What does it take to get a fellowship?

Take all the (~100) people who have talked to me at any length about fellowships over the past five years. So far, nine of them have completed a draft of an application. Six have submitted their applications. Two have ultimately got fellowships. What’s special about those who do succeed?

I don’t have the magic answer. But I do have some tentative hypotheses. I’ve outlined them here, but I am very interested in your thoughts on this.

My first hypothesis is that there is something very important about having an ambitious vision and the guts to float it. The funding panels are looking for future leaders, and they can smell miles away whether you are one or not. It’s also mega hard work to write a funding application, and without a passionate commitment to a clear vision one is simply not going to do it.

I believe leadership either oozes from a person or it doesn’t. There are many different ways to be a leader, and one does not need official positions or powers to show leadership. But one does need a vision, and the guts to follow it. When people ask me about fellowships, my very first conversation is always about what their vision is. I try to find out if they have connected with their inner leader yet. In these discussions, most people have a hidden vision, but most can’t or don’t dare to articulate it. Until they do, it’s hard to progress. When people finally do connect with their vision and give themselves the permission to go for it, they visibly light up. They go all giddy and glowy, and their eyes start sparkling. That’s how powerful it is. And that’s what the panels see in the successful candidates.

In my experience, a big hurdle that stops people from finding their vision is that they think they already have it. They already have an eye on the high price (position, power, fame, higher salary, what ever) and think that’s what having a vision means. But a vision is a desire to achieve (rather than a desire to possess or to have). Vision with guts is about making something challenging happen while accepting that doing so will have consequences (positive rewards but also negative reactions). In my experience people who are energised and motivated by a desire to pursue a vision go about their application process very differently to people who are motivated by a desire to have the end reward.

My second hypothesis is that to succeed takes an enourmous dose of humbleness. As a colleague recently put it “You need to choose: do you want to be right or do you want the thing to be right” [Jen McAnuff, 2015]. The task of research is to improve things as we currently know it. Therefore, what is now considered right is almost guaranteed to be considered wrong in the future. Seeking to actively prove yourself wrong (rather than prove yourself right) is what research and science do. The fun thing is, if you prove yourself wrong you make the thing more right – and that ultimately makes you more right than you were before! 🙂

My third hypothesis isn’t so much a hypothesis but a fact… People who succeed give themselves enough time (but not too much!). Around 12 months seems to be optimal. The key is to start writing early. When people read successful applications they almost always say to me “Oh yes, it all made sense and I think I can definitely write that.” But the successful applications are only clear and make sense because someone has poored over them for 12 months, writing and re-writing. For my own fellowships, the submitted version has always been v20 or later.

My fourth hypothesis is that good advice is hugely important but scarce. I believe that the single most important thing that separates those who get fellowships from those who don’t is their ability to spot and take up good advice. It’s hard to give good advice, and it can also be hard to spot good advice. I have worked with a lot of very smart and knowledgable people, but I can think of only a handful of people who have consistenly given me good advice. And I really can’t say how I have known with those people, from very early on, that they give me good advice. Maybe it’s a skill to cultivate – ability to spot good advice and make use of it.

My fifth hypothesis is that people who succeed avoid being “pocketed”. Good fellowship applicants are gold dust. It’s very convenient for a senior clinician, academic or clinical academic to have a high flier newbie in their pocket. A lot of potential fame and glory, good outputs, and promotions go with that. A very common scenario is that people come to talk to me about fellowships and they have already committed to working with a particular senior clinician and/or a clinician academic as supervisors – but the people the applicant has assigned themselves to are not a good fit for their vision, project or funder. And so they are already muddled up on a number of the above hypotheses as well as on the funder’s explicit scoring criteria. And once pocketed… it’s very hard to crawl out of there. So it’s worth taking the time to scope around before locking into a supervisory relationship. And it’s worth doing this honestly and with open negotiation. Once someone has invested in supporting an applicant it’s only fair to reward their time with some good quality outputs, and their IP is likely invested in the work. But equally, once that debt is paid one is free to renegotiate.

Of course when it comes to the final meters of the fellowship race there is then all the official stuff. Making sure your application meets the criteria; having the person, project and environment aligned; and so on. But my final hypothesis (nro6) is that people who do well on the first five hypotheses end up being overall more competitive: as persons, with better projects, and with environments that are better aligned for their needs – compared to people who struggle with the five things above.

But, as said, these are just my hypotheses and I am interested in what do you think? Do comment below – no need to sign in!

2 thoughts on “What does it take to get a fellowship?

  1. Hi all and thanks Niina for your thoughts on this.
    I think you have covered pretty much all the bases here but I would add that you need support from your organisation, wherever that may be. The fellowship process is not a quick and easy journey and you need support, encouragement and sometimes a bit of flexibility from your workplace to allow you to do the basic steps that put you in the right position and build the necessary CV to make you a competitive candidate. Hopefully you can persuade your boss that there is benefit for them as well as you personally.
    Regarding hypotheses 4 and 5 I totally agree that good advice is key to success here and would go even further and say that identifying a good mentor/teacher/guide is vital. This goes against hypothesis 5 a little because there is the risk of attaching yourself to someone before you actually know what you are doing and what you need, but I think the benefits of having someone to guide you through the process, open the doors and point out some pitfalls is absolutely vital and can avoid a lot of wasted time and effort especially when you normally have multiple other competing commitments. How you know you have identified the right person is a question I don’t have the answer to.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Graham, Yes fully agree that there is a set of powerful environmental factors that I didn’t touch on at all. Maybe my eighth hypothesis is that people who do well are also better at navigating their environment (where sometimes the navigation can be changing to a different, more supportive environment!).

    Also agree that it’s worth finding a mentor early. But that does not need to mean pocketing yourself. It’s ok to ask a senior person to explicitly mentor you for career (as opposed to supervise for a fellowship/project). Sometimes these roles are filled by the same person but I think one only does that at the peril of their career progression….

    Thanks again for sharing thoughts Graham!


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