Fellowships: interview rejections and success

Guest post by Pamela Jacobsen: Fellowship interviews tend to get burned into my memory for all the wrong reasons. One moment from an interview a few years ago has always stuck in my mind with terrible clarity.

It was almost the end of the interview. I had blundered through the questions as best as I could so far, sweating buckets into my new shirt in the process, and the finish line was finally in sight. Just one more hurdle to go. That dreaded moment when the panel chair throws it open to the floor, saying “does anyone have any final questions for the candidate?” One panel member sitting directly to my left, leapt at the offer. “I’ve got a final question for you” he said, leaning eagerly towards me “how will your proposal tell us how the brain works?” He then reclined back in his chair, grinning like the Cheshire cat.

The answer was of course “it won’t, and isn’t designed to, and what’s the point anyway of knowing how the brain works if we can’t translate that knowledge into improving clinical care for people, as is clearly the case at the moment”. I was too inexperienced and intimidated to say that at the time.

As a clinical psychologist specialising in psychological models and therapies for psychosis, my research proposal didn’t include any brains scans, blood tests, genetic testing or anything involving a test tube or a microscope. The panel member was clearly unimpressed with my proposal, perhaps even at my audacity to present myself as a scientist at all when my research was never going to find the cause, or the cure, for schizophrenia, or any other mental health problem.

I didn’t get the fellowship that year. My rejection letter specifically cited the concern that “the proposal would not provide you with the biological training you would need to develop as an independent clinical academic”.

This raises the question of whether this was the right funding body to fund my fellowship in the first place. Reflecting on this was certainly an interesting process for me. At first I suppose I felt a bit indignant. After all, as a clinical psychologist I was included in the list of professions eligible to apply for the clinical fellowship. I also knew the funding body had a track record of funding large programme grants in my particular area of interest. 

However, over time I began to think about whether there might be a gap between rhetoric and reality.  For example, if a funding body says they welcome fellowship applications from non-medical practitioners, but in reality rarely award them, then this is something to pay attention to. 

Two more unsuccessful fellowship interviews followed with two other funding bodies over the course of the next couple of years. I went through my usual cycle of hope, disappointment and despondency each time.  Yet each time I somehow re-grouped. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, my determination re-made itself anew.

Behavioural psychologists like to say “if you want things to be different, you have to do things differently”. So it seemed to me I had to work out what the funding bodies wanted, and how I could give it to them. If there was a mis-match between what I was proposing, and the kind of science the panels wanted to fund, then I would continue to be disappointed. 

Psychologists also like to say that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. So I looked at the past behaviour of the funding bodies by systematically trawling through the databases of fellowships awarded, looking for not only the professional group of successful applicants, but also the kind of projects that were being awarded. This turned out to be a very informative exercise. Although some of my findings were a little disspiriting (for example, seeing that a tiny minority of previous awards had gone to psychologists), I began to get a feel for what kinds of applications were successful.

I also managed to track down two clinical psychologists from other institutions who had successfully got funding, and were generous with their time in answering my questions and sharing tips and advice. 

In the end, my approach to my final (successful!) fellowship application was quite strategic and calculating. I payed a lot of attention to how the panels actually operated, rather than my own fantasy about how they should operate. 

I’m so pleased I didn’t let my Cheshire cat on the funding body panel get the better of me in the end.  For me, it was partly a lesson in trying to learn from my own failures in a productive way.  This is no easy task, and one that I think I will have to continue to work on throughout my career.

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