Top application tips for postdoc fellowships in the social sciences

A version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in June 2018 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

Post-doctoral or early career research fellowships in the social sciences have low success rates and are scarcely less competitive than academic posts. But if you have a strong proposal, at least some publications, realistic expectations and a plan B, applying for one of these schemes can be an opportunity to firm up your research ideas and make connections.

Reality check

If you’re thinking of applying for a postdoc or early career social science fellowship, you should ask yourself the following:

  • Are you likely to be one of the top (say) six or seven applicants in your academic discipline?
  • Does your current track record demonstrate this, or at least trajectory towards it?
  • Is applying for a Fellowship the best use of your time?

There’s a lot of naivety about the number of social science fellowships there are and the competition for them. Perhaps some PhD supervisors paint too rosy a picture, perhaps it is applicant wishful thinking, or perhaps the phrasing of some calls understates the reality of what’s required of a competitive proposal. But the reality is that Postdoc Fellowships in the social sciences are barely less competitive than lectureships. Competitive pressures mean that standards are driven sky high and demand exceeds supply by a huge margin.

The British Academy has a success rate of around 5%, with 45 Fellowships across arts, humanities, and social sciences. The Leverhulme Trust success rate is 14%, with around 100 Fellowships across all the disciplines they support (i.e. nearly all). The ESRC scheme is new – no success rates yet – but it will support 30-35 social science Fellowships. Marie Curie Fellowships are still available, but require relocating to another European country. There are the new UKRI Future Leader Fellowships which will fund 100 per call, but that’s across all subjects, and these are very much ‘future leader’ not ‘postdoc’ calls. Although some institutions have responded to a lack of external funding by establishing internal schemes – such as the Nottingham Research Fellowships – standards and expectations are also very, very high.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t apply – Fellowships do exist, applicants do get them – but you need to take a realistic view of your chances of success and decide about the best use of your time. If you’re writing a Fellowship application, you’re not writing up a paper, or writing a job application.

Top Tips for applications

  • Credible applicants need their own (not their supervisor’s) original, detailed and significant Fellowship project. Doing ‘more of the same’ is unlikely to be competitive – it’s fine to want to mine your PhD for publications and for there to be a connection to the new programme of work, but a Fellowship is really about the next stage.
  • If you don’t have any publications, you have little to make you stand out, and therefore little to no chance. Like all grant applications, this is a contest, not a test. It’s not about being sufficiently promising to be worth funding (most applicants are), it’s about presenting a stronger and more compelling case than your rivals.
  • If you have co-authored publications, make your contribution clear. If you have co-written a paper with your supervisor, make sure reviewers can tell whether (a) it is your work, with supervisory input; or (b) it is your supervisor’s work, for which you provided research assistance.
  • Give serious consideration to moving institution unless (a) you’re already at the best place for what you want to do; or (b) your personal circumstances prevent this. Moving institution doubles your network, may give you a better research environment, and gives you a fresh start where you’re seen as an early career researcher, not as the PhD student you used to be. If you’re already at the best place for your work or you can’t move, make the case. Funders are becoming a bit less dogmatic on this point and more aware that not everyone can relocate, but don’t assume that staying put is the best idea.
  • Don’t neglect training and development plans. Who would you like to meet or work with, what would you like training in, what extra research and impact skills would you like to have? Fellowships are about producing the researcher as well as the research.
  • Success rates are very low. Don’t get your hopes up, and don’t put all your eggs in one basket and neglect other opportunities.
  • Much of the rest of my advice on research grant writing applies to Fellowships too.

Even if you’re ultimately unsuccessful, you can also use the application as a vehicle to support the development of your post-PhD research agenda. By expressing a credible interest in applying for a Fellowship at an institution that’s serious about research, you will get feedback on your research plans from senior academics and potential mentors and from research development staff. It also forces you to put your ideas down on paper in a coherent way. Whether you apply for a Fellowship or not, you’ll need this for the academic job market.

Applying for research funding – is it worth it? Part II – Costs and Benefits

A version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight on 9th March 2018 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”

My previous post posed a question about whether applying for research funding was worth it or not, and concluded with a list of questions to consider to work out the answer. This follow-up is a list of costs and benefits associated with applying for external research funding, whether successful or unsuccessful. Weirdly, my list appears to contain more costs than benefits for success and more benefits than costs for failure, but perhaps that’s just me being contrary…

If you’re successful:


  • You get to do the research you really want to do
  • In career terms, whether for moving institution or internal promotion, there’s a big tick in the box marked ‘external research funding’.
  • Your status in your institution and within your discipline is likely to rise. Bringing in funding via a competitive external process gives you greater external validation, and that changes perceptions – perhaps it marks you out as a leader in your field, perhaps it marks a shift from career young researcher to fulfilling your evident promise.
  • Success tends to begat success in terms of research funding. Deliver this project and any future application will look more credible for it.


