Women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine at Swansea University

Fellowship my dream

Fellowship my dream

Why would you want to apply for a fellowship? Why would you spend days and nights writing, editing, rewriting your application, put yourself under the stress of the interview and compete with hundreds of others just for a few funding places. I know that the success rates of many fellowship schemes are very low, usually 5, 10, or 15%. You have to go through the timely process with such a low hopes of having your work awarded. But isn’t it so in general in academia (and maybe actually everywhere in the job market) that you have to fight if you want to achieve? Of course it is easier to apply for a job as a postdoc; you just have to write a job application, go for an interview and then do the project that someone else has designed and in the place someone has chosen. In theory, the fellowship selection process is then quite similar, but, the award is much greater and worth all the effort. You can do what you want, where you want and how you want. Of course it has to be outstanding science, and you need to show your leadership potential, but trying is worth every effort.

I tried and failed many times. I have put in a number of fellowship applications (NERC, Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship), been shortlisted, interviewed and then got the mail ‘With regrets…’. Of course I was gutted; of course I was very disappointed and thought, why have I wasted so much of my time? I’m not good enough; I’m not smart enough; these were all my thoughts. I wrote one of my applications whilst on maternity leave, when my little baby was just one month old. It is very difficult to focus when you know the baby will wake up any moment for a feed or a nappy change.  The nursery was not affordable for me, and the closest family was too far away to offer any help, but my motivation was that my postdoc research contract was ending in just a few months and I didn’t want to become an unemployed immigrant with two small kids. So I kept writing and fighting. I submitted one proposal and started working on the next one, knowing that the chances of getting the funding were small. I gave myself a last chance: a Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship from the Royal Society. I thought, I will try; in the end it is designed to support outstanding scientists who need flexibility, but am I really outstanding? I applied and a month later I became unemployed. My worst fears came true and I did become a scientist on a dole, mother of two. Not good. Not good at all especially that I soon after got another email ‘with regrets’. That’s it, I thought, I have to try something else. I need to use my transferable skills and try elsewhere. I started applying for jobs in industry, refreshed my German, went on the Project Management course, all ready to leave the academia for good. On the last day of the course, after finishing the exam and driving the 30 miles home, I arrived to find an email in the mailbox from the Royal Society. Oh well, another rejection I thought. And when I opened the email starting ‘We are pleased…’ my heart started to pound. I’ve got it. I’ve got the fellowship, my dream, my hope, my world. They have selected me! Me, the girl from a little village in Eastern Europe who wants to work on soils in Swansea!

What I wanted to say in my story is that you should follow your dreams; you should keep trying even if you fail. In general much fewer women apply for fellowships. For instance, in the URF Royal Society scheme only 20% of applicants are women. Even less become successful. Last year only two URFs were awarded to women. But my message is not to show you how small chance we have to get these prestigious fellowships, but to show you that we have to keep trying. We women need to make more applications to give ourselves a chance in the competition. We have to learn that the rejection of an application doesn’t mean we are not good, but that we need to take the feedback on board and try again. I thought that without the number of my rejections and unsuccessful interviews I wouldn’t have got where I am now. So the message is ‘keep going even if you fall, stand up and go’.

I’ve shared my story, but there will be more of them. On the 18th of March 2015 in the SURF Room in Fulton House at Swansea University we will be discussing ‘Fellowship and early career grant applications’ and sharing our stories. Come along and have a chat.

Alison Jones • March 10, 2015

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