Most entry-level positions in the UK are advertised via the usual route, where a job opening is announced and advertised and you apply and so on. So, you can find them using the standard process of checking university websites, job listings and career networks. However, there is a small fraction of the academic jobs that may be achieved through career transition fellowships. This small fraction varies by institution, but can be a significant proportion in top-end research-focused departments – so it is useful to explore this option if you are looking for a position in a UK university.
The basic principle is: find a host institution, apply for a fellowship, win it(!), and then work to convince the host department to provide you a permanent position. While this process sounds fairly simple, there are many aspects to consider at various stages. After describing the process multiple times to colleagues, I thought it would be good to write this down so at least the workings of the system are accessible to anyone. What I write below are opinions based on my personal experience as a Sir Henry Dale Fellow (Wellcome Trust / Royal Society) and conversations with other fellows.
What are these fellowships?
They are funding sources that support early career researchers transition into an independent position. The funding is in the range of £0.5 – 1.5M and terms are usually 3-5 years. Given that UK departments rarely offer start-up packages in that range, the funding really helps kick start a lab and make it internationally competitive. And, if you are successful within the term of the fellowship, it is possible that the department will make an effort to hire you into a permanent position. So, it essentially feels like a tenure track position but without the teaching requirement.
This website has a good listing of UK fellowships: https://www.ref.ac.uk/media/1030/c-users-daislha-desktop-list-of-research-fellowships-updated-22032019.pdf.
The application processes are variable between the different schemes. Some schemes have a short (~1 page) expression of interest for the first stage, before requiring a longer research proposal, along with detailed costings, etc. Generally, the eligibility is pretty liberal, and something like: PhD in a relevant topic, a few years of postdoctoral experience, and support of the host organisation. These are for individuals with sufficient experience to start their own lab, and would be quite variable across fields for number of years post PhD. Most UK funding organisations have removed time-limits on these grants (for reference, previously some had a limits ~4-7 years post-PhD). All these fellowships allow for career interruptions or industry experience, caring responsibilities and other flexibilities, and some of them even encourage diversity in these domains. Of course, what matters most for making the cut (as with any academic job) are the scientific track record, the significance of the question, and the actual research proposal. These fellowships are basically grants with a greater emphasis on the candidate’s potential to transition into a research leader.
Pros and Cons of a fellowship
The advantages of fellowships are immense and I do not think you will meet any fellows that recommend against it. A few advantages that come to mind include:
- Generous start-up: this is especially useful given that the start-up packages for entry level positions are small in the UK. So, going through the other route, you often start by applying for grants to be able to buy equipment to start your research. This is a huge time-sink that would be nice to avoid when you start.
- Network of fellows: Most funding agencies get their fellows/researchers to meet each other and create networks. Scientifically, you interact with fellows/researchers who are experts in their field and great to bounce ideas off of. Also, it is great to have a network of people who are going through (or have been through) the same processes and issues.
- Support from funding organisation: in general, funders are very supportive with their fellows, and often make an active effort to support awarded fellows. After all, the funders bet their money on their fellows being future leaders… so they want you to do well.
- Start with minimal teaching: The fellowships are meant to be research fellowships to conduct the research in the proposal, and this is the primary role of a fellow. Therefore, teaching should be a minimal fraction of your time. However, note that it is collegial to take on some teaching responsibilities to help the department and can be a rewarding experience. It can also help you become indispensable in the department.
The main disadvantage with fellowships is a certain degree of uncertainty that you have to deal with, especially in cases where your employment is not guaranteed after the fellowship (more on this below). Having said that, the uncertainty is comparable to other places: probably closest to the tenure-track positions that are the norm in US institutions.
For someone looking to start their own lab, the process of landing a highly competitive fellowship, just to get a job adds a great deal of uncertainty. After making an effort in choosing the right place, and applying from there, you won’t know whether you can work there for many months. As an estimate, the time from submitting the application to starting the position can be ~12-24 months. Practically, it also means you will need a job/salary until you can start the position, and this is not a luxury everyone has. So, you should ideally be starting the process a year earlier than when you plan to move from your current position.
The application process – choosing a host institution
The first step in the application process is to identify a potential host institution/department. The process of finding an appropriate host is actually one of the trickier parts of the process, as it is quite opaque. Also, a good/bad thing with some fellowships is that most of them require little besides space in terms of commitment from the host organisation. So, in some ways they can just say yes at the application stage and worry about the practicalities later (and this can be messy when, for example, appropriate discussions have not been had and there is a space issue). Things I feel are important when you choose a place:
- space for your laboratory*
- basic infrastructure required to carry out your work
- a support network of other labs doing something similar (but not too overlapping)
- where you are truly independent
- a good flow of graduate students whom you could recruit
- what teaching commitment do they require (most fellowships pay 100% salary and so the requirement can in theory be 0%, but all fellowships allow some teaching and most institutions expect it, and it is good to contribute at least a little).
