How to apply for a (UK) postdoc fellowship
Disclaimer: this guide was written based on my experience applying for (and being awarded) a BBSRC Discovery Fellowship in 2020/2021. Some of this might apply to other UK fellowships as well, some things might be specific to the Discovery, and some things might have changed since I applied.
For this stage I have three main pieces of advice:
- Get early feedback on your project idea. Pitch dirty, unpolished ideas early, to many people: to colleagues, in group meetings, to advisors/supervisors, to anyone who will listen. Pitch ideas when they’re still kinda ugly and vague. Every time you talk about them and get feedback, they get better and clearer (or end up in the trash where they belong 💕). If you can, surround yourself with people who – lovingly – tell you that e.g. your first version of Aim 3 “kinda sucks” (it did). For my own application, I spent 80% of the “writing time” pitching, scrapping, re-working, re-pitching aims. Once the aims were bulletproof, I wrote them down (~20% of the work).
- Talk to people who have secured this fellowship in the past. If you don’t know anyone, don’t be afraid to simply google past awardees and cold-email them. You will be surprised how open people are to giving you advice, and/or share their application material with you. It is highly likely those people have also received extensive help for their application, and are more than happy to pay it forward! Related to this:
- Look at examples of successful applications. The more recent, the better. The closer to your specialty, the better. But even applications from completely different fields will be a million times better than having nothing to go off of. Most first-time applicants have a hard time gauging a) how much detail is appropriate for the science bits, and b) how much they have to dial up the self-promotion, and seeing other people’s applications can be a real game changer.*
*When it comes to advertising yourself, you will have to learn to embrace the cringe … trust me.
Assorted writing advice for the research proposal:
- Carve out your own niche. Put together a proposal that’s significantly different from your advisor’s (PhD+postdoc) work/goals.
- Data. If you have preliminary data, great, put it in if it supports your ideas, but it’s not strictly necessary (I had basically none for my application).
- Good figures are worth the space. Good figures can be extremely helpful for the reader, and can be worth sacrificing space for if you have a page limit. They also make your application more memorable, so it’s worth investing in ones that look beautiful and eye-catching.
- Think about your (~ general biology) audience. Avoid jargon! Do not assume any of the referees are specialists in your field. Ask a non-specialist friend to highlight all the words they had to google while reading your proposal – consider replacing or rephrasing them.
- Be specific. Probably the most important thing: it must be clear what you want to do. You’d be surprised how many people will write a whole proposal and you still don’t know what they want to do exactly.
- Strike a balance. Make sure the pitched project uses methods you have enough experience in to make it feasible, but also allows space for you to learn plenty of new things. I personally proposed to use methods I was familiar with for roughly 40% of the work, and 60% was going to use techniques that were new to me.
A small piece of advice regarding the non-science documents (CV, Diagrammatic Workplan, Beneficiaries, Exploitation, etc.): do not underestimate how much time these take. I spent roughly 50% of my total writing time on the project proposal, and 50% on the other documents.*
*This is how I invested my time, this is not how they are weighted in the decision-making process. In fact it’s probably heavily skewed towards the science bit in the first round of selection.
Responding to Peer Review
A few months after submitting your application, you might get written referee reports back that you are allowed to respond to. Let me start by saying: mixed reviews, e.g. a bad score from one reviewer – are NOT a death sentence. For my application, I had two supportive referees and one referee from hell: they basically hated my project proposal and gave it a “Not Fundable” score. My first reaction was to let out a primal scream and also cry a little. Then, I realized I still had a good shot as long as I crafted a response letter that addressed all their criticisms really well. And it worked! I was able to overcome that one terrible score and get invited to the interview stage.
My general strategy for writing a response to referees was this:
- Give all the reports a quick read, then do nothing/feel your feelings for 24h (emotional digestion period). Do not skip this step.
- Go through all the reports carefully and highlight things in color: green = nice things they said. yellow = critical things they said. (I even had a third color to distinguish concerns about me/my career/my host vs. concerns about the project.)
- Format/plan your response letter: I personally had three reports and I used one full page for each referee. It might be tempting to use more space to respond to the negative reviewer if they have lots of comments, but I felt that giving the supportive referees equal space would highlight that the majority of referees were actually on my side.
- Split the referees into mostly positive or mostly negative. Then proceed accordingly while writing your responses:
- Positive referees: in your response, highlight + repeat their good scores and all the nice things they said about you (quote them!). Respond to all their minor/technical points in sufficient detail. Give the committee the feeling that this referee really liked you and the project, and that you are able to respond to all their minor concerns in full (even positive referees will likely have some concerns).
