The reason? From my experience of supporting people to develop fellowship applications and of acting as a referee for awards schemes putting yourself front and centre of an application can be a challenge. However, this can make the difference between being successful or not.
Focusing on getting the research project right may be a challenge but somehow feels more comfortable than writing about yourself and your future aspirations. You have an academic team to support you. But who is going to support you in thinking through your aspirations? We’re not often asked to articulate this are we? Someone saying to us tell me about yourself and who/what you want to become. For most of us this is unfamiliar territory.
Before going any further let’s just pause and think about what a linchpin is. It’s defined as ‘a person or thing vital to an enterprise’ and synonyms include: heart, nucleus, hub, centre, focal point, central point, centre of attention, pivot.
Reflect on those words for a moment. What does it feel like to see yourself as a linchpin? How does it feel to be a focal point or centre of attention? Even more importantly what would it look like if you were to develop your application from this perspective?
Here is an important question for anyone in the process of preparing a fellowship application –
When you read through your application have you put yourself at its heart?
The Golden Triangle
If you read through the majority of guidance published for fellowship applications three broad themes are usually apparent in the criteria for assessment: the person; the project; the environment.
All three are important. However, there is a strong temptation, especially for first time applicants, to focus a lot of time and attention on the project and less attention on themselves and the environment(s) in which they will be undertaking their fellowship.
Of course the project is important**. However, let’s be clear about the distinction between a fellowship application and a project grant. A fellowship is a personal award and the primary thing that is being invested in is YOU and YOUR potential to become, a leading clinical academic or a leading researcher in your field. This applies whether you are applying for a fellowship from HEE/NIHR, a professional body, academic institution or a medical research charity.
**Not all personal fellowships, especially for people at the very start of their research career, will require you to outline a research proposal, they may ask you to outline a programme of training instead.
What does it mean to focus on myself?
How are you going to demonstrate your potential and future aspirations? This can feel a little overwhelming if you are already battling that voice of self-doubt which keeps asking you, ‘are you sure you’re good enough to do this?’ So here are 2 questions to think about.
What have I done so far?
This question prompts you to think about how you can evidence your commitment to research. If I am reading your application and you say, “I’m passionate about research” how does this passion shine through in what you’ve already done?
The obvious thing is by listing any publications you may have. But if you are at a very early stage in your research career you may not have publications. But you will have other things.
If you completed a dissertation for your pre-registration award have you presented it as a poster or oral presentation at a conference? Have you given any presentations at study days within your organisation or a special interest group? Have you written any relevant articles for newsletters?
Are you active in specialist sections or your professional body? Are you on any committees or working groups? Do you take part in any relevant social media groups, engage with twitter chats? How engaged are you in networks and communities, e.g. if you’re an AHP are you active in your local Council for Allied Health Professionals Research Network? Do you attend your Trust R&D events?
As a reviewer I’m interested and want to know these things.
Who am I going to become?
The previous question prompts you to evidence the journey you have travelled, this question prompts you to communicate the journey you are aspiring to embark upon. This is where placing yourself at the centre of your application becomes essential.
Where do you want to be by the end of your fellowship and beyond?
If you state that you aspire to become a leading clinical academic in the field of the self-management of rheumatoid arthritis your research project and other aspects of your training programme must all contribute to this aspiration. The conferences you propose to attend, the clinical and research skills you include in your training programme, the background of your supervisors must all, in some way, contribute to this aspiration.
If you state that you want to become a leading researcher within your organisation or your profession how you are going to achieve this? What support and resources will you need to achieve this? What skills will you learn, what networks will you aim to develop to move you towards this role?
There are no generic statements that you can include here. It might feel helpful to write about the wonderful culture of research within your organisation but I would ask, ‘so what?’ Link it with a vision of how you are going to play an active role in the culture, how it can support you in your development and then I say, ‘ah now I see’.
So, if you are in the process of writing a fellowship do you shine through or is it all about your project or training programme? If you don’t – what thinking do you need to do? What conversations do you need to have to help you with this and with whom?
Take timeout to do that aspirational thinking and leave yourself plenty of time to think about how you are going to demonstrate and communicate it. It will be worth it.