How To Apply For A PostDoc Grant or Fellowship
If you've completed your PhD and are looking for a postdoctoral position, career progression can be intimidating and stressful. To help guide you through this transition, we offer here a guide for finding and applying for postdoctoral funding. Although some departments advertise for postdoc positions involving researching, technical support or teaching which is needed by the group, if your research does not align exactly with the research priorities of a lab it may be hard to find an appropriate position. The best option for many researchers is to apply for a postdoc grant or fellowship.
What is a postdoc fellowship or grant?
A postdoctoral grant or fellowship provides funding for a research project directly to you. The funding will cover your own salary, your research expenses, and possibly salaries for other workers such as PhD students or student assistants to work on your project. The primary advantage of having your own funding is that you can go and work in a group of your choosing. Most departments are very happy to accept a postdoc researcher who brings their own funding, and the department can provide administrative support and working space for your project. A further advantage is that your funding can be transferred with you – if, for example, you have a 5-year grant and you decide to move to a different university after two years, you can generally take the remaining three years of funding to your new department.
The ability to attract research funding is also important for hiring decisions at a senior level in academia. If you wish to eventually become a professor, then a strong track record of attracting funding is important. Winning a postdoctoral grant or fellowship is a positive demonstration of your ability to plan for and apply for external funding, and shows that you are capable of not only performing excellent research, but also securing the support of third-party organisations, which is very important to university departments.
Setting up a project
To begin applying for a fellowship or grant, you must first choose a project idea. Obviously the type of project which is appropriate for a fellowship application varies a lot between academic disciplines. However, there are some commonalities which can help to guide you. Firstly, it is often helpful for your project to be a natural extension of your PhD project. This way, you already have a great deal of knowledge about the topic, and you have already demonstrated the ability to plan and execute a project in this area. If you wish to pursue a project in a new area of research, you'll need to demonstrate to the funding body that you have the skills and knowledge necessary to undertake the research. In either case, remember to be realistic regarding how much you can achieve in the funding period. Most grants or fellowships are for a period of between two and five years of funding, so make sure that your project is achievable in the time available.
Next, you need to find collaborators for your project. For the best chances at gaining a fellowship, you should be as ambitious as possible in this! You should identify the world-leading researchers or labs in the area of your project and approach them for collaborations. Most researchers are interested to hear about new ideas in their area, and will be supportive of a project if you can obtain your own funding. Don't just consider researchers working in your own country, but consider international researchers too. Even if you wish to stay within your current country, you can set up international collaborations which can provide valuable insight and knowledge, as well as looking impressive to funding bodies. Reach out to individuals or labs whose work you have been impressed by, give them a brief outline of your project idea and let them know which fellowships or grants you are planning to apply for, and ask if they would be interested in being part of the project. More senior or experienced researchers can offer advice on forming and executing the project, and also on the wording of your funding applications, so do ask for their guidance.
Finding a fellowship or grant to apply for
Once you've got an idea for your project and have started to consider potential collaborators, you should look for specific fellowships or grants to apply for. There are a wide variety of fellowships and grants available, with different specialities and interests. Foundations and other organisations which offer funding usually have a particular academic, political or social area with which they are especially concerned, and they look for projects which fit well with their interests. So you should consider the unique merits of your proposed research – for example, if it is an interdisciplinary project, you can look for funding from a body who promotes co-operation between academic disciplines. If your project has particular social relevance, or if you yourself are from a particular social group, you may be able to find a funding body which specialises in promoting research about or performed by that social group – for example, there is funding available to support researchers who are of a particular religion or nationality. The closer that your research interests fit to the interests of the funding body, the better your chances of a successful application.
Remember that, as well as looking for international collaborators, you should consider applying to international funding bodies. Funding bodies based in foreign countries may offer funding if you wish to undertake part of your research within that country, even if you are of a different nationality. You can maximise your chances of a successful application by searching broadly and applying for funding from both local and international organisations.
Applying for a fellowship or grant
The first thing to know about applying for a fellowship or grant is that it will take quite some time to apply, and to hear back about whether your application was successful or not. It typically takes several months to develop a project idea and to write it up as an application, and it can take 6 months or more for funding bodies to make a decision. So you should be aware that you need to apply early, and you should have some kind of back-up plan or short-term work that you can rely on while working through the application process.
A further important consideration is how many applications you should make. It is not unusual for researchers to write up the same project proposal and send it to a number of different funding bodies. On the one hand, the more applications you send out, the greater your chances of being successful. On the other, each application can be a large amount of work. Also note that some funding bodies require you to disclose whether you have applied with the same project to other funding sources.
Once you have selected the foundations or organisations which you wish to apply to, you need to check their requirements carefully. Typically you will need to provide a project description, a letter of motivation, and your CV. Some organisations may request further documents, such as a proposed budget or a lay summary of the project which would be comprehensible to the public. Remember when you are writing these documents that they will be read by non-experts as well as experts, so refrain from using jargon or technical language and try to make your important ideas understandable even to those without expertise in your area. You will also need to provide letter(s) of recommendation from your supervisors or other senior figures in your field, so be sure to give your referees plenty of time to write up a letter and submit it to the funding body. If you have arranged collaborators already, it is advantageous to have them write a letter of recommendation for you too, stating that they have worked on the project ideas with you and would be willing to host you at their university if the funding application is successful.
We wish you the best of luck with your postdoctoral career plans!