One of the biggest favors you can do for yourself as a postdoc is to get a personal postdoctoral fellowship. Your own funding covers your salary and (often) some research costs as well. As such, you will have a degree of independence that you would not have otherwise. Also, being able to show that you can obtain independent funding is crucial for future steps in your career. And, most importantly, you will be able to do the research that you find most interesting.
Unfortunately, many senior PhD students and first year postdocs I talk to, don’t think they stand a chance to get funding, because of words like ‘prestigious’ and ‘competitive’ that are often used to describe such forms of funding. As with any type of science funding, it is true that there is a high level of competition, and more applicants than available fellowships. However, with clever ideas and thorough preparation I am sure that you will have at least a fair chance to be successful when you apply for a fellowship.
Below are 4 tips that helped me incredibly when I was writing my own application. They might seem obvious, which is exactly the point: that’s why they often get ignored. All tips relate to my own experience in biomedical science, specifically neuroscience, but I’m sure they are also broadly applicable to other fields.
This is likely to be the first major funding application you do. Don’t think you can do it all on your own! Because you’re writing for a personal fellowship, funding agencies expect you to drive the application and come up with the ideas for the project. That doesn’t mean that you should work everything out by yourself. The obvious starting point to help you edit and discuss your proposal is the PI you will be working with when your application is successful. She or he is perfectly placed to help you fine-tune your ideas and find the right words to make sure they come across like you want them to. Your PI knows how to write successful applications which means that even if initially you don’t succeed yourself, you will learn a lot by going through the whole process together.
It is unlikely that you are the first person to apply for a particular type of funding within your university, so try and find examples of others who have. Many application forms can be complex and daunting to work out by yourself, so it helps to see and hear how others have done it before. It is not always easy to find the right people. Make sure you look on the agency’s webpage to find successful candidates from the previous funding round, ask around in your institute, and ask your (future) PI. Most people, even if you don’t know them, are willing to have a chat about their experiences and even share their application. I got a complete example of a successful application from the year before I applied, and I honestly don’t know if I could have done it otherwise.
Talk About Your Research Plan
Before you start writing, make sure you discuss and present your proposal in a broader setting than to just your PI. When I prepared my fellowship application, I presented my research proposal at a lab meeting. Apart from lots of feedback on the research in my proposal, it got me to organize my ideas and plans into a structured presentation. Also, by the end of your PhD, you are likely to be part of a broader group of PhD students and postdocs in your institute who form a perfect, informal network for you to try your ideas out on and ask for feedback. Talking about your proposal will help you shape your ideas further and teach you to use the right words to get across the essence of your proposal as clearly and concisely as possible.
Keep It Simple
By the end of your PhD you might find that you have gained an incredibly detailed knowledge of a specific area of research. That is great and the fruit of years of working hard and keeping on top of the literature. However, when it comes to writing your fellowship application, make sure you don’t have to be an expert in that field to understand it. You should realize that the scientists that review your application are likely only vaguely familiar with the topic you discuss. Make sure that you can say what you are proposing to do and why that is important in just 2 or 3 sentences. If you can’t, it probably means you should do some more thinking and discussing before you start writing.
These ideas are only the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure that if you ask someone else they would come up with additional suggestions. I have listed some other online resources below that each highlight different grants or aspects of applying. Whatever the outcome of your application will be, it will be a great learning experience!
Good luck & happy grant writing!
Other Resources for a Postdoctoral Fellowship
The commkit of the Broad Institute has a page on applying for a fellowship in a general sense, but also includes tips for specific grant schemes.
Many ‘checklist’ like lists, such as this one from the University of Colorado can be found online; I think they are quite helpful when setting out to write a proposal for the first time.
Make sure to search online for specific fellowships and funding schemes. Look for common funding schemes, such as the EU Marie Curie program. Also view many online blogs where examples are easy to find.