How I got my UKRI Future Leader Fellowship: lessons I learned from being a new PI

  • The proposal was built around the “big idea” which is going to shape the future of science and technology in the UK. So, in addition to citing academic literature and experimental pilot data, I included data from my own surveys and really emphasised, with examples, the impact of the project. The idea needed to be exciting and “believable” (for the want of a better word). The local reviewers liked it.
  • I resisted the temptation to seek out examples of previously successful proposals, as I had done with my previous attempts at applying for grants and fellowships. This meant that I approached my writing with a completely clear mind.
  • The heart of the proposal identified “the gap”. I then crafted the argument that my approach is one of the most promising ways to fulfil this need, and that I was the ideal candidate to achieve it.
  • In the candidate’s statement, I was very clear and upfront on my track-record and the leadership potential. I made it clear that this is an idea which I have led. This means evidence of the support which I have built and a strong letter of support from UoL.
  • Writing with clarity was important. The proposal was the standard length (8 pages, but included additional sections like: outlook for Years 5–7, intellectual property and commercialisation, national importance etc). So, there was little space for lengthy text. I had to pick the details to include carefully.
  • “The vision” section at the top of the document was very important. I spent a lot of time crafting it. In some of the locally-run information sessions in UoL, Faye Robinson and colleagues had some fantastic advice on how to structure the first paragraph of a grant proposal. I found this very helpful.
  • I hand-picked only the essential pilot data. The challenge was to balance the amount of pilot data against other illustrations to help the reviewer. As a new PI, I used to make the mistake of including data relating to everything that I could do. I avoided this in my FLF. I tried to find a balance between data from my recent publications and unpublished data.
  • I wrote the proposal in simple language that was easy to read. I structured the eight pages of the Case for Support in a way that was fairly logical and not too technical. I wrote about the risks and rewards of each approach, and the contingencies which I had for each goal.
  • I had the draft proposal reviewed multiple times by colleagues, especially by those whose style of research (interdisciplinary) matched the style of the proposal. This type of peer review is not a proof-read. I sought out reviewers who could offer me genuine criticism, particularly from the perspectives of the expert reviewers and the panel reviewers. I also had mine reviewed externally because I wanted it to be brutally honest.
  • I wrote my Pathways to Impact (P2I) and Impact Summary, side-by-side with the Case for Support. Prof Mark Reed has some really useful resources including a series of YouTube videos like this one, talking through how to do this well. I also found his resources on the Fast Track Impact website quite useful. Their algorithmic P2I tool was useful to understand the bare bones of what needed to be addressed. These resources completely overhauled my usual approached to the P2I. Finally, I had the P2I reviewed by a local expert on Impact. A note: you need to think about your impact goals and strategies for yourself before you use these resources.
  • I started by preparing the slides for the interview, and followed Prof Franciska de Vries’ approach of keeping things simple, to time, and easy to follow.
  • I focused more on the context, “the gap” and the impact of the work. The impact considerations included the mission of the project and how it aligns with the UKRI strategy, case studies which I was proposing beyond the first 4 years of funding and a visual illustration of the types of scientific ventures which this technology would enable.
  • I made sure that the presentation built towards the question: “why am I the ideal candidate to lead this fellowship”. Upon the advice of a colleague who had secured an FLF in the first round, I spoke openly about all of my leadership roles, including my work with various Equality & Diversity organisations championing women and LGBTQ+ visibility in academia. i.e. I felt more at ease in being authentic about my passions and priorities than to filter what I thought the panel wanted to hear.
  • I concluded my presentation with a strong appeal on why it is really important that this project be funded through the UKRI.
  • The 6 panel members were seated in a shallow U-formation facing a presentation screen. The PowerPoints were loaded onto a laptop on top of a desk at the corner of the room. There was a hand-held remote with a laser-pointer. I was given the option of either sitting down (either at the laptop, at the front of the room) or standing up. I opted to remain standing for the entire interview.
  • Most of the questions were asked by 3 panel members and the chair, but I tried, within my capacity to engage the other panel members in answering the questions. I had done my homework to read about the backgrounds of each panel member (panels are normally announced by the UKRI about a week before the interview date), which generally helped me feel prepared. However, I avoided going into the interview with a pre-conceived impression of the panel.
  • The interview focused on the academic (scientific), non-academic (in my case, commercialisation and broader impact) and leadership aspects of the fellowship. In my answers, I approached each of those areas with equal importance.
  • I did not assume that every panel member had (A) read my proposal from cover to cover, and (B) understood the scientific details of the methods I was proposing.
  • I was given a chance to share any final comments or thoughts with the panel. I had nothing more to add at that point.

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Dr Izzy Jayasinghe

Dr Izzy Jayasinghe

Microscopy researcher, based in the North of England. Interested in equality, diversity & inclusion in UK Higher education and STEMM.