  • You’ve got to deliver on what you promised. That means all the areas of fudge or doubt or uncertainty about who-does-what need to be sorted out in practice. If you’ve under-costed any element of the project – your time, consumables, travel and subsistence – you’ll have to deal with it, and it might not be much fun.
  • Congratulations, you’ve just signed yourself up for a shedload of admin. Even with the best and most supportive post-award team, you’ll have project management to do. Financial monitoring; recruitment, selection, and line management of one or more research associates. And it doesn’t finish when the research finishes – thanks to the impact agenda, you’ll probably be reporting on your project via Researchfish for years to come.
  • Every time any comparable call comes round in the future, your colleagues will ask you give a presentation about your application/sit on the internal sifting panel/undertake peer review. Once a funding agency has given you money, you can bet they’ll be asking you to peer review other applications. Listed as a cost for workload purposes, but there are also a lot of benefits to getting involved in peer reviewing applications because it’ll improve your own too. Also, the chances are that you benefited from such support/advice from senior colleagues, so pay it forward. But be ready to pay.
  • You’ve just raised the bar for yourself. Don’t be surprised if certain people in research management start talking about your next project before this one is done as if it’s a given or an inevitability.
  • Unless you’re careful, you may not see as much recognition in your workload as you might have expected. Of course, your institution is obliged to make the time promised in the grant application available to you, but unless you’ve secured agreement in advance, you may find that much of this is taken out of your existing research allocation rather than out of teaching and admin. Especially as these days we no longer thing of teaching as a chore to buy ourselves out from. Think very carefully about what elements of your workload you would like to lose if your application is successful.
  • The potential envy and enmity of colleagues who are picking up bits of what was your work.

If you’re unsuccessful…


  • The chances are that there’s plenty to be salvaged even from an unsuccessful application. Once you’ve gone through the appropriate stages of grief, there’s a good chance that there’s at least one paper (even if ‘only’ a literature review) in the work that you’ve done. If you and your academic colleagues and your stakeholders are still keen, the chances are that there’s something you can do together, even if it’s not what you ideally wanted to do.
  • Writing an application will force you to develop your research ideas. This is particularly the case for career young researchers, where the pursuit of one of those long-short Fellowships can be worth it if only to get proper support in developing your research agenda.
  • If you’ve submitted a credible, competitive application, you’ve at least shown willing in terms of grant-getting. No-one can say that you haven’t tried. Depending on the pressures/expectations you’re under, having had a credible attempt at it buys you some license to concentrate on your papers for a bit.
  • If it’s your first application, you’ll have learnt a lot from the process, and you’ll be better prepared next time. Depending on your field, you could even add a credible unsuccessful application to a CV, or a job application question about grant-getting experience.
  • If your institution has an internal peer review panel or other selection process, you’ve put you and your research onto the radar of some senior people. You’ll be more visible, and this may well lead to further conversations with colleagues, especially outside your school. In the past I’ve recommended that people put forward internal expressions of interest even if they’re not sure they’re ready for precisely this reason.


  • You’ve just wasted your time – and quite a lot of time at that. And not just work time… often evenings and weekends too.
  • It’ll come as a disappointment, which may take some time to get over
  • Even if you’ve kept it quiet, people in your institution will know that you’ve been unsuccessful.

I’ve written two longer pieces on what to do if your research grant application is unsuccessful, which can be found here and here.

“Once more unto the breach” – Should I resubmit my unsuccessful research grant application?

A picture of a boomerangThis article first appeared in Funding Insight on 11th May 2017 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit
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Should I resubmit my unsuccessful research grant application?


‘No’ is the short answer – unless you’ve received an invitation or steer from the funder to do so. Many funders don’t permit uninvited resubmissions, so the first step should always be to check your funder’s rules and definitions of resubmission with your research development team.

To be, or not to be

That’s not to say that you should abandon your research proposal – more that it’s a mistake to think of your next application on the same or similar topic as a resubmission. It’s much better – if you do wish to pursue it – to treat it as a fresh application and to give yourself and your team the opportunity to develop your ideas. It’s unlikely that nothing has changed between the date of submission and now. It’s also unlikely that nothing could be improved about the underpinning research idea or the way it was expressed in the application.

