Aled’s fellowship story…at a glance

Dr Aled Parry is a Welcome Trust Sir Henry Wellcome fellow at the Babraham Institute.  In his short podcast with the Postdoc Careers Service, Aled talks about his journey from PhD to fellowship holder.  Although Aled’s PhD is from CRUK-CI, his first degree was at Bath.  Aled describes the process of finding a suitable idea to work on, identifying funders who might be prepared to back it and the time and commitment  it took to finally secure his fellowship

Dr Aled Parry describes his journey from PhD to fellowship holder

Aled’s podcast is one in a series making up The Fellowship Sessions – a mix of on-demand content, virtual live panels with fellowship holders and senior academics, and a virtual Funders’ Fair which only happens every 2 years.  To hear more, visit the playlist on the Careers Service’s YouTube channel.

Aled is a guest panellist at a live virtual panel on 14th January on early career postdoc fellows, book now to join him and fellow panellists.

Taking on a fellowship interview panel from your home

Fellowship interview panesl

Despite a national lockdown, some funders are still going ahead with fellowship interviews remotely.    Anne Forde gives some tips for defending your proposal from home

Postdocs tell us it’s intimidating entering a fellowship panel interview in the hallowed halls of the Royal Society, the Wellcome Trust, the Research Councils and other funders.

Despite the lockdown and public health emergency we’re living through, some funders are still going ahead with fellowship interviews remotely. Last week we’ve been working with postdocs to help them prepare.

So what do you do if you have to defend your proposal from home?

Here are some tips we hope will help in our brave new online world. Some of the advice applies to face to face fellowship interviews too.

Make every minute count

Fellowships interviews are short. Most are done and dusted in 30 mins so make every minute count.

Find out what platform the funder is using and practise using it. Your ‘venue security’ is important too.

Everyone who gets to a fellowship interview has an excellent proposal.

What counts at the interview is getting the panel excited about your research questions. It’s impossible to be memorable if you don’t look or sound like you believe in the work. With stress levels understandably high, you may come across as dry or uninspiring.

Introverts fear not, you don’t need to fake an upbeat personality. Try to imagine how happy you’d be doing this work and making your discoveries… so look like you actually want to do the work.

Practise the tech

This will ease your nerves on the day.  Find out what platform the funder is using and practise using it.  Your ‘venue security’ is important too.

Try to do everything humanly possible to make sure you are not interrupted at home during the interview (mobile phones, deliveries etc).

Practise your talk with someone who’s in a different location, get them to record it on the platform and listen afterwards.

Sound check – don’t sound like you are talking to dolphins

Practise your talk with someone who’s in a different location, get them to record it on the platform and listen afterwards.

You may have sounded great in your room but your connection might not be doing you any favours.

I had a practice session last week with a postdoc going for a Royal Society University Research Fellowship. With a great project and an articulate and convincing candidate, what could go wrong?

The connection was poor on the postdoc’s side so about every 5th word dropped on my end and this detracted from an otherwise great delivery. Have pity on the panel members who say interviewing all day is exhausting. Video interviewing is even harder work for them. If you lose their understanding, however briefly, their energy and interest levels will drop.

Using a decent style headset and a microphone will go a long way. No one likes listening to a distorted voice which sounds more like you are underwater talking to dolphins.

Aesthetics and poise matter

In our world now turned upside down, this seems superficial and trivial but it matters. Stand up when you give your talk. This is a natural way to present and you will look and feel more confident.

Put a big arrow at the webcam so you remember to look at it, rather than always gazing at the sea of panel members’ faces.

You can look at the interviewers while they speak, but focus on the webcam when you reply. I’d recommend answering their questions standing too. It’s hard to get a good visual angle sitting down, and many people look like they are just about to go downhill on a rollercoaster, or unwittingly rock back and forth as they answer questions which can make the viewer feel unnerved or even seasick.

Don’t have a messy background.

The panel are distinguished but even intellectuals can be irritated by a view of an untidy bedroom or distracted by your intriguing book collection. If you would like to have notes, limit it to key words and consider using post-it notes near the camera. Otherwise, you could end of shuffling papers or reading notes during the interview, which will be obvious to the interviewers.

Put a big arrow at the webcam so you remember to look at it, rather than always gazing at the sea of panel members’ faces.

Keep your talk to time

Do not dare overrun on the intro talk.

The funder will give you an allowed time limit. It’s better to have less content and be under time. Panels are notoriously irritated by people who run over. Don’t incite their wrath or give them the opportunity to cut you off.

Get a grilling from academics and peers

90% of the questions will be project specific so ask people in your dept and those outside your specific field to give you a tough online practice.

It probably won’t be fun but you’ll be primed if the panel start to pick holes.

