Updated: Jan 5
In recent years, landing a fellowship (or two) has become a necessary step for those who decide to pursue a career in academia. In May 2021, I was fortunate enough to be awarded a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship (FLF), which is providing me with considerable support to focus on my independent research for four years (renewable for three more). The application process was as lengthy as it gets for fellowships at this level; approximately a whole year between the submission of the outline application and the communication of the award. In this post, I will share my experience with the UKRI FLF application, particularly with what is for many the scariest part of the entire process: the interview.
How long did it take me to prepare my application?
The first step of the process was to approach the Head of the School to express my interest in applying for the fellowship. Different departments have different rules, but in most cases, you will have to go through an internal selection before you can even begin your application. I went through the internal selection in December 2019, to then submit an outline application to the UKRI in May 2020. The outline is not assessed and is mostly aimed for the UKRI to know how many applications will be submitted and potentially start finding reviewers based on the topics covered. I submitted my full application in June 2020. Overall, I spent the good part of three months preparing my full application, during which I developed the proposal, talked to collaborators and partners, implemented feedback from various colleagues. Accidentally, I had very little distractions from working on my application, as the time I spent preparing it coincided with the first Covid19 lockdown of March to June 2020, in which no one was allowed to even set foot in the University labs.
What happened between the submission and the interview?
Once I submitted my application, this was sent out for peer-review (you are allowed to suggest up to three reviewers that the UKRI can send it to). I received comments and scores from four reviewers in November 2020 and had to address them in my three-page response letter within a couple of weeks. I was very happy to see that their scores were high (I received an average score of 5.25 out of 6!) and their comments were mostly supportive, with minor criticism on some technical parts of the project proposal.
In February 2021, I was invited for interview, which took place exactly a month later. I spent those four weeks mostly preparing for the interview, attending two mock interviews with more senior colleagues from the University, as well as having several informal chats with collaborators, previous awardees, and mentors.
What happened at the interview?
My UKRI FLF interview took place via Zoom. It included a five-minute presentation on the vision of my fellowship, which I had practiced and basically learned by heart, and questions from the panel for approximately 20 minutes. The panel included both members of UKRI and external experts.
First, they asked me five questions on my proposal, only one of which dealt with a topic that had already been covered in my response to the reviewers’ comments. After that, the panel asked me approximately a dozen questions on the broader vision of my fellowship. A good portion of these questions were similar to the sample questions that the UKRI had already circulated around interviewees. The ones I was asked – and can remember! – were the following.
Tell us about any changes or updates since the original proposal was submitted.
How will you adapt to becoming a group leader?
What actions will you take to further develop and establish your leadership potential through your Host Institution?
What will the impact of your work in the field be and how will you maximise it?
How will your career development be supported throughout the fellowship?
How will you support the professional and career development of the staff you will be responsible for?
How will you address Equality, Diversity & Inclusion in your team?
How can your work influence policy?
How will you identify risks and mitigate them?
Your programme seems very linear, how will you deal with potential shortcomings that may prevent you from proceeding to the next step?
It goes without saying that I was very nervous prior to the interview, but the panel chair was excellent at making me feel at ease, and those 30 minutes went by very quickly. After the interview, I was left with a good feeling, partly because the panel came across as being friendly and supportive, and partly because I knew that I could not have given more at the interview. After slightly less than two months, I received an email from the UKRI telling me the good news that I had been awarded the fellowship!
I hope that my experience will be useful to others who decide to embark in fellowship applications. My top three tips are to keep trying (it took me three rejections before I was finally awarded my first fellowship), to talk to as many people as possible about your proposal (after all, it is better to receive feedback and criticism from colleagues than from reviewers), and to go through as many mock interviews as you can before the big day. Good luck :)