June 29, 2021, by Lexi Earl

Take control of your career #3: Preparing a fellowship – the secret is the 3Ps

This post is written by Peter Noy.

Dr Peter Noy is the Associate Director for Research at the Future Food Beacon. His work mentoring early career researchers is integral to his key responsibility for coordinating and developing successful funding bids for the Beacon.

When thinking about fellowships it is important to remember the three Ps: person, project, place. These are often used by fellowship panels to judge a high-quality application. In addition to these three Ps I would add in another three Ps that can be included as you start your fellowship quest. These are preparation, publications and programmatic thinking. Let start by going through the first three Ps and explore what panels are looking for.


The first of the three Ps is Person. This is a critical look at you as a researcher and, of course, your CV and track record. A fellowship is an investment in an individual and the panel want to know that they are investing in the right person. What they’re looking for here is evidence that you are a high-quality researcher. For most fellowship panels they are looking for rounded candidates that show evidence of:

1) high quality research (evidenced by publication and awards)

2) ability to deliver outputs (evidenced by grants and publications)

3) recognition in the field (evidenced by invited talks and seminars)

4) ability to communicate to different audiences (evidenced by public engagement, often also tested at a fellowship interview)

5) ability to lead and develop other researchers (evidenced by supervision or knowledge exchange activities).

As you start developing your fellowship ideas you should also think about boosting your CV. CV boosting activities include: applying for ECR grants and travel awards, talking to your supervisor about opportunities they might have (talks you could deliver to collaborators or review articles you could contribute to), submitting abstracts to conferences, and putting yourself forward for society prizes. Ideally you want to start these activities 12-18 months before you expect to submit your application.


The second P is Project. This is a rigorous assessment of your proposed research project. The fellowship is an investment in a person but it is also an investment in an area of research that is important to the funder and underserved by other spending it is making. (A good candidate will know what else a funder has funded in their area and how what they are proposing adds value). The expectations of the project will very much depend on the funder but it should align to the background of the fellow and the place you are applying to undertake the research. It is important to tell a story of your history and why this is the right project for you (i.e. taking knowledge from your PhD, PDRA work or a placement or research exchange to a new area of research). In addition, they will be looking for good planning, with the aims and objectives of the project aligning with the structure of the work, with a balance between all work packages. Some funders will welcome risk and blue-sky thinking (for example, charities like the Wellcome Trust or Leverhulme Trust), whereas others will want something that is deliverable (evidenced by preliminary data, publications and collaborators; for example, UKRI). Normally this will be explicit in the call but contact your local research development manager if you are unsure. The scale of the project should also reflect the type of fellowship. For example, a 2-year fellowship should be a concise project that you can evidence will be feasible, whereas a 7-year fellowship should have short term feasibility and longer-term higher risk and higher reward research goals.


The third P is Place. A strong fellowship will choose the place that best suits the project and the candidate. A fellowship is a personal award so you can take it anywhere. The best candidates will therefore take it to the institution with world-class capabilities most appropriate for the fellowship. For example, a researcher might choose the University of Nottingham for a project that requires on-farm field trials, microCT and laser ablation tomography root scanning (Hounsfield Facility), with access to ‘omics’ facilities (ionomics, genomics, metabolomics), and wider food systems transdisciplinary approaches and training (Future Food Beacon). You should do your homework and have a clear idea about what the resources are at the university where you are applying and how they fit into your personal development and career objectives. For help with this you should contact your local research development manager/support.

That’s a quick rundown of the first three Ps but there are three more Ps that are also key!

The additional 3Ps: Preparation, Publications and Programmatic Thinking

1) Preparation: Good candidates are set apart from the rest by preparation. A good fellowship takes 6-12 months to prepare, ideally with grant writing practice before that point – see our previous blog post. This time will allow you to build partnerships, get support for the fellowship, develop your ideas and get critical feedback from your peers. Preparation is vitally important!

2) Publications: You should try to plan a fellowship application off the back of an excellent publication or publication submission (with the view that this will be published by the time of the interview). This helps to address the “why now?” question that panels ask themselves (and potentially you!) and you can argue that this is cutting edge thinking in need of further research, as surfaced in the paper.

3) Programmatic thinking: This is really important to show that you are an independent thinker and can see the bigger picture of your research and the links you need to make for your research to make an impact. We are often able to think about a set of related experiments or research questions that make a nice project but it is much harder to see how these could fit within a broader interest area and wider programme of research. Being able to see this bigger picture will set you apart from your competitors. I’ll cover more about this in a future blog post so keep an eye out for that!

Understanding the three Ps a panel are looking for, and having undertaken the work required by the other three Ps, will stand you in good stead for fellowship applications.

If you are an ECR looking for an external fellowship please get in touch for support.

Posted in Outreach and Engagement