Women in Science
Obtaining fellowship funding and other grants
The women we interviewed were all highly successful. Most had secured their own funding for various research projects. Several had been awarded fellowships for their PhD work. (For funding for PhD’s see ‘Getting funding for a PhD and being a graduate student’). We also talked to women who had been awarded postdoc fellowships, such as career development and senior fellowships. These personal fellowships differ from other research funding in having far greater focus on the individual. Securing an independent fellowship is an important step towards an independent research career.
Academics working in science usually finish their PhD and then spend two or three years working as a postdoc on projects led by a senior colleague. Clinicians may combine their academic work with specialist training during this time. Initially Fran didn’t think she was ready to apply for her first fellowship. She didn’t think she had enough publications.
Fran had a colleague who encouraged her (just a few hours before the deadline) to apply for a Lister Institute Research Fellowship. She feels very grateful because that was the start of her independent career.
Meeting the criteria for fellowship applications
Funders have criteria for those who want to apply for a fellowship. The Medical Research Council has understood that not everyone progresses at the same speed and thus have removed age criterion, and/or number of years since PhD, from their fellowships and also allow part-time working. This may help those women who previously found themselves with too many years’ postdoctoral experience to apply for fellowships.
Fellowship applications tend to focus on three main elements: the person, the project and the environment, although the weight that is given to each element varies between funding bodies and at different levels of seniority. Women mentioned many factors that they saw as vitally important for a good fellowship application. The applicant’s ‘ownership’ of the project is important and so is strong supervision and career development support. Many funders like the applicant to move to another lab to establish independence and gain new skills, but this could be mitigated if the existing site was a centre of excellence. A good research idea and a clear question are essential – even if the work itself will be exploratory and the outputs uncertain. Several women said that pilot data could help. Persephone recalled that in the USA those funding any research project seemed to expect the applicant to have done ‘a good chunk of the work already.’ She made several applications before she got funding.
Katja had some pilot data when she applied for a fellowship from the British Heart Foundation. She found that Oxford colleagues were generous with their time and received helpful advice from maybe 20 people.
Samira moved to another lab where she could demonstrate she was creating her own programme of work. This put her in a better position to apply for a British Heart Foundation Intermediate Basic Science Research Fellowship.
Krina highlights the importance of the centre of excellence environment where the work will be done when applying for fellowship funding. In some cases this may be sufficient to justify that moving to another centre is not desirable.
Anna pointed out that as a postdoc you may need to be sensitive in carving out an area for fellowship applications which allows independence while avoiding a negative impact on the host group.
Anna was awarded a travel fellowship to spend three months in the States. She thinks that working somewhere else and learning new techniques helped demonstrate her independence when she applied for her fellowship.
Getting support and feedback
Many people said that it is important to get as much feedback as possible from mentors and people who have experience of the particular fellowship scheme before submitting an application. Many departments at Oxford are now running workshops for people wanting fellowships with talks from those who have successfully got them or reviewed them. Some also have internal committees to support people making fellowship applications where senior staff members agree to read and critique applications. Alison N. said that you need to learn new skills in order to write (successful) grant applications.
Blanca’s fellowship proposal benefitted from collaborators who brought additional angles to her proposed experiments. She recommends getting as much feedback as possible from mentors and colleagues before submission.
As women become more senior they may sometimes spend time writing grant proposals to fund members of their research group. They may have a permanent contract themselves, employed by the University, and funded by their department, but will usually have to find money for their team. This can be a worry at times. Leanne, for example, said that she felt under a lot of pressure to find money for her junior researchers. Fran has between 12 and 15 people in her team, all depending on her to raise funds from external sources.
Alison suggests people take advice from others who have applied to those particular funders, find collaborators (particularly those with a strong track record) and respond constructively when addressing reviewers’ criticism.
Programmes and consortiums
Many of the senior women had won five year programme grants, which gave them time to pursue difficult questions. Several women received Research Council UK five year fellowships which were tenure track positions allowing time to be bought out of teaching and administrative tasks early on to focus on research.
Irene R had won a five year grant from a charity called Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. She made some important discoveries, so was awarded money for another five year programme of work. Some research questions are best addressed at national or international level. Tao’s group had funding from the MRC, the Wellcome Trust and the European Union’s 7th Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP7). Activities funded from the EU’s FP7 must have a ‘European added value.’ Charlotte was awarded a Wellcome Trust International Prize fellowship that involved two years of working abroad and a third year back in the UK. She described how she deliberately changed her topic slightly to learn a bit more and spent two years in California. Other women also went to the States to do their postdocs while Alison E went to Canada as a Rhodes Foundation scholar.
Eleanor has been awarded an MRC Senior Fellowship, which has given her five years to continue her work in HCV vaccine development. This is a great achievement because only about five are awarded each year. She is also leading an international consortium called STOP- HCV, which involves collaboration between 22 partners from around the UK, and which integrates industry, clinicians and scientists in stratified medicine.
Gender differences in applications
UK Research Council Diversity Data show that in science women are less likely to obtain fellowship funding than men and less likely to apply for funding (see http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/media/news/240315/). Research also suggests that women are less ambitious than men in the amount of money requested in their grant applications (Bedi et al. 2012). It is not clear why this might be so, but some women we talked to emphasised that to make a successful fellowship application you need to take time, ask more experienced colleagues for advice and feedback, be explicit about credit for your achievements, and be willing to persevere.
Marian suggested possible reasons why women may not apply for as many fellowships as men, including lack of confidence, more to ‘juggle’ at home with distractions, and planning around maternity leave.
Advice on applications
Many senior women had good advice for junior colleagues who are planning their fellowship applications. Kay, for example, said that taking a break and returning later to an application is a good idea. It is very difficult to critically evaluate something while in the middle of the writing. Some said that it is important to move to another lab and not have a project too closely related to previous post to demonstrate independence. Others stressed the importance of getting criticism from colleagues. Several women sat on award panels themselves as part of their ‘good citizenship’ and were able to use their experiences to help encourage and reassure younger members in their team. Jenny K said that over the years she has been lucky with funding applications but she has also had lots of failures. She said that people put their ‘life and soul’ into fellowship applications and often fail because there is limited money available, but they should not be disheartened.
Jenny urges others to be persistent, not to take failure personally, to try again if not awarded a grant or a fellowship, and to become sufficiently expert in one area to effectively pursue a line of enquiry.
Barbara advises those applying for fellowships to read the instructions carefully, have a clear focus, and prioritise, read successful applications to the scheme and perhaps have some pilot data.
Fran says that it is important to tell a story that is accessible to all members of the multidisciplinary panel. It is also important to have a balance between approaches that will generate solid data and risk taking.
People writing research grant applications can learn a lot if they sit on a review panel themselves. This option is only available to relatively senior researchers. Several of the women we talked to recommended it as a way of improving the chance of success.