Book a practice with the Careers Service Postdoc team

We’ll push you on the broader questions of ‘so what’ and ‘why you’.  Activate your Handshake account and book an online session with us and we can practise on the platform you need to use. We also have a hoard of specific feedback and interview questions from most of the fellowship schemes. Email us and we’ll send these and you can browse the perennial fellowship questions online.

It’s over and you’ve survived

When it’s over, make sure your video and sound links are off before you do whatever you need to do to relax. When you’ve recovered, we’d love to hear how it went.

Good luck.

What we know as of 30 March: Royal Society is interviewing using Zoom. The MRC were proposing online interviewing but have changed to the interview candidates providing written feedback on referees’ comments.

Anne Forde, Postdoc Careers Adviser

Building resilience for your career

Whether you’re worried about having a temporary contract, applying for long-term academic jobs or making the leap out of academia, having a good supply of mental toughness to cope with the career uncertainties of postdoc life is essential.

But how can you build repalm trees in windsilience?

We were really taken by some recent examples of former postdocs who demonstrated the much- prized ability to ‘bounce back’ in real-life situations and even surprised themselves how resilient they were.

When exploring the subject of building resilience, it’s good to draw inspiration from Stoic philosophy  – a central principle of which is that we don’t control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our reactions.  Or as Seneca succinctly put it: “It does not matter what you bear, but how you bear it.”

Resilience in action

Take former postdoc Stacey Jamieson, a speaker at our recent ‘Careers in R&D in biotech and pharma’ event . Stacey didn’t have the ideal circumstances to land her first choice job.  In her video she describes how, due to her immigration status, she had to think around the issue of getting a job where a company would sponsor her.  Unfortunately, the companies that offered this sponsorship were in technical/scientific roles and not in Stacey’s preferred area of Medical Scientific Liaison, (MSL).

By being resilient – researching her options and being open to opportunities where she could use her skillset – Stacey was able to ‘bridge the gap’ between academia and industry for a year in a technical role until she got permanent residency status in the UK.

Things have worked out well for Stacey who is now in MSL, a role ‘where her heart lies.’

At the same event, Winnie Yeung urges you to be brave and apply for industry positions even if you have the challenge of not having all the skills listed on the job description.

You’ll have to be resilient to handle the inevitable rejections, but by highlighting your transferrable skills you may also get the job.  As Winnie says: ‘usually the company will see how your skills will fit with the role.’

Sometimes the resilience-building technique of ‘reframing,’ (a way of viewing and experiencing events, ideas, concepts and emotions to find more positive alternatives – Wikipedia), is needed to check if a perceived challenge or difficulty can be turned to an advantage.

José Teles, a speaker at the event, worried that his diverse background in academia would hamper his chances of moving into industry – a concern that wasn’t borne out in reality.  As José explains in this video, his wide-ranging experience ‘…. turned out to be an advantage in my current role.’

José’s story highlights the importance of ‘reframing’ – seeing your situation from all angles, to build your resilience.  What you might think of as a disadvantage in your career history, may actually be seen by employer as a benefit.

Moving forward

Seneca said that ‘we suffer more often in imagination that in reality.’ By deploying resilience to interrogate challenges -moving problems from the imagination and into the cold light of reality -positive, creative ways of moving-on can be devised.

Have a good supply of resilience is essential to overcoming life’s inevitable hurdles as a postdoc.

Getting help

If you are looking to increase your resilience, the Researcher Development Programme at Cambridge University run workshops which focus on building mental toughness by developing coping strategies to overcome challenges.

Come for an appointment at the Postdoc Careers Service if you feel that the rollercoaster of job hunting and career decision making is depleting your resilience.

Heather Smith

Postdoc team

The elevator pitch: giving your funding application a lift

At the recent Postdoc Careers Service fellowship event many of the speakers talked about ‘elevator pitches.’  So, what exactly are they?  And how can travelling in a lift help you get the funding to turn your fellowship idea into reality?

The term ‘elevator pitch’ originates from the US business world.  It imagines that a budding entrepreneur is riding in an elevator with a possible investor.  Time is money, so our nervous business person only has the duration of the ride to the next floor (typically under 1 minute) to describe the benefits of their idea and spark the investor’s interest.  The lift door opens and the question arises – will the potential backer be inspired by what they hear and continue the conversation – or will they walk away?

New York elevatorAll of which sounds interesting – but what has this got to do with your funding proposal?

Well, funders are very similar to the investor in the scenario above.  They have limited time and a lot of people wanting their money.  Like the fledgling entrepreneur, making a brief but persuasive case for your research early on in your application will increase both the chances of the funder reading further, and securing that precious funding.

So what makes for a ‘brief but persuasive case’?  Professor Steve Russell, event speaker and funding panellist with 15 years’ experience, says that you need to clearly and compellingly outline a) what’s the question, b) why it’s important, c) what you will do and d) how will you advance the field.

