Research Newsletter - Issue 85: Spotlight

Postdoctoral Research Funding- Getting ahead of the curve

Applying for research funding can be daunting, and often the challenge of completing a complex application form can overshadow what a competitive fellowship bid should contain. That includes a clear description of an exciting research question, the approach you propose to address it and compelling evidence of why you are the person the funder should support. DCU Research Development and Support are here to help you as you start on your funding  journey. This spotlight will walk you through the things to consider when planning a funding application and maximising your chances of success.

 

Postdoctoral calls
This figure shows a range of fellowship awards won by DCU postdoctoral researchers. The text sizes indicates the relative numbers of awards made to DCU in each call over the last decade.

Why should I consider applying for a postdoctoral award?

Ultimately, winning your own research funding is one of the best ways of getting to do the research you want to do, expanding your expertise and showing you're developing independence as an academic. For anyone considering a career in research, demonstrating the ability to win research funding will immediately distinguish you from your peers, and in many disciplines is a requirement for career progression. Beyond this, if you eventually decide to leave academia, being able to say that you were awarded funding to support your research ideas will be recognised as an achievement in whatever career you choose.

 

What opportunities are out there for me?

In recent years the number of funding opportunities for postdoctoral researchers has increased. Most Irish funders including SFI, IRC, HRB and EPA will have a postdoctoral fellowship programme supporting the development of the next generation of researchers through funded research grants. International funders such as Wellcome and the Royal Society will accept applications from Irish-based researchers. Depending on the call, funding will enable STEM or AHSS researchers to carry out research ranging from fundamental to commercially or impact-oriented research.  While the ‘flavours’ might vary, these fellowship awards are all designed and intended to help young researchers with good ideas and a developing career trajectory to do the research they want to, giving them the impetus to move to the next stage of their career. It is important to learn which calls best align with your academic profile and your research interests.

 


What if I’m not ready?

Winning research funding is a competitive process, and requires preparation, and as such can be a daunting prospect. While it is critical to be prepared, it can be easy to fall into the trap of waiting until you feel you are ready before even exploring particular calls and what is required for them.

If you are not feeling confident or unsure, talk to colleagues or mentors or the Research Development team about potential research ideas, and how well they may align with funding calls. You will be surprised how many others will know you are ready when you may feel you are not. 

 

Great, I’ll wait until the next call launch and then kick into action! 

No! The big mistake many make is to treat the funding call launch as the starting gun to kick into action. For those who want to be competitive the real starting gun is the moment when you truly decide you want to get research funding. It doesn’t matter if there are six months or a year to the call you want to apply to, in fact the earlier you start to think about your research question, what call you want to target, and what you need to do to improve your chances, the better.

Once you have decided that fellowship funding is part of your career plan then you are ready to prepare. It is good to remember that winning fellowship funding is not a sprint, it is a mini-triathalon. In other words, don’t get overly fixated on the task of filling out the application, but always remember that fellowship evaluation centres on about three main things: Your record as a researcher, your research plan and your ambitions for advancing your career. Keep these in mind and reflect over time on these areas. Winning applications have strong and clear articulation of each of these elements and developing them takes time.

The project idea

Think about what you would like to do. Speak with colleagues and mentors about research ideas, how they might advance the field, and in their experience what funding might be appropriate. Is it cutting edge? Who will care about the results if successful? Are you missing some key research area that could be addressed by a suitable collaborator? Contact your research development officer early to flag your interest in funding and they will be able to help you develop a funding plan including calls that can be targeted. Additionally, the RD team has established  a repository of successful grants and we can share manuscripts that show how a successful application is laid out upon request.

Your track record

Developing a strong track record is instrumental in demonstrating your research potential to funding agencies. Your CV is the key document that will be used to persuade reviewers that you are of the calibre targeted by the call and seeing it as a technical chronology of your career, to be updated at the last minute is a mistake many researchers make. As early as possible you need to take a close look at what key funders expect in applicant CV’s and update your CV to align with this. In recent years large funders such as SFI and IRC amongst others have moved to a narrative CV format (also called DORA CV) which requires narrative about a broad range of potential achievement areas (see SFI guidance here). This is a huge opportunity for applicants who take the time to refine this type of CV and a recipe for disaster for those who leave their CV update to the last minute. Doing this in good time, and periodically  will allow you to identify gaps and work over time to address them. The RD team has produced a video workshop  which provides guidance on how to articulate your achievements in a narrative or 'DORA' CV, and outlines the key points to communicate in a strong narrative CV which can be viewed here.

Your career plan

Young researchers often underestimate the importance that fellowship funders place in supporting applicants that want to progress to independence. Applicants with good ideas who don’t clearly articulate how they will move on from their postdoctoral phase and leverage the funding to advance their career, will always be at a disadvantage. Funders want evidence that the applicant understands how the fellowship will advance their career and that they have a clear plan on how to exploit the outcomes of the funding. This can include how the work will open up new research avenues and potential follow up funding for the awardee. Also how the work and collaborations formed will boost the profile of the researcher in their space. Finally, funders seek evidence that the grant will impact the applicants long-term career goals beyond the fellowship such as advancing to the next stage of an academic career.
 

Getting ahead of the curve

If you take these key suggestions above on board then you are already ahead of the curve. So many applicants to calls fail to reach the basic threshold required of the funder due to issues avoidable by planning and preparation. After all of the effort of submission they are simply deemed not fundable. Putting in the reflection and work outlined above is time consuming the first time, but it should put you in a position where you and your research has a real chance to interest and excite the reviewers, and to have a real chance of success. 

 

‘How can we help?’

DCU’s Research Development Team will provide you with expert guidance and professional support for the awards that will advance your career. Whether you need assistance with developing and implementing your research funding plan, identifying alignment between your research idea and funders’ objectives, or seeking advice on the writing style, structure and content of your proposal, your faculty RDO is available to help. We can provide the best support  if you contact us as early as possible so contact us here regardless of what stage of the funding process you are at.

 

We will be providing support and resources relating to key fellowship calls over the coming period including the following:

  • MSCA-Postdoctoral Fellowship, Online Workshop, 11am-1pm, Tuesday 11th July 2023 (Register here)
  • SFI-IRC Pathway Programme Workshops , venue, date and time tbc once the call launches.