A little something on post-doc fellowships

By Owen R. Bidder


Unfortunately, as a post-doc you’ll end up feeling like you are looking for work a lot. We’re all trying to land those coveted permanent positions and it seems that getting the teaching experience, publishing record and professional connections necessary is getting tougher and tougher all the time. Whenever I talk to other early career scientists this is what we inevitably end up discussing. So perhaps you are coming to the end of your PhD, or your post-doc contract is up and you’re weighing up your options for the future. This is about the time you start scouring the academic job websites or start writing desperate emails to former colleagues in search of your next position. But have you thought of applying for a fellowship?

It makes sense right? If you can’t find a job, make your own! You get your own funding to do a project that you want to do, at a University of your choice. The great thing about a fellowship is that they help you foster your own research agenda, giving you independence. The experience of writing a proposal and obtaining your own funding can be invaluable if you intend to one day get a lectureship.

In this post, I want to talk a little about some of the fellowships that are out there, how to go about applying and my experiences so far with mine.

Firstly, some general points about post-doc fellowships. You will probably apply for the fellowship independently, so whilst you must identify an academic host to conduct your research with, expect to be writing the majority of the proposal yourself. This is great experience, but it puts the onus for conceiving of research ideas on you. Most academics will gladly accept a funded post-doc into their lab, but the amount of help you will get with writing and planning the project can vary greatly. So it helps to have a fairly concrete idea of what you want to do and how you will do it before writing to a potential academic host to test the waters.

Writing your own proposal has other implications. For instance, it can take a long time. It can usually take a few months to get everything planned and written up. Be prepared to invest significant time and energy, especially if you have to write up in your free time, as not many supervisors will give you time to go off and write a proposal instead of working on whatever project they employed you for. In addition, the applications for fellowships can take a long time to process and need a significant lead time. For example, an Alexander von Humboldt post-doc fellowship application takes roughly 6-10 months post-submission before you will get a decision. It really helps to plan to submit a while in advance of when you would actually need to take up the post.

The last general comment I have is that you should expect to leave your current department and seek pastures new. Leaving your academic nest is daunting but it exposes you to new working environments and ways of thinking. The powers-that-be deciding whether or not you’ll get your project funded like to see that you are mobile in your pursuit of knowledge and career advancement. So now is the time to contact that name you see cropping up in the literature time and again, or seek out expertise in a field you’d like more experience in. There are usually annually recurring fellowships in most countries; in the U.K in particular we have 5-year Independent Research Fellowships with NERC or 3-year BBSRC Future Leader Fellowships. European post-docs should also look at ERC Starting Grants. These fellowships tend to be quite competitive and prestigious.

One of the best ways to show mobility is taking up a fellowship abroad. There are a few different funding bodies that actively try to encourage academics from abroad to work in their respective countries. These organisations are usually well funded and well structured, so you get a lot of additional benefits, such as language courses, site seeing trips and events with dignitaries.

6 months ago, I took up a fellowship in Germany with the Alexander von Humboldt foundation and I could definitely recommend applying if you are thinking of working here. The post-doc can be between 6-24 months and the salary is competitive (€2650 a month). You also get €800 a month towards research expenses and prior to my fellowship I received an additional grant to spend two months living in Hamburg and learning German with the Goethe Institute. Applications can be submitted any time of year and applicants can choose to work at almost any university in Germany. Citizens from most countries qualify for funding, with additional fellowships available to citizens from developing and emerging countries (that one’s called the Georg Forster Fellowship). One of the great things about the Alexander von Humboldt foundation’s fellowships are that they have a ‘people not projects’ approach, that’s to say, the primary selection criteria is the quality of the applicant. Currently, the acceptance rate is roughly 30%.

If you are interested in conducting research in the United States, the Fullbright Scholar Program offers fellowships for early career researchers. The particulars of the fellowship may differ from country to country, but for UK applicants the award is for 1 year at $5,000 a month. Applications should be submitted by the 6th of November each year. There are several selection rounds, with interviews held in January and February. Successful candidates can expect to be informed of the committee’s decision in late February. Fellowships typically start from mid-July, so expect a 9-12 month lead time between initial application and starting the fellowship. There are only a few fellows accepted from each country per year, so these fellowships are quite competitive. However, if you’re successful the Fullbright program provides fellows with a unique workshop to help you settle once you get to the U.S. and assistance in obtaining VISA’s.

There are shorter fellowships available to visit researchers in Australia too, under the Endeavour Research Fellowship program. Research stays are between 4-6 months at about 3,000 AUD per month. Other benefits include a travel allowance, establishment allowance, health and travel insurance. These kind of short fellowships are great if you have a very specific set of experiments or field sessions in mind, although I think a 4 month stay would be quite intensive! Typically, getting another position in Australia is much easier once you are in the country, so these short fellowships can be a good way to get your foot in the door if your intention is to set up in this part of the world.

Whatever fellowship you end up applying for, all offer an opportunity to step out of the shadow of a PI and forge your own path within academia. Not everyone will feel ready to put their ideas down on paper and submit them to the scrutiny of a selection panel and that is fine. Traditional advertised post-docs offer structure while you’re refining your own ideas and interests. However, should you obtain a fellowship they can be a valuable springboard to a permanent lectureship. All of the fellowships mentioned in this post offer comprehensive guidance and information on their websites and generally the staff at these organisations are happy to answer questions by email. One final word of warning, most fellowships only allow applications from researchers that obtained their PhDs a maximum of 5-7 years ago (depending on the fellowship), so the clock is ticking. Good luck!