It sounds easy.  But how do you put this advice into practice when time/word counts are so tight?

  • Make it easy to understand

Don’t be afraid to express your key ideas in uncomplicated language – it won’t mean that your research is ‘too simple.’

  • Be ruthless

Slim your sentences and make every word count.  Even though there may be parts of your proposal that have taken time to write and you feel proud of, cut anything that doesn’t rapidly build a case for your research.  Dr Farzana Meru, event speaker and early career fellowship holder explains: ‘Less is more, you don’t have to talk about everything you want to do, you just need to tell a good compelling story.’

  • Explain clearly

Don’t presume that your reader understands your area of research as well as you do.  Including unnecessary jargon and assuming a level of knowledge creates barriers to understanding that will send your proposal to the bottom of the pile.

Try to get as many non-experts to read your work as possible.  Afterwards, check that they can convincingly describe the four key elements of your research proposal – the question, why, what and how?  If they can’t, it’s time for a rewrite.

  • Be upfront

Keep that one minute journey in mind.  Check to see that you haven’t hidden a key aspect of your research somewhere down the page.  Imagine the entrepreneur taking 70 rather than 60 seconds to make their case for funding.  Taking too long to explain the benefits means they’re left talking to an empty lift whilst the investor walks away.

Get inspiration from successful research proposals. Ask people you know for examples of their lay summaries in their proposals. 

  • Elevator pitches can be useful elsewhere.

Elevator pitches take time to get right – but they will become an invaluable part of your researcher’s toolkit.

Several fellowship holders at the event stressed the importance of contacts to the success of their funding applications.  From formal networking events to spontaneous chats in cafes, having an answer to the inevitable ‘and what do you do?’ question will help you make important connections with people who could support your work now – or in the future.

Although memorising a script isn’t recommended, it is well worth having some words that outline the question (or problem) you want to look into, that explain why your research is important, how you plan to investigate and how your work will advance the field.

So, next time you’re putting together a research proposal, remember the elevator and raise your game.

Check out the video of speaker top tips from the Fellowships: What you need to know event

Fellowship and funding information

By Heather Smith, Postdoc Careers Service Team


Seven things I learned about applying for fellowships

At the Postdoc Careers Service, we’ve got lots of experience in helping postdocs applying for fellowships. At our event in December, Fellowships: what you need to know, it was great to hear our advice being backed up by the real experts – fellowship holders and academics who sit on review panels. But among the standard tips and tricks we expected to hear about, there were also some new nuggets I’d love to share with you.

Get new ideas by attending talks outside your discipline

You’ll probably have heard advice to ‘read around your subject’ and find the questions that interest you, but Prof George Malliaras gave some very specific and practical advice: at conferences, seek out talks, especially the general level ones, which are running outside the sessions for your own community. This is a great way to get perspectives from outside your discipline, and to look for that all important space in the field you can call your own.

Don’t assume good networking means rubbing shoulders with the great and good

We all know that conferences are an important way to expand our network, and seek future collaborations and job offers. But asking a question at the end of someone’s talk marks you out as a ‘scientist’ and not just a schmoozer.

Write an opinion piece to stake a claim to an area of research

BBSRC David Phillips Fellow Sebastian Eves-Van Den Akker suggests writing a short opinion piece as an easy way to demonstrate independent thought on a particular area of your field. Get this piece published, and you have peer-reviewed evidence of expertise in an area you can call your own.

A fellowship is a benefit to your host, not just to you.  Play this to your advantage.

Prof Florian Holfelder pointed out that as an independent fellow, you are not tied to your host PIs project milestones, so you may be able to try things out which are considered too risky for a grant-based project. This could be an attractive proposition to put to a potential host.

If a fellowship doesn’t offer research costs, make sure you choose a well-resourced host.

Your choice of host is important for many reasons. As URF-holder David Fairen-Jiminez said, you want a host that doesn’t just allow you to work there, but wants you to work there. Working with a new PI could be really exciting – being there at the start and setting up a lab could offer you new skills, and the PI has a lot of boring stuff to do so as the first postdoc you could have a lot of freedom. But if your research is expensive, a well-established lab might be safer.

Don’t let your proposal fail by confusing a fellowship project with your long-term research vision.

Your vision is broad – it’s what you want to do with your academic life. Don’t confuse this with your fellowship proposal, which is only one component of your vision, and has to be the right scale for the time of the fellowship. Where will you be at the end of the fellowship? Structure the project to deliver this.

Even professors do interview practice

Dry runs are tough but make a difference. Seasoned fellowship panellist and professor Steve Russell stressed that even senior academics have practice interviews too. Don’t be embarrassed about asking for help.

For more tips from our event, watch the video!

Liz Simmonds, Postdoc Careers Adviser


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