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Career Planning Guide

Career Planning Guide

Applying for postdoctoral funding

The research funding landscape can be incredibly daunting – especially for postgraduate researchers making their first applications to fund postdoctoral research. To help you, we have put together an introductory guide to research funding, alongside with some useful resources to help support you on your journey. For Univesity of Exeter researchers, there is much more detail and support available through Research Services Research Toolkit, with links to the Cluster Teams of Research Development and Management and Research Finance specialists for different disciplines.

Types of Funding

There are many difference types of research funding available. The Research Whisperer put together an outline of five types of research funding which is a useful overview.

  • Scholarships and fellowships – Scholarships and fellowships are given to individuals. That means that more weight is given to the person than the project. Don’t get me wrong – you still need an exciting project, but the balance of assessment will be different. In general, scholarships are for students and fellowships are for staff, but that isn’t a hard and fast rule. Many /most fellowships schemes are focused on early career researchers who have a defined/limited period of postdoc experience after their  Viva, but the rules vary widely between funders and indeed some fellowships are open to established researchers. It is therefore worth checking the guidance carefully to check if you are eligible to apply.
  • Seed funding – Seed funding is intended to get you started on a project. It provides a small amount of money to allow you to prove the potential of an idea, so that you can then move on to a larger project. Assessors will be looking at the idea. You will still need to demonstrate that you can do the job, but your idea will be the focus of your application. Universities often provide internal seed funding on the understanding that it will lead to an application for future funding.  The internal seed funding available at the University of Exeter can be found on the Research Toolkit.
  • Project funding – Project funding is probably the sort of funding that most people think about when you think about research funding. It is the standard term for grants that fund a team of people to work on a particular project for an extended period of time. Assessors are generally looking for a skilled team that has a exceptional project. Three to five years of funding for 4-5 people can quickly add up, so the stakes are high.  These types of projects usually have to be led by a permanent member of academic staff as the Principle Investigator (PI), but there are opportunities for postdocs to be included as Researcher co-investigators if the eligibility rules allow.
  • Centre funding – Centres are generally funded for 3-6 years, although I have seen them for 9 years. Funds are generally much larger than project funding, and are designed to fund a program of work that encompasses many projects. Assessors are looking at the track record of the team leader and the team, the long-term benefits of the program of work, the facilities available, the management arrangements, and the support that already exists for the work. The leader of a centre is generally an acknowledged expert who has shown that they can do great research and inspire others to work together.
  • Prizes and awards – Prizes and awards are given for work that has been done in the past, rather than work that is done in the future. They shine a light on excellence by rewarding and promoting it. They are almost always given to individuals, and they look very shiny on your CV. As a result, they are very competitive most of the time. Sometimes their scope is quite broad. Others can be focused on a particular discipline or geographic area. Some reward you with money, others just provide you with recognition.

We can also think about funding in terms of levels and career stages, to help make sense of what is available to you as a postdoctoral researcher.

An image of a purple funnel with 5 sections, starting at the smallest part of the funnel is PhD, then PDRA/F, then Fellowship and the Research Grant. The image demonstrates the development and levels of research funding.Throughout your academic career you will apply for a range of different types of funding. This can start with funding for your doctoral studies – be that from UKRI, a charity or an industry employer. There are also lots of opportunities for you to for additional funding including travel grants and internal funds to stimulate small scale collaborations. It helps build a track record of funding and demonstrates you are applying for and hopefully winning, funding at an early stage in your career

The next ‘level’ of research funding is a Postdoctoral Researcher (Associate or Fellow), which is usually someone freshly out of their research degree. These opportunities are roles advertised as part of an already funded project.

Fellowships are open to more experienced researchers to complete a research project. These are often career development positions, giving researchers ‘time out’ from other duties (such as teaching and administration) to complete a project or develop their research profile. There are fellowships are open to ECRs with less experience, but they are extremely competitive. Some may require a few years of postdoc experience to demonstrate independence and excellence via a track record of publication and prizes, but others are only eligible to those straight out of a research degree. In the later case, making the most of every opportunity to publish and obtain small grants/prizes during the research deegree is critical to demonstrating excellence and potential as a future leader in the field.

Finally, Research Grants funds individuals or teams for an extended period, and can be in the form of seed, project or centre funding. Research grants might had funded doctoral positions or PDRA roles as part of them.

As a postdoctoral researcher freshly out of your research degree, you will be looking mainly for Postdoctoral Research Associate or Fellow positions advertised as part of existing projects, or to apply for Fellowship funding as an independent researcher. As such we have split the rest of this resource in to three sections:

If you would like more information about the difference between fellowships and research grants, this document from UKRI/ESRC outlines the differences really clearly (in Section 4.1 on p.3).

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