However, sometimes the best approach is to let an idea go, cut your losses, avoid the sunk costs fallacy. Onwards and upwards to the next idea. I was recently introduced to the concept of a “negative CV”, which is the opposite of a normal CV, listing only failed grant applications, rejected papers, unsuccessful conference pitches and job market rejections. Even the most eminent scholars have lengthy negative CVs, and there’s no shame in being unsuccessful, especially as success rates are so low. It’s really difficult – you’ve got your team together, you’ve been through the discussions and debates and the honing of your idea and then the grant writing, and then the disappointment of not getting funded. It’s very definitely worth having meetings and discussion to see what can be salvaged and repurposed – publishing literature reviews, continuing to engage with stakeholders etc. It’s only natural to look for some other avenue for your work, but sometimes it’s best to move on to something else.

Here are two bits of wisdom that are both true in their own way:

  • If at first you don’t succeed, try, try try again (William Edward Hickson)
  • The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results (disputed- perhaps Einstein or Franklin, but I reckon US Narcotics Anonymous)

So what should you do? What factors should you consider in deciding whether to rise from the canvas like Rocky, or instead emulate Elsa and Let It Go?

What being unsuccessful means… and what it doesn’t

As a Canadian research council director once said, research funding is a contest, not a test. Research funding is a limited commodity, like Olympic medals, jobs, and winning lottery tickets. It’s not an unlimited commodity like driving licenses or PhDs, commodities which everyone who reaches the required standard can obtain. Sometimes I think researchers confuse the two – if the driving test examiner says I failed on my three point turn, if I get it right next time (and make no further mistakes) I’ll pass. But even if I respond adequately to all of the points made in the referees’ comments, there’s still no guarantee I’ll get funded. The quality of my driving in the morning doesn’t affect your chances of passing your test in the afternoon, but if too many applications are better than yours, you won’t get funded. And just as many recruitment exercises produce more appointable candidates than posts, so funding calls attract far more fundable applications than the funds available.

Sometimes referees’ comments can be misinterpreted. Feedback might list the real or perceived faults with the application, but (once the fundamentally flawed have been excluded) ultimately it’s a competition about significance. What significance means is defined by the funder and the scheme and doesn’t necessarily mean impact – it could be about academic significance, contribution to the field and so on.

As a public panel member for an NIHR scheme I’ve seen this from the inside – project proposals which are technically competent, sensible and feasible. Yet either because they fail to articulate the significance or because their research challenge is just not that significant an issue, they don’t get funded because they’re not competitive against similarly competent applications taking on much more significant and important research challenges. Feedback is given which would have improved the application, but simply addressing that feedback will seldom make it any more competitive.

When major Research Centre calls come out, I often have conversations with colleagues who have great ideas for perfectly formed projects which unfortunately I don’t think are significant enough to be one of three or four funded across the whole of social sciences. Ideally the significance question, the “so what/who cares?” question should be posed before applying in the first place, but you should definitely look again at what was funded and ask it again of your project before considering trying to rework it.

Themed Calls Cast a Long Shadow

One of the most dispiriting grant rejection experiences is rejection from a targeted call which seemed perfect. It’s not like an open call where you have to compete with rival bids on significance from all across your research council’s remit – rather, the significance is already recognised.

Yet the reality is that narrower calls often have similarly low success rates. Although they’re narrower, everyone who can pile in, does pile in. And deciding what to do next is much harder. Themed calls cast a long shadow – if as a funder I’ve just made a major investment in field X through niche call Y, I’m not sure how I’m going to feel about an X-related application coming back in through the open call route. Didn’t we just fund a lot of this stuff? Should we fund more, especially if an idea like this was unsuccessful last time? Shouldn’t we support something else? And I think this effect might be true even with different funders who will be aware of what’s going on elsewhere. If a tranche of projects in your research area have been funded through a particular call, it’s going to be very difficult to get investment through any other scheme anytime soon.

Switching calls, Switching funders

An exception to this might be the Global Challenges Research Fund or perhaps other areas where there’s a lot of funding available (relatively speaking) and a number of different calls with slightly different priorities. Being unsuccessful with an application to an open call or a broader call and then looking to repurpose the research idea in response to a narrower themed call is more likely to pay off than the other way round, moving from a specific call to a general one. But even so, my advice would be to ban the “r” word entirely. It’s not a ‘resubmission’, it’s an entirely new application written for a different funding scheme with different priorities, even if some of the underlying ideas are similar.

