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TLDR: Is it normal that an applicant for a limited term fellowship should have to justify why that fellowship would be more advantageous than a permanent academic position? If so, why?

The details of my specific situation:

I recently applied for a 5-year research fellowship in the UK. The fellowship is quite competitive and prestigious. If approved it would provide funding for me to set up my own research group at a UK university.

I just received the referee reports. There are four reports, of which three are very positive. The fourth is generally positive about the research content and my track record, but identifies what the reviewer believes are some "clear weaknesses" in the application. Given the competitive nature of these grants this last not-so-positive review likely kills my chances of getting the fellowship, although I do have a chance to respond to the reports.

One of the "weaknesses" identified by this reviewer, was that I had not sufficiently justified why receiving the fellowship would be more beneficial to me than simply being appointed as a lecturer at a UK university. I found this comment frankly unreasonable and nonsensical, but maybe I am simply responding emotionally, and so my question whether this is generally considered a legitimate reason to criticise a grant proposal and what the reasoning behind this is?

Bear in mind that in the UK a position as Lecturer, is generally a long term academic post with both research and teaching responsibilities. Being appointed as a lecturer in the UK is broadly equivalent to getting a tenure-track Assistant Professor position in the US. So the reviewer is essentially saying "you shouldn't get the 5 year fellowship because it would be better if you had a permanent position".

The true (and in my opinion blindingly obvious) response to this is: "of course I would like to have a Lecturer position, but such positions at good universities with research strength in my area, are extremely rare". I can't really write that in the response, because it would sound like I wasn't taking the reviewer seriously, but that's the truth. It seems to me unreasonable that I have to justify why the fellowship would be better than an alternative that barely exists.

5 Answers 5

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I suspect that the referee wasn't trying to say:

"you shouldn't get the 5 year fellowship because it would be better if you had a permanent position"

I suspect they were suggesting that the proposal did not make sufficiently clear how you would use the opportunity provided by this 5-year fellowship to supercharge your career in a way that you wouldn't be able to do if you "just" got a simple lecturer position. So their point is probably more:

The research council should not fund this person if they are just going to use this fellowship as a temporary lectureship.

Whether this is a fair criticism depends on what the stated evaluation criteria are for the grant. These often do contain something about "career development potential".

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The exact phrasing here sounds a bit unusual, but it does tie in to a common criteria in many fellowship evaluation guidelines. Many of them want evidence that the fellowship is enabling something which isn't possible through other routes. The particular comparison this reviewer made is a bit unusual though, since as you say in many fields it's not like a lectureship is an easy option.

But if you are responding to that, I'd suggest not getting into why lectureships are hard to get, and instead focus on features of the fellowship which would make it superior to a standard lectureship for your research. For such large fellowships, this usually includes protected research time, the duration of funding enabling projects of a scope not feasible under smaller research grants, the scale being much bigger than possible with the (usually meager) startup and new lecturer grants in the UK, prestige, etc. Exact phrasing will depend on your proposal, but focusing on the fellowship's benefits is the way to go.

And, one angle is 'Why not both'? Many fellowships are compatible with holding a lectureship at the same time, or universities can commit to a permanent post at the completion of the fellowship (I leveraged a past fellowship into a lectureship, and my current UKRI FLF into advancement to Reader). If you can say this fellowship gives you a route to a permanent lectureship in a high-quality institute ideally suited to build your career (etc), all the better. It may be a little late to negotiate that at this stage, but something to bear in mind.

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  • 1
    "I'd suggest not getting into why lectureships are hard to get" — why not? It seems pertinent. Assuming, of course, that OP is also considering such options. Sep 22, 2021 at 17:10
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    Probably because it sounds like the OP will be "settling" for the fellowship because they could not (or will not) get a lectureship
    – Paddy
    Sep 22, 2021 at 18:58
  • Which would be a crazy point to make because lectureships might be rare, but 5-year fellowships are often rarer; and fellowships allow you to focus 100% (well, often more like 80%, but still) on research, when a lectuership is 50% teaching. If you are a research oriented person (and presumably thats the impression you want to give if applying for a fellowship), then why would a job that is 80% research be settling when the alternative would be a job that was only 40% research. Sep 25, 2021 at 15:16
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"Obvious" is becoming my least favourite word. "Blindingly obvious" does not help.

