How to find your financial feet as an independent researcher

Finding someone to fund your ideas is crucial for all academics. This is especially true for postdoctoral researchers looking to make the jump to an independent research career.

UK funding

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We spoke to four experts to learn how to maximise chances of attracting your first funding as an independent researcher. Research facilitator Rachel MacCoss helps chemists secure funding at the University of Oxford, UK; Robert Bowles is a careers advisor at the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC); John Hand is physical sciences lead at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC); and Shewly Choudhury is head of UK grants at the Royal Society.

While this advice is tailored to UK institutions, it’s also applicable to an extent in other countries.

Talk to the experts

Most universities have grant specialists to help researchers at all stages in their careers secure funding. ‘A lot of researchers get the idea in their head that to be an independent researcher you’ve got to apply for grants on your own. They are not always aware of the help and advice that is available to them,’ says Bowles.

Research facilitators can help postdocs at every stage of their first funding process, including how to differentiate your new direction from earlier work. ‘When researchers first come in, we talk to them about coming up with their unique selling point,’ says MacCoss. ‘Convince the funder to fund you, as opposed to your previous supervisor. We then walk them through what we think their funding options are.’ MacCoss’ team then assists with the application process, provides feedback on text, offers practice funding panel interviews and can help negotiate grant terms and conditions.

Other places to seek expert support for first grant applications include the RSC careers service and Vitae, a non-profit career development services specifically aimed at researchers.

Don’t be afraid to ask

It might go against instincts in a competitive research environment, but don’t be afraid to bounce ideas around. ‘The more people that you expose your ideas to, the more likely you are to be successful with your first grant application’, says Bowles.

In particular, peers who have successfully made the leap to independent research themselves can help identify the most suitable funding sources for your particular research area. ‘There are a gazillion funders out there, you need to make sure you are finding the right one for your area,’ MacCoss says. But do check this information with the funding bodies too, adds Hand. ‘People often say to us: “the EPSRC don’t fund X” or “can’t fund Y” when it’s a complete myth.’

Once you’ve identified a funder to target, mentors can be instrumental to an application’s success, while research facilitators can match you with people who have previously successfully secured your preferred type of funding. Universities, funding bodies and the RSC also run regular early career researcher meetings to support grant applications.

Be open-minded

Research fellowships are the most common first step onto the academic career ladder. ‘The research councils and the Royal Society are the main funders of these,’ says MacCoss. The EPSRC, the main government research funding agency for chemists in the UK, offers five-year Early Career Fellowships. The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) also fund young chemists whose research fits their remit.

The Royal Society offers two types of five-year fellowships, explains Choudhury: the University Research Fellowship and Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship. The latter is specifically designed for those that require flexible working patterns. ‘It’s really good for people that know they need to work part-time, whether it’s because they’ve got caring responsibilities or for health-related reasons,’ she says.

In June 2018, UK Research and Innovation (the newly launched umbrella agency for the seven government research councils) announced a new fellowship scheme for early career researchers: Future Leaders Fellowships. ‘It’s a huge amount of extra funding coming into the landscape,’ says Hand.

In addition, many universities run their own in-house funded fellowship schemes, while not-for-profits such as the Wellcome Trust and Leverhulme Trust also fund early career fellowships in chemistry.

A database of funding opportunities is available on the Research Professional website.

Plan ahead

Postdocs should consider seeking help from grant specialists as soon as they start thinking about stepping onto the academic career ladder, says MacCoss. Many chemistry departments in the UK require candidates to go through a screening process to check they are able to host you if you are awarded a fellowship, before they will support any application, she explains. At Oxford, this process typically takes around a month.

Application deadlines vary between funders and grants. ‘The little pockets of deadlines for chemists are usually in September, December and May,’ says MacCoss. It’s therefore vital that you factor in the waiting time even if you are successful to make sure your budget doesn’t run out.

Once an application is in, plan on it taking a long time for the funding to reach your pocket. At the EPSRC, it can take around six months between application to being told you have been successful, says Hand. ‘The start date can be fairly rapidly after a decision has been made.’ The Royal Society takes even longer, with one-yearly application deadlines for University Research Fellowships in September for fellowships to start the following October.

Demonstrate previous success

Finally, success breeds success – and a record of smaller-scale funding can be helpful when applying for fellowships. ‘Wellcome Trust seed awards are fantastic for showing that your ideas are fundable when you’re applying for your first fellowship,’ suggests MacCoss.

Universities often have internal small money pots for research and travel grants that postdocs can apply for. The RSC also offers small (up to £4000) research grants and travel grants for early career researchers. ‘Any record that you have of being able to bring in any sort of money for anything will make you much more credible,’ agree Bowles.