This goes double when it comes to switching funders. A good way of wasting everyone’s time is trying to crowbar a previously unsuccessful application into the format required by a different funder. Different funders have different priorities and different application procedures, formats and rules, and so you must treat it as a fresh application. Not doing so is a bit like getting out some love letters you sent to a former paramour, changing the name at the top, and reposting them to the current object of your affections. Neither will end well.

The Leverhulme Trust are admirably clear on this point, they’re “keen to avoid assuming the role of ‘funder of last resort’; that is, of routinely providing support for proposals which have been fully matched to the requirement of another funding agency, but have failed to win support on the grounds of either lack of quality or insufficient available funds.” If you’re going to apply to the Leverhulme Trust, for example, make it a Leverhulme-y application, and that means shifting not just the presentational style but also the substance of what you’re proposing.

Whatever the change, forget any notion of resubmission if you’re taking an idea from one call to another. Yes, you may be able to reuse some of your previous materials, but if you submit something clearly written for another call with the crowbar marks still visible, you won’t get funded.

The Five Stages of Grant Application Failure

I’m reluctant to draw this comparison, but I wonder if responding to grant application rejection is a bit like the Kubler-Ross model of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). Perhaps one question to ask yourself is if your resubmission plans are coming from a position of acceptance – in which case fine, but don’t regard it as a resubmission – or a part of the bargaining stage. In which case…. perhaps take a little longer to decide what to do.

Further reading: What to do if your grant application is unsuccessful. Part 1 – What it Means and What it dDoesn’t and Part 2 – Next Steps.

Getting research funding: the significance of significance

"So tell me, Highlander, what is peer review?"
“I’m Professor Connor Macleod of the Clan Macleod, and this is my research proposal!”

In a excellent recent blog post, Lachlan Smith wrote about the “who cares?” question that potential grant applicants ought to consider, and that research development staff ought to pose to applicants on a regular basis.

Why is this research important, and why should it be funded? And crucially, why should we fund this, rather than that? In a comment on a previous post on this blog Jo VanEvery quoted some wise words from a Canadian research funding panel member: “it’s not a test, it’s a contest”. In other words, research funding is not an unlimited good like a driving test or a PhD viva where there’s no limit to how many people can (in principle) succeed. Rather, it’s more like a job interview, qualification for the Olympic Games, or the film Highlander – not everyone can succeed. And sometimes, there can be only one.

I’ve recently been fortunate enough to serve on a funding panel myself, as a patient/public involvement representative for a health services research scheme. Assessing significance in the form of potential benefit for patients and carers is a vitally important part of the scheme, and while I’m limited in what I’m allowed to say about my experience, I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say that significance – and demonstrating that significance – is key.

I think there’s a real danger when writing – and indeed supporting the writing – of research grant applications that the focus gets very narrow, and the process becomes almost inward looking. It becomes about improving it internally, writing deeply for subject experts, rather than writing broadly for a panel of people with a range of expertise and experiences. It almost goes without saying that the proposed project must convince the kinds of subject expert who will typically be asked to review a project, but even then there’s no guarantee that reviewers will know as much as the applicant. In fact, it would be odd indeed if there were to be an application where the reviewers and panel members knew more about the topic than the applicant. I’d probably go as far as to say that if you think the referees and the reviewers know more than you, you probably shouldn’t be applying – though I’m open to persuasion about some early career schemes and some very specific calls on very narrow topics.

So I think it’s important to write broadly, to give background and context, to seek to convince others of the importance and significance of the research question. To educate and inform and persuade – almost like a briefing. I’m always badgering colleagues for what I call “killer stats” – how big is the problem, how many people does it affect, by how much is it getting worse, how much is it costing the economy, how much is it costing individuals, what difference might a solution to this problem make? If there’s a gap in the literature or in human knowledge, make a case for the importance or potential importance in filling that gap.

For blue skies research it’s obviously harder, but even here there is scope for discussing the potential academic significance of the possible findings – academic impact – and what new avenues of research may be opened out, or closed off by a decisive negative finding which would allow effort to be refocused elsewhere. If all research is standing on the shoulders of giants, what could be seen by future researchers standing on the shoulders of your research?

