Sticking Irons Into the Funding Fire


Faced with the prospect of imminent unemployment, most postdocs at the end of our second year respond by trying to stick as many irons into the funding fire as possible. But is this the best strategy? Might such a shotgun approach not dilute our chances of success by spreading our time and energy too thinly across application forms, some for grants which, in reality, we stand no earthly chance of getting? Perhaps it would be cannier if we concentrated our efforts where they are most likely to be rewarded.

We all know that the best move is to get a fellowship--our passport to a permanent career as a scientist. That is, if you take full advantage of the opportunity and don't experience an extended run of bad luck. But even if we believe we have at least one scientifically achievable idea of international importance, knowing whether now is the right time to apply for a fellowship often leaves us in a quandary.

Of course you have to keep in mind that most fellowships have eligibility criteria including an upper age limit or maximum number of years of postdoc experience. But if you apply too soon you'll not even be short-listed. In this context, I guess 'too soon' really means applying before you have accumulated enough high-impact publications. Let's face it, papers aren't everything but without them all the potential in the world won't get you very far.

So if your publications list is looking a little sparse right now, why go to all that bother? Making the application could easily wipe out a couple of weeks when you could be cracking on in the lab. You may be fortunate enough to still have an alternative: bide your time; hold your nerve. Going for another postdoc grant will give you at least another year to gather more papers before that fellowship deadline looms again.

Sure, you could apply for any run-of-the mill postdoc job you see advertised in New Scientist. But why not create your own by co-authoring a grant proposal with your current or prospective boss? That way you get ownership of the idea, building up a reputation as an independent thinker which can count for a lot in your future applications. Creating your own postdoc position also gives you some fine control over the future direction of your career.

In any case you can start deciding now what to focus on for your next grant. The key here is to think fundability. Check out the priority areas and initiatives on the Web site of whichever funding body you are applying to. There also seems to be a trend towards research councils looking to fund ideas that may not strictly fit in, as long as they are great. So it may be a good move to pick up the phone and ask them whether they would be interested in funding your project.

Someone older and wiser than me once said that the ideal situation when writing a grant application is to have most of the results in hand before you apply. That way you are virtually guaranteed future success and, as a result, yet more grant income. But how do underlings like us ever achieve this seemingly impossible goal? After all, we only have good hypotheses. Other applicants might have figures already prepared for their next paper. The task is no less than breaking into the exclusive club of established group leaders, who are all thinking and working 3 years ahead of us.

Well, I guess there's no easy answer except to say that, whilst still keeping on top of our primary research, we somehow need to amass other, possibly unrelated, results that are a) firm enough not to vanish into the ether at the third replicate and b) novel enough to warrant your favourite funding body throwing a quarter of a million at it. No mean feat.

What's needed is some ruthless targeting of effort towards areas of your field that are hot but perhaps overlooked. This can feel a bit like hunting for scraps from beneath your master's table. 'How am I going to find time for yet more experiments?' I can hear you, rightly, say. But to make this approach worthwhile you actually need surprisingly little by way of new results. One or two pilot experiments can give you a start. OK, so it might not be a complete set of results all ready to write up and submit but at least it's better than just a good idea with no supporting evidence. Having said this, clearly, the less speculative it seems, the more likely the project is to be funded.

Nothing focuses the mind on the 'paper-value' of your research like the pressure to earn a crust. Many scientists despise the funding pressures that force us to jump through the paper-writing hoop. The argument goes that the pressure to publish early leads to short-sightedness and, consequently, bitty papers. As someone who is often frustrated at how slowly science moves forward I find this paper-mania rather useful. It forces me to focus on why I bother to do what I do, although I accept it confines us all to tackling problems that can be 'solved' inside 36 months. We all know instant results are what those who control the coffers want, so who are we to argue? The message: If you have a good idea, don't just throw it into a grant application--do the pilot experiment and get that result in hand. A picture speaks a thousand words, and may well get you that fellowship.

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