- support with writing the application and interviews – particularly if you do not have experience writing a UK grant. As with most countries, the full applications have many (non-scientific) sections that are particular to the UK (e.g.: ethics, costings), and you would need help from people within the host institution with prior experience
- are there any further incentives? Some departments may offer additional funding for personnel/equipment to top up the fellowship. For example, a PhD studentship, or a research assistant. (This could be in addition to the support required by the funding body)
- a very important consideration – a place you are happy to live in (or close to one)
(*space in some UK institutions is actually quite difficult to find, especially in some London universities, so make sure you actually see the space in person)
It is good to make the choice of host early in the process. Your search through potential departments needs to be broad, which is hard when you are outside the UK. It is always good to contact as many places as possible and see what is actually available. Departments might genuinely not have space, or the financial ability during certain years.
Some universities try to add in incentives to get the best candidates to apply through them using ‘prizes’ or ‘excellence fellowships’, that are short-term appointments (~3 years) that cover your salary plus a bit extra. These are to hook you in, and during this term you would be able to apply for the career transition fellowships, or even regular grants. The terms on these are highly variable across universities and it is best to get all the information from the hosts early on.
I would like to add that the system is also slightly hard to navigate from the other side, i.e. when you are a potential host organisation. The key issue is how do you advertise beyond your network. First, even though it is a potential route to an academic position, this is not clear to someone that is not familiar with the system (this article is an attempt to help with this). Second, you can spread the word through a network, but that is not a way to build a diverse and inclusive department. Ideally, one needs to advertise it widely and go through a proper process. How do you go about this? There isn’t a job to advertise, and it is just a promise to support applications.
Fellowship to permanent position (Proleptic appointment)
As I mentioned before, winning a fellowship is a bit like getting a tenure track position (i.e. you get funding to start-up your lab and have about 4-5 years to prove your ability and be retained by the institution). You are totally excited and over the top of the moon when you find out that you got it. Then it slowly creeps in that the achievement covers you for just a few years and then the stress restarts. The processes of getting a permanent position (after having won a fellowship) are really variable between institutions. But first you will have to learn a word that you probably never used or heard of – A Proleptic Appointment.
What is the proleptic appointment: It has a complicated definition using arcane language, which boils down to: at the end of the research fellowship(s) you will be given an equivalent academic position at the host institution. The specific wording for a proleptic appointment is something like: if you fail to remain on a fellowship, the host institution will recruit you into an equivalent academic position. The reason for this is because there are other advanced career stage fellowships you can apply for (even while holding a proleptic appointment), so you might never need to take up the proleptic offer … even after 20 years at the department (I know of a couple of cases of this).
How do you get a proleptic appointment?
- At one end (the best case): The institution agrees to award a proleptic appointment once you win a career transition fellowship. It used to be common but is now increasingly rare (esp. at Russell group universities).
- At the other end (the worst case): You do not have any assurance even at the end of the fellowship that you have a position. In the absolute worst case the host institution is unable to support the individual any further and you have to look elsewhere for a position at the end of the fellowship. A slightly better scenario (and a more likely one if you don’t completely mess up) is that the institution offers to support the application for next level fellowships. Most fellowships at this level require the host to guarantee a permanent position at the end of the term, so if you win the next level fellowship, your position is effectively guaranteed. However, this does mean that there is continued uncertainty and stress until you know the outcome of the next level fellowship, which isn’t great for you or the people around you.
- The middle ground is more common. You can request a proleptic appointment at some (opportune) point during the fellowship. Your success with getting one would depend on a combination of: your performance until that point, the benefit of having you stay, and potential loss if you left. Note that fellowship often allow you to move across institutions if there is a good reason, and they are prestigious in the UK and hosting research fellows adds to the research profile of the department. Some good point at which to ask for a proleptic would be:
- new grant(s),
- new paper(s) from the lab,
- before taking up significant teaching responsibility (remember that this is a major source of income for universities),
- job offer from another institute.
In general, it would be good to get an idea of the historic record of how the specific department/institute dealt with their fellows. Some of them might have an established system in place at the host institution.
Personally, what I find challenging is the lack of clarity on the criterion required to get an appointment. Is there a target total grant amount you need to hit? Or number of citations? Generally, it is a collection of many factors and so it becomes subjective.
Whatever the criterion and the process might be, a very important factor is how the host institution makes you feel about the process. Are they supportive and trying to help you navigate the system, or are they just letting you deal with it yourself? It makes a huge difference when senior staff and heads of departments are supportive and are as clear as they can be about the targets.
From the other side, to make a proleptic appointment, the department has to create a new position. Given the constraints placed by many universities, departments might have to navigate a hiring freeze, or an expenditure freeze (eg. they would have to justify the additional cost of paying your salary through income from research or teaching brought in by you).
All the best
UK is a country with a centuries of history of great research (and also centuries of good/bad academic traditions). If you think UK is a place you could live and work in, I hope this article can help you explore some possibilities in the UK academic system.
Sir Henry Dale Fellow & Principal Research Fellow
Department of Experimental Psychology
University College London