- Mixed or negative referees: pull out the few nice things they said, and highlight them in your report. Emphasize all the things they liked about your proposal or about you. Start with this. Then, split their concerns into two categories:
- Legitimate/fair concerns. Say that you can see their point, and then list how you will address this in your proposal. e.g. “I agree that this is a risk, but here is how I account for this in my plans / here’s a backup plan” etc.
- “dumb”/not legitimate concerns/flawed arguments: respond confidently and explain in detail how they are wrong. Be respectful, but you can be pretty direct here. Remember that the actual referees won’t see your response, only the committee will see it. (This might differ from fellowship to fellowship. Proceed at your own risk.)
- Generally: If you don’t have space to respond to all their concerns, pick the most glaring/obvious/important ones.
I honestly think my bad/unhinged reviewer turned out to be a blessing in disguise. They were so obviously the outlier, and made themselves look bad by being aggressive in their tone, bordering on unprofessional. I turned this into an advantage, and practiced responding to their criticisms during practice interviews (see below). During the actual interview, I was then perfectly prepared to address their concerns, and it made me look really good because I was so well prepared to dismantle the review that gave me the worst score. Speaking of interviews …
If you are lucky and get invited to the interview stage, you will have to prepare your talk and practice answering questions.
You will likely be given a rather short time limit (for us it was 10 min). This means that it’s extra important you provide a concise, highly condensed overview of what you and your proposal are about. Your presentation has three main goals of roughly equal weight:
- Convince the committee that this project is exciting, timely, and crucial for your development as an independent (!) scientist.
- Convince the committee that not only is this a cool project, but you are the perfect person for the job: you have the right skills, you came up with the questions, and you are driving this.
- Convince the committee that you know why this specific fellowship is right for you, at exactly this time in your career, and how you will use it to advance your career.
Concerning the slides themselves, I have one main piece of advice: Make it simple. Then, make it twice as simple. I’m serious. Your slides need to be hilariously easy to grasp. Less text is better. Clean design is better. The committee will listen to dozens of presentations in a day, with most of them completely outside of their own scientific wheelhouse. They are likely exhausted. The best thing you can do to help yourself is to make it easy for them to follow your logic, and deliver very few, very clear messages.
My own presentation followed this outline:
- Big picture scientific background
- Specific questions [my project will answer] (1 slide)
- Approach (1 slide)
- Why work on this now?
- Why me?
- How I will use the Fellowship
- Wider Impact of my work
You can check out my presentation slides to give you a sense of how much (or how little) detail is required on the science side of things. As you can see, it’s only a super short summary of the research proposal, and a whole lot of emphasis on how the fellowship will help me become a future leader / help my career. This slide set was very well received by the committee (as evidenced by specific interview feedback I received), so feel free to copy as much as you like.
Definitely schedule mock interviews if you can. A mock interview consists of you giving your interview talk to an invited audience, followed by a simulated Q&A session. It is helpful to reserve some time at the end to get feedback from the audience: how did they like your talk, what can you improve, which questions did you answer well (or not so well). My personal mock interview strategy was to do:
- One mock interview with a larger group of peers (e.g. group meeting), to practise presenting over zoom etc. You can give them a list of key questions beforehand, to practice answering them (see below for a list of commonly asked questions). This is important especially for the non-science questions regarding leadership etc. – people tend to struggle to come up with these by themselves, unless they are a PI.
- Three mock interviews with just one PI each. You get a ton of feedback from them if they’re the only ones in the meeting with you, and they can speak really freely about their experiences. I made sure to invite PIs from different scientific backgrounds, and a mix of ones that I knew well or not at all.
For the mock interview with faculty members, pick PIs who have a lot of experience in sitting in on fellowship interviews (i.e., ones that are really familiar with the UK funding system). It’s very different from a regular academic job interview. The scientific background of the PI doesn’t matter very much, as long as they’re roughly “biologists”. This will mimic the audience of the fellowship committee – almost no one will be a specialist in your field!
Regarding practice questions, you can click here to view and download a list of 100 questions I used to prepare for the Q&A, and click here to see some more tips on how to use this list. Of course they will also ask you things you didn’t think of before, but a lot of these questions tend to be repeated. Importantly, you should also add all the referee comments you received (in question format) to this list: you need to be prepared to respond to all of the referee comments really well (i.e., what you wrote in your written rebuttal). It’s highly likely that some of those will come up during the interview, and a well-prepared, confident response to the main criticisms can be the deciding factor that convinces the committee that you are the right person for this fellowship.
I hope this was of some help. Good luck!