Nature India | Indigenus

Writing a postdoctoral fellowship grant

Are you in your final year of PhD, struggling to tie up the loose ends of your thesis? Also dodging the elephant in the room — “what next”?

In this guest post, Nazia Nasir, a visiting research fellow at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom, shares why ignoring the elephant won’t make it disappear. And what you must do if you decide to write that postdoctoral fellowship grant.

Nazia Nasir

Stop all your work, grab a coffee, and devote some time to the all-important question — if I want to continue in academics, do I want to look for open positions or write a fellowship grant?

Here’s why and how I took up the latter option.

Why opt for a fellowship?

If you wish to pursue postdoctoral research on a topic of your expertise or in a significantly different field (the Human Frontier Science Program offers good options if this is your calling), writing a fellowship would be your go-to option.

A fellowship award in your CV also showcases your ability to lead funded research. Most fellowships also pay a little more than the standard postdoctoral salary and some interesting perks.

Now that you have decided on writing a fellowship, what should you look for in your host lab?

First, make sure you can justify how your work aligns with that of the host in terms of research interests and skill sets. Second, the host should be willing to support your application and research work with infrastructure available at the institute. After having interacted with many fellowship holders, I found that contrary to the popular belief, the name and fame of a host institute doesn’t necessarily aid or hinder the success of your application.

How long is a fellowship application process? Usually it takes a year’s time from start to finish. After finalising the host, it is wise to spend a good 3-4 months preparing for your research proposal. The application review process can take anywhere between 4 t0 9 months to complete. The time frame may also shift if there is only one application deadline a year, such as the Marie-Skłodowska Curie individual fellowship. Other fellowships, such as the one awarded by the Alexander von Humboldt foundation, accept applications throughout the year but evaluate them during specific periods usually mentioned on their website. It is best to submit your application at least a couple of months in advance of the next evaluation period.

How to nail a research proposal

This is the most important aspect. To begin with, make sure to carefully go through the application guidelines and always stick to them. I cannot emphasise enough how important and usually overlooked this point is. I have personally seen applicants not succeeding merely due to carelessness in following guidelines. Put in sincere effort and time to prepare the proposal.

Some quick points to keep in mind when drafting your proposal:

  • State the rationale, aims, objectives and timelines very clearly.
  • Make your proposal easy to read by organisingit under headings and sub-headings and using bolds and italics to emphasise points.
  • If the guidelines permit, insert a figure or two to illustrate your aim(s).
  • Be diligent when preparing and organising additional documents such as your CV, list of publications etc.

What makes an application successful? The originality, usefulness and innovative potential of a research proposal are key criteria of assessment of an application, in addition to the applicant’s academic record.

Caroline Kisker, Dean at the Graduate School of Life Sciences, University of Würzburg in Germany, who has served on the selection panel of many prestigious fellowships, says many factors play an important role in the success of an application. Was the student productive in his/her PhD thesis? Is the proposed research topic realistic for the period of the fellowship and sufficiently well described? Has the applicant made the effort to delve deeply into the topic and conveyed that he/she understands the topic well? Does the applicant consider possible pitfalls within the research proposal and provide suggestions on how do deal with them? She also strongly advises to avoid jargon and to write the proposal in a way that even a non-specialist can understand and evaluate it.

Writing a fellowship can be very rewarding in terms of the experience of the writing process itself. However, always be mindful that fellowships are usually very competitive. So even though you may have a decent track record and a good proposal, you may not get lucky always. It is always good to discuss this possibility with your host or look to for alternatives while your application is under consideration.

[Nazia Nasir can be reached at She tweets from @NaziaPCL]

Suggested reading:

Beginnings – How to write your first grant proposal

A winning proposal


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