It’s hugely frustrating for reviewers when applicants don’t do this – when they don’t give decision makers the background and information they need to be able to draw informed conclusions about the proposed project. Maybe a motivated reviewer with a lighter workload and a role in introducing your proposal may have time to do her own research, but you shouldn’t expect this, and she shouldn’t have to. That’s your job.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the existence of a gap in the literature is not itself an argument for it being filled, or at least not through large amounts of scarce research funding. There must be a near infinite number of gaps, such as the one that used to exist about the effect of peanut butter on the rotation of the earth – but we need more than the bare fact of the existence of a gap – or the fact that other researchers can be quoted as saying there’s a gap – to persuade.

Oh, and if you do want to claim there’s a gap, please check google scholar or similar first – reviewers, panel members (especially introducers) may very well do that. And from my limited experience of sitting on a funding panel, there’s nothing like one introducer or panel member reeling of a list of studies on a topic where there’s supposedly a gap (and which aren’t referenced in the proposal) to finish off the chance of an application. I’ve not seen enthusiasm or support for a project sucked out of the room so completely and so quickly by any other means.

And sometimes, if there aren’t killer stats or facts and figures, or if a case for significance can’t be made, it may be best to either move on to another idea, or a different and cheaper way of addressing the challenge. While it may be a good research idea, a key question before deciding to apply is whether or not the application is competitive for significance given the likely competition, the scale of the award, the ambition sought by the funder, and the number of successful projects to be awarded. Given the limits to research funding available, and their increasing concentration into larger grants, there really isn’t much funding for dull-but-worthy work which taken together leads to the aggregation of marginal gains to the sum of human knowledge.I think this is a real problem for research, but we are where we are.

Significance may well be the final decider in research funding schemes that are open to a range of research questions. There are many hurdles which must be cleared before this final decider, and while they’re not insignificant, they mainly come down to technical competence and feasibility. Is the methodology not only appropriate, but clearly explained and robustly justified? Does the team have the right mix of expertise? Is the project timescale and deliverables realistic? Are the research questions clearly outlined and consistent throughout? All of these things – and more – are important, but what they do is get you safely though into the final reckoning for funding.

Once all of the flawed or technically unfeasible or muddled or unpersuasive or unclear or non-novel proposals have been knocked out, perhaps at earlier stages, perhaps at the final funding panel stage, what’s left is a battle of significance. To stand the best chance of success, your application needs to convince and even inspire non-expert reviewers to support your project ahead of the competition.

But while this may be the last question, or the final decider between quality projects, it’s one that I’d argue potential grant applicants should consider first of all.

The significance of significance is that if you can’t persuasively demonstrate the significance of your proposed project, your grant application may turn out to be a significant waste of your time.

Grant Writing Mistakes part 94: The “Star Wars”

Have you seen Star Wars?  Even if you haven’t, you might be aware of the iconic opening scene, and in particular the scrolling text that begins

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….”

(Incidentally, this means that the Star Wars films are set in the past, not the future. Which is a nice bit of trivia and the basis for a good pub quiz question).  What relevance does any of this have for research grant applications?  Patience, Padawan, and all will become clear.

What I’m calling the “Star Wars” error in grant writing is starting the main body of your proposal with the position of “A long time ago…”. Before going on to review the literature at great length, quoting everything that calls for more research, and in general taking a lot of time and space to lay the groundwork and justify the research.  Without yet telling the reader what it’s about, why it’s important, or why it’s you and your team that should do it.

This information about the present project will generally emerge in its own sweet time and space, but not until two thirds of the way through the available space.  What then follows is a rushed exposition with inadequate detail about the research questions and about the methods to be employed.  The reviewer is left with an encyclopaedic knowledge of all that went before it, of the academic origin story of the proposal, but precious little about the project for which funding is being requested.  And without a clear and compelling account of what the project is about, the chances of getting funded are pretty much zero.  Reviewers will not unreasonably want more detail, and may speculate that its absence is an indication that the applicants themselves aren’t clear what they want to do.

Yes, an application does need to locate itself in the literature, but this should be done quickly, succinctly, clearly, and economically as regards to the space available.  Depending on the nature of the funder, I’d suggest not starting with the background, and instead open with what the present project is about, and then zoom out and locate it in the literature once the reader knows what it is that’s being located.  Certainly if your background/literature review section takes up more than between a quarter of the available space, it’s too long.

(Although I think “the Star Wars”  is a defensible name for this grant application writing mistake, it’s only because of the words “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….”. Actually the scrolling text is a really elegant, pared down summary of what the viewer needs to know to make sense of what follows… and then we’re straight into planets, lasers, a fleeing spaceship and a huge Star Destroyer that seems to take forever to fly through the shot.)

In summary, if you want the best chance of getting funded, you should, er… restore balance to the force…. of your argument. Or something.