I agree to the general advice in Stephen McMahon's answer, and would like to add a couple of more specific considerations about a typical Lecturer position:

  • While a lot of Unis mention an adjusted teaching load for starting Lecturers, many can't actually afford it. The teaching load can be quite high. And even with a reduced teaching load, you'll likely spend much more time preparing teaching materials in your first year then after a few years of teaching the same course/module.
  • One of the core criteria for advancing in an academic career beyond Lecturer level is the amount research income won for the Uni through grant applications.
  • (But a good publication record is the best evidence in grant applications).
  • Many Unis don't really have a start-up package (PhD student/postdoc funding) for newly-started Lecturers.
  • As a consequence, during your first couple of years as a Lecturer, your publication output will fall (unless you have a lot of pending publications with your previous institution), and submitting even your first bid might take a while if you have a lot of teaching obligations.
  • Generally Lectureships seem to get off to a "slow start", where your profile is likely to fall in desirability and hireability before it bounces back (after your first successful grant, a secured PhD studentships, or a few accidental pairings with exceptional MSc students)

On the other hand, after a few years of Fellowship:

  • You can already demonstrate success in successful grant applications -- the Fellowship itself was one.
  • The Fellowship provides funding from the start, so you will have the opportunity to hire postdocs who can keep the practical work running and publications coming under your guidance.
  • You will be able to dedicate as much of your time as needed to writing further grant applications.
  • Your profile will almost certainly improve if you use the Fellowship resources well.

All in all, a Fellowship actually gives you an excellent opportunity to build your profile from the "single-project" orientation expected of a postdoc, to a "5-year research vision" expected of an academic, all without having to mark hundreds of student papers and answer e-mails asking "will this be in the exam".

To answer your reviewer, I would mention the benefits of having 80+% of your workload dedicated to research, and start-up funds allowing you to form a research team to work on your research ideas from the start of your appointment. Imagine how your research work would develop if you instead had only ~40% of research time, and wait for a year or two before your successfully secured (funds for) a postdoc/PhD position -- and talk about how much more you will achieve with the research freedom and funding support provided by the fellowship.

Source: I started a Lectureship in the UK nearly 2 years ago, in a setting that is more akin to a fellowship (no teaching for first 3 years, and a startup fund more modest than that of a fellowship but certainly better than the standard at the Uni where I am). I am comparing with other colleagues starting more "standard" Lectureship positions at my Uni (and other UK locations).

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One of the "weaknesses" identified by this reviewer, was that I had not sufficiently justified why receiving the fellowship would be more beneficial to me than simply being appointed as a lecturer at a UK university.

I think this is a miscommunication. The reviewer thinks you are a lecturer with teaching and research duties. They think you should continue to have teaching duties. They think you should only get a research fellowship without teaching duties if you have justified why your research is more important than your teaching.

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tl;dr: Yes, you are responding emotionally.


If approved it would provide funding for me to set up my own research group at a UK university.

versus

"of course I would like to have a Lecturer position [...]"

The reviewer is seeing you as a person that is applying to the fellowship because other positions are not available at the time. While a lecturer has both teaching and researching duties, with the fellowship (if it is the fellowship I have in mind) you will be in charge of research funds at a scale much larger than the researching duties of a lecturer. Even more, these will be your funds.

I think the reviewer is saying you are not ambitious enough for the fellowship: please keep in mind that such fellowships implies a workload similar to the one of a lecturer plus at least an equivalent workload of managing duties (managing funds themselves, hiring processes of the PhD&PostDoc funded by the fellowhship ...).

Without enough ambition/motivation, it is quite likely to fail in bringing these fellowships to a fruitful conclusion (disclaimer: I am against such kind of fellowships).

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