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Moderator: Fiona Watt, Deputy Editor, eLife.
Speakers: Candace Hassall, Head of Researcher Affairs at the Wellcome Trust; Alexander Thomson, Grants Operations Manager at the Royal Society; and Victoria Male, Sir Henry Dale Fellow, University College London.
Sir Henry Dale Fellowships provide funding for postdoctoral scientists to set up their own independent labs in the UK. The fellowships are offered three times a year, and are open to researchers who had their PhD viva no more than seven years ago (although extra allowances are made if any of this time was spent outside of research, for example for parental leave). Applicants should be EEA nationals, or have taken a relevant degree in the UK, or have worked in the UK for a continuous three-year period. However, exceptions are made for outstanding researchers who do not meet these residency criteria. Funding is granted for five years, and a three year extension can also be applied for.
Before making an application, you need to have a sponsor who is based at a UK institution. If you already hold an established post, this institution cannot be your current employer. Fiona Watt, who has sponsored and assessed applicants in the past, recommends choosing a sponsor carefully: “if you look at the applicant and the sponsor and you don’t really understand why they [the applicant] want to be there, it’s an alarm bell”. Candace Hassall agrees: “it’s very important that you’re in the right environment for your research”. Victoria Male, who started her fellowship at UCL in March, thinks it can be an advantage to have a Head of Department rather than a PI as a sponsor, as this makes you look more independent, like “someone starting your own lab…instead of a nodule of [your sponsor’s] lab”. Accordingly, being sponsored by the Head of Department or equivalent is a requirement for applicants.
The application process has three stages. The preliminary application is made up of a CV and a one-page summary of your research proposal. This was convenient for Male, who applied for the fellowship when trying to get back into science after the birth of her son.
If the preliminary application is favourably assessed, the applicant is then invited to submit a full application. This application is sent out for peer review (and is normally reviewed by at least three scientific experts), and is then assessed by one of nine Expert Review Groups. At this stage the applicant needs to explain their proposal in more detail and, crucially, in clear language. The most common mistake in applications, according to Hassall, is proposing “50 years of research instead of five”.
Male found the most challenging part of the full application to be the section where you lay out your budget, as she had no experience of this. As universities treat fellowship applications as grant applications, applicants have to work closely with the finance department of their sponsoring institution to review their planned budget. This can take a long time, so applicants are advised to start this process in good time.
The final stage of the application process is an interview by a panel of 12-15 people, which takes around 40 minutes in total, including a short (five minute) presentation by the applicant. Both Male and Watt recommend arranging practice interviews as preparation. One of the questions Male is most often asked by applicants is what to wear to the interview. She chose not to wear a suit; instead, smart but comfortable clothes are fine.
To produce a strong application, Alexander Thomson thinks “timing is important” in two ways: the first is making sure that it is the right point in your career to apply; the second is to spend enough time working on your application to get “the right people on board to develop your ideas”.
Hassall encourages applicants who have any questions about the application process to contact the Wellcome Trust: “it is far better to contact…the funders to get real information rather than listen to gossip in coffee rooms”. Finally, the simple preliminary application round means that Male recommends applying even if you’re not sure if you’ll be successful: “if you have an idea that you’re really excited about, then even if you think you haven’t got enough experience…just see what the funders have to say about it”.
Watch the other webinars in our postdoctoral fellowship series: www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLOAy5WJPezEhC89zQxVvStRTjKCgT-I0C