Monday, 20 March 2017

ECRs: Positioning Yourself for a Fellowship

Kay Guccione
Last week Dr Kay Guccione (Sheffield) spoke to the Early Career Researcher Network about the difficult task of positioning yourself for a fellowship when you’re just starting out. Her insights came from a project she had undertaken, ‘Fellowship Ahoy!’, which looked at the key behaviours of those who had been successful in securing a fellowship.

“I was frustrated at hearing people who had worked really hard say, ‘I was just really lucky’” she began. ‘It’s not all about luck, individual agency is a major component in recent models of academic and researcher development.’

Equally frustrating is hearing those aspiring applicants who write themselves off with a barrier such as, ‘I’m not independent enough yet, or not an ideas person, or I’m just not confident.’ In both cases there’s almost a suggestion of predestination: some are destined for fellowships and fame, others are not. ‘This is just not true,’ said Kay. ‘There’s a lot of success factors which are just unrecognised.’

Kay emphasised this point by dispelling some myths around fellowships. They don’t always go to those who are employed full time working in research, have a good relationship with their PI, and win it first time. In addition, not all those who won them had moved institutions, and many had felt uncomfortable about asking for help from others. These structural and cultural barriers we face can be negotiated to some extent.

However, you do need to be proactive in seeking success. It’s not enough to keep your head down, do good work, and expect that opportunities will come knocking.

Through looking at the literature on academic leadership and progression, elements common to research leaders include:


  • Having a distinctive high profile research identity. Develop your niche, and make sure that there’s a place where others can go to find out more about it.
  • Connecting with others in their global research field. What works in your field? Are there mailing lists, or a very visible online community through platforms such as Twitter
  • Garnering valuable social capital through peer and collaborative networks. There has been a suggestion that the majority of academic jobs go to those whose work is known by those making the appointment. Make sure you’re visible enough out there.

The people around you are important, and so Kay asked the workshop participants what they were positively doing to ensure that their networks are in good shape. ‘Do others know you and what you do?’ she asked, ‘and how do you meet people who can help and support you?’

The Fellowship Ahoy project (Guccione, 2016) interviewed 25 research fellows and found things they all had in common. They all sought to develop their awareness of the opportunities open to them, to improve their application gameplay, to develop and protect their research ideas, and the boost their own confidence and resilience. In doing this, fellows had sought out and sought help from people across their networks.

Kay finished by looking at how you develop the ideas that can form the kernels of great fellowship proposals. These can take many forms, and the group suggested a number, including:

  • Responding to ideas in recent papers, including a frustration that the authors hadn’t included a specific area or methodology.
  • In conversation, within your group, or online, or at conference.
  • From events in the real world, such as developments that require policy input, or trends in social or healthcare.
  • From being immersed in an area, and seeing the gaps, or having an idea triggered by your current research questions.
Given the serendipitous nature of idea development, make sure you have a way to record them, and document them - with a timestamp (such as a photo on your phone) - when you do. Above all, if and when you tell others about your ideas, make sure you don’t tell one person. ‘Tell a group of witnesses, or tell no one,’ said Kay.

If the ideas aren’t forthcoming on their own, try and encourage them by making them a ‘structural’ part of your life. As with Google employees who are expected to suggest new ideas frequently, it’s good to challenge yourself to think differently. Not all the ideas are going to be great, or even worth exploring further, but within the dust there will be a nugget.

And finally, make sure you are supported by the right people. Kay suggested you needed both a career champion (who facilitates access to the resources needed to develop and write the application. This is often your supervisor, mentor or PI) and a ‘tour guide’ (who has an insider knowledge of the call and the process, and knows what you need to do. Research Services can help with this).

To explore Kay’s work further, have a look at videos of some of her research interviewees on:

In addition, do look at the two online learning resources that she created from the data: 



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