Postdoc Fellowships: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

A version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in March 2022 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com

Is relocation always advisable for a postdoc fellowship, and what if it’s not possible?

Most postdoctoral fellowship programmes encourage potential applicants to move institutions, though the strength of that steer and the importance placed on researcher mobility varies from scheme to scheme. At the extreme end, in Europe, the Marie Curie Fellowships programme (not exclusively a postdoc scheme) requires international mobility for eligibility.

“Until tomorrow, the whole world is my home…”

In the UK, most schemes have softened their steer over recent years. Where once staying at your current institution required ‘exceptional justification’ or some similar phrasing, there’s now an increasing awareness that researcher mobility doesn’t make sense for everyone and enforcing it has negative ramifications for equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). It’s much harder and more disruptive for researchers with family commitments to move institutions, and harder for those with partners who are tied to a particular location for family or job reasons. There will be other researchers who are already in the best environment for their research, and so any move would be a backward step. It’s now common for application forms to allow space for both (a) personal/EDI reasons why moving institutions is not possible; and (b) intellectual/research reasons for not wanting to move.

However, there is still a fear that whatever the guidance notes may say, the reality is that reviewers still expect researchers to move for a postdoc fellowship. Or that competitive pressures and limited funds may make it harder for non-mobile proposals to be scored high enough to cross the threshold. It’s not obvious that an exceptional researcher with an exceptional project in a mediocre environment (for whatever reason) could be competitive against rivals who were judged exceptional across all three categories (person, project, place). Even if that researcher had very sound EDI-related reasons for not moving. It’s a tricky issue and there’s no obvious solution, other than a lot more money for fellowships.

It’s worth noting in passing that just because a reviewer has said something, doesn’t mean that the panel paid it any heed. A reviewer may think mobility ought to be compulsory, but the panel will ignore them if that’s not the scheme rule.

Well, there are worse earworms to have…

Why move?

Why do funders want researcher mobility? Funders will say that it’s a good thing, but the reasons are rarely fully articulated. I think there are at least four reasons to look to move:

  • It will grow your network. You already have your contacts and collaborators at your current institution, and any from any previous institutions. Moving institution will lead to an introduction to new research groups with different facilities. You can grow your network from one place, but it’s hard to replicate the dramatic network expansion from moving.
  • It will expose you to a different culture and way of working. Even if some things will be better, some worse, it all contributes to intellectual and professional enrichment. If you’ve not moved, it’s easy to think that there are no alternative ways of working when a problem arises.
  • It will allow you to reinvent yourself. If you’re working with researchers who remember you as a PhD student, or even an undergraduate, it’s difficult for colleagues not to continue to see you that way. I know of a few people who’ve been ‘lifers’ at a single institution and experienced a huge rise in their status in the new institution after moving, because their new colleagues have only ever seen them as a dynamic young researcher.
  • It will boost your progression towards independence. Sitting in the same lab with the same people, it’ll be very hard to move out of their shadow. Especially if they’re very senior.

Should I move?

The world’s greatest ever TV theme tune, folks.

Probably yes. Unless you have personal reasons that make moving difficult or impossible, or you’re confident that you’re already in the best place to undertake your research. One factor to consider is how mobile you’ve already been between undergraduate studies and now. The less you’ve moved, the greater the benefits to move now.

Don’t feel disloyal about moving. Good researchers and mentors know that mobility is a good thing for your development, and that your move could potentially strengthen their links with your target institution and boost collaboration. What’s more, your institution is talking to PhDs and postdocs from other institutions about fellowships. This is how things work.

Hopefully you’ll already know people who work at your target institution, and they’ll be able to point you in the right direction. If you don’t, that makes life harder. You could ask colleagues for an introduction and a recommendation, or send your CV and a proposal to the research group you’d like to work with. Copy in a research manager or administrator. They can only say no. Or not reply at all.  But good research groups will be delighted to hear from talented researchers who work in a relevant area who are willing to apply for a fellowship.

It’s important to make contact early. You’re not going to get a warm reception if you contact the institution a few weeks before the deadline. They will want to help you shape and improve your proposal, and there will be costings and approvals to agree. Your current host institution can’t help you apply elsewhere; the responsibility is all with the new host.

What if I can’t—or justifiably don’t want to—move?

A few Google searches might tell you how many successful candidates in the fellowship scheme’s last round moved, and how many stayed where they were. If not, you could ask a friendly neighbourhood research development manager if anyone has looked at this before.

If there are at least some successes, you should attempt to address the non-mobility question throughout the application, not just in the boxes where you’re specifically asked about it. If there’s a presumption in favour of moving, and you’re not moving, you need to show that you’ve got a solid plan to achieve as many of the benefits of mobility as possible.

  • Have you moved already? If so, look for a way to stress this and explain how you’ve benefited. Don’t just rely on reviewers seeing it in your career history (that’s often a section that’s skim-read).
  • Can you be mobile within an institution? If you’re moving to a new research group, or your work bridges your old group and new one, you can present that as both a form of mobility and evidence of your pathway towards independence. On that note, no-one is saying that you’re never allowed to speak to your old mentor/supervisor again. But can you put some (physical, intellectual, organisational) distance between the two of you in the application? Can you foreground the collaborations you’ve built, the talented researchers who’ve worked specifically with you?
  • Make a positive case for your current research environment. If it has the right equipment, resources, facilities, collaborators, say so. Don’t merely make the ‘negative’ case for why mobility is difficult or impossible for you. Reviewers don’t need persuading that you’re telling the truth there. Instead, persuade them that your current research environment is outstanding.
  • Can you visit other institutions as part of your fellowship? The factors that make moving institutions difficult presumably also make extended visits difficult too. But could you spend a month (or longer) at another research group (maybe even internationally) to, for example, learn a new technique or expand a new collaboration? Even micro-visits can be useful.
  • Have a plan to expand your (academic and non-academic) networks. This could be conference attendance (real or virtual), it could be greater visibility on social media or other channels of communication. It could be volunteering to organise your School’s seminar series. These are all ways of ensuring that you get at least some of the network-expanding benefits of changing institution without actually changing institution.

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