Our Training Fellowship scheme is designed to support the development of promising early career researchers with less than three years’ post-doctoral experience. The scheme focuses on helping Fellows to develop new skills and gain a breadth of research experience.
In this blog post, we speak to Deepali Pal, one of our Training Fellows, about her experience in applying for early career stage awards. Deepali is currently working at Newcastle University on a novel ex vivo human cell-based platform in precision medicine and cancer research drug development.
Preparing/planning to apply for a Fellowship
When did you start thinking about applying for a Fellowship?
I had been keen on applying for a Fellowship since the beginning of my PhD, although I imagine this would vary for different people. Considering Fellowship applications early on in my career allowed me to build the skill set I felt I needed to maximise my competitiveness. I think the earlier you begin to think about Fellowship applications the better as this allows ample time for designing a project and writing the application.
Why did you decide to apply for a Fellowship rather than a post-doc position?
For me, the key difference between a Fellowship and a post-doc position is the opportunity to develop independence. While a post-doc works on an already existing project, a Fellow secures personal funding to pursue an avenue of research which they have a chance to devise themselves offering more opportunities for personal development. The Training Fellowship, in particular, allows me to widen my scientific skills as I proposed multi-disciplinary training objectives, enhancing my training to prepare me for future funding schemes.
I have always aimed for an independent career in academia and a Fellowship scheme gives the opportunity to explore this career option with support and guidance from senior academics.
How did you prepare for the application to maximise your chances of success?
My PhD looked at reprogramming iPSCs (induced pluripotent stem cells) and cancer research, which I identified as my core scientific skill set. I switched fields from studying prostate cancer to childhood cancer (leukaemia) as I felt this gave me the opportunity to build on this core skill set whilst also allowing me to establish my own networks. Switching fields is one way of demonstrating independence, a key trait that Fellowship Assessment panels will be looking for.
I was also very conscious of my scientific track record and worked to maximise this to the best of my abilities. I wanted to show I had both lead-author and collaborative publications so I worked towards achieving this in my PhD studies.
There are alternative ways of demonstrating impacts and to show my determination and drive I focused on developing a number of other skills. I supervised junior researchers and students in addition to participating in leadership activities in my University to demonstrate my leadership skills. I worked to improve my grant-writing skills and applied (and was successful) for travel/abstract grants for the conferences I attended. I also participated as a speaker at international conferences. Active networking is vital for successful research so I have endeavoured to build up collaborations to share ideas and resources.
The Training Fellowship application
What resources did you use for advice?
I found the NC3Rs online resources for the funding schemes, particularly the guidance handbook, very useful in preparing my application. It allowed me to keep checking I was on the right track in structuring and formatting my application. Newcastle University also provides Fellowship support, so I made the most of this resource whilst preparing my application. Both my supervisor and mentor read my application and provided comments before my application submission.
What were the strengths of your application?
I structured my application to address the three core components I believed to be important to a Fellowship application: person, project and place.
- Person: I sought to demonstrate to the assessment panel I had the scientific skills to achieve the aims I had set out in my project proposal. My strategy was to demonstrate my research skills, ability to initiate collaborations and competitive track record to provide evidence I fulfilled each of the criteria set out in the NC3Rs Skills and Experience Framework. As I was applying for an NC3Rs Fellowship it was also critical I showed my enthusiasm for acting as a 3Rs ambassador and how I could promote uptake of my model.
- Project: I aimed to develop an independent research question and identify project deliverables that were highly relevant for the 3Rs, academia and the pharmaceutical industry. I identified a major hindrance in children’s cancer drug development, a field where there is a heavy dependence on animal models where I could implement my ex vivo platform as a 3Rs solution.
- Place: I chose to undertake my Fellowship at Newcastle University due to its state of the art medical research infrastructure and its proximity to hospitals allowing ease of accessing clinical samples. These were both crucial for the success of my project.
Why did you choose your mentor and what made them an appropriate mentor for you?
A supervisor should advise you on the scientific research of your Fellowship, but a mentor should provide support and career guidance. My decision was to choose a mentor that would further my personal development and provide constructive critical appraisal so that I might better myself. My mentor treats me as an independent scientist. Although we do have differences in opinion, I feel this motivates me to self-critique and encourages my independent thoughts.
And finally, what advice would you give to someone who is thinking about applying to the Training Fellowship scheme?
Believe in yourself! Despite several personal and professional obstacles, I was able to achieve my ambition of beginning an independent career as an academic. You are trying to convince a panel you are capable of conceiving and delivering on a project, so it’s vital you believe this yourself.
Plan your application as far in advance as you can and don’t leave writing it until the last minute. Seek guidance and feedback from your supervisor and mentor on both the scientific content and your grantsmanship.
Timing your application is critical! You have one chance to apply to the Training Fellowship scheme so apply when you are at your most competitive. Examine your track record and look for ways to improve it – not only through publishing but by demonstrating all the other skills needed to start an independent scientific career.
Read the resources provided by the NC3Rs as they explain in depth what is needed in your application. Make the most of the resources available to you in your University and consider reaching out to others who have successfully applied for Fellowship schemes.