent if your PI is not paying your salary and it might allow you to work in a lab that you choose on your own and not just because there was an open position.

Which is the right fellowship for me?

That depends on your situation and your future plans. Be warned that each of the funding agencies has their own egilibility rules, deadlines, etc. It requires a lot of investigation (that means time) to find your way through their regulations and websites.

My new group leader already wrote the application for me….

Yeah, great. Trash it!

Seriously: the whole fellowship idea is based on supporting researchers that can formulate their own ideas and build an own research plan. If you just copy & paste what your PI gave to you, your proposal might look quite good, but you still don’t know how to do it yourself!

Ok, it makes sense if your primary target is to get some money and you don’t mind where it is coming from. Unfortunately, some funding agencies ask for personal interviews once you pass the first selection round. Now you are in real trouble once they realise that you have no clue about your own project. Bad. Very bad!
So resist to just use someone else’s project. You should however read it and you might use it as a starting point for your proposal.

So what should I do now?

Ok, you are convinced to give it a try. Here comes the plan:

Plan ahead

Don’t underestimate the time and effort it takes to find the fellowships you are eligible to apply for! It may take weeks. Also, some funding agencies have fixed application dates; sometimes only once per year! You should know these deadlines well in advance or you might loose a year or – even worse – might not be eligible to apply in the next round.

Choose your future lab carefully

This is particularly important for future postdocs: go to a good lab! That means: well-known institute and your future PI should be known in the field as well. During the review process, a panel will evaluate your chances of succeeding with your project and with your future plans. Even if you hand in the best proposal in the history of science, they will turn it down if you plan to do your project in a bad lab.

So wait a minute: Does this mean that I will only get a fellowship if I go to well-established labs with big names, Nature papers, etc?

You got it! That is particularly true for the prestigious fellowships. Sounds unfair? Welcome to science.

Change the subject

Another way to sabotage your own application in the most efficient way is to either stay in the lab in which you did (or still do) your PhD or to just go to another group which is working on the same subject. Although it sounds convenient to simply stay in the lab and follow the projects you’ve been working on for years: Don’t do it! Go away and change the field of your research. Many funding agencies ask you to also change the country and get experience in a different setting.

This means you will have to start again from zero on a new topic and you will have to find your way in another lab where things are done differently. And thats exactly what they want to see from a fellow! You will have to convince them that you are moving to wherever is the best place for your new project and that you are not afraid to learn something new. The tricky part is to find the right balance between the new area of research on the one hand and how you still make the connection with your expertise from before.

Build your expertise

Once you have an idea where to go and what to work on, you have to read like hell to find your way in the new area you will be working on. Become an expert, build your expertise and identify the main problems and questions in this field. Now you are ready to start writing.

Start early and focus

Writing a fellowship application is hard work and it will take strenuous efforts to compile a competitive proposal. I’ve spend several weeks in the library, quitting all bench work in the lab and I still had to work to the last day before the deadline. Start early and drop everything else when you realise that you are running short of time.

Understand the rules and guidelines for your application

Gather all the information from the funding agency that you can get. Normally, there are manuals, flyers, guidelines, etc. to be found on their homepage. Get the current and most up-to-date ones or pay attention that you get all the information from the correct call. It is important to understand who is making the decision about a successful application and how this is done.

Get templates

Ask other fellows who successfully applied to the same funding agency for their advice and ask them for their proposals to use as a template for your own application. This is particularly helpful because you can see how they managed to fulfill the specific requirements of that fellowship.

Formulate a clear research plan

Formulate a concise research proposal. Pay attention to introduce your subject properly as your reviewer might not be an expert in your field.

Significance

What is the significance of your project? Why should anyone care? Who will benefit from your research and how? This is the most important part of your proposal!

Be ambitious, but not overambitious

Your work plan should show that you plan to answer a significant scientific question. But be reasonable! How much can you really achive in two years time?

Provide a schedule

You should provide a schedule covering the complete time of the fellowship. First step: 3 months. Second step: 6 months. Third: 2 months in a partner lab to do XYZ, etc.

Provide a backup scenario

How is your backup strategy? What will you do if your initial plan does not work as anticipated? This part is very important as it shows that you made up your mind about potential risks and pitfalls.

Connect your research with your future career

Explain in detail how your project will contribute to your personal development. You will learn some novel techniques? Point it out explicitly. You will make contacts with tons of people in dozens of countries? State that you will built your future career on the network that will arise from your project. And so on…

Don’t underestimate the unimportant parts

Some applications have non-scientific parts that need to be filled such as ‘Impact on Society’ or ‘Outreach Activities’. Don’t underestimate these parts and don’t believe that they are unimportant. Every single section of the application has to be excellent!

Wall of text = fail

Edit your proposal typographically. Structure it nicely and use paragraphs, indentations, bullet points, etc. If possible, use figures to support your story. Always remember that the guy who has to evaluate your project has twenty other proposals on his desk. In other words: your proposal should look beautiful.

Customise your proposal

Do not try to send the same application to several funding agencies. All of them have their own requirements for the proposal itself (number of pages allowed, etc.) and they usually have a mission or follow a certain philosophy. You will have to adapt your proposal to these constraints.

Ok, I did it. What now?

After you wrote an initial draft of your proposal, do this:

Get help

Get all the help you can. Talk to colleagues in the field. Find the grant office or a similar facility in your future institute. They know a lot of the little formal tricks that you’ll never know about on your own.

You might also want to ask your labmates to read your proposal and have their corrections. Not only on the science, but also on spelling and typos (after weeks working on the application, you should be in a condition, in which you don’t see the mistakes any more, no matter how obvious…).

Ask for letters of reference.

One should be from your supervisor. Of course, your future supervisor should not be asked for reference as he is biased. Find two other group leaders that are willing to provide a recommendation letter and make a smart choice here as well. Don’t just take the next guy down the hall, but PIs who really have a connection to your work such as collaborators from other institutes or, even better, from other countries as it shows that you are already internationally well connected.

Finally…

Its about competition. The numbers of applications are always much higher than the fellowships granted in the end. A 20% funding rate is already very good; often enough its around 5%.
What does this mean for you? First of all, don’t get intimidated by the numbers! It is true: there is no guarantee that you will make it. But thats true for the others as well. You have to submit a very strong application. Make it the best that you can. Then don’t look at it for two or three days and take it up again to make it even better.

In the end, your goal is not to match some quality criteria of the funding agency. If that is an issue, you won’t make it anyway. You will have to beat the other guys and they will send very good applications as well. Thats the race you’ll have to win. To me, that was the hardest part to accept. If you don’t feel comfortable with that or if you don’t like constant competition for funding, take this last advice: leave science immediately and look for a normal job.

Good luck.