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My winning proposal: Matt Rigby, NERC fellow

Bristol University's Matt Rigby tells Rebecca Hill how he made the leap from postdoc to permanent position thanks to an Advanced Research fellowship at the Natural Environment Research Council.

At what stage of your career were you when you applied for an advanced fellowship at NERC?

I finished my PhD at the end of 2007 and then went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston for a two-year postdoctoral position. That turned into a more permanent role as a research scientist for another two years. I applied for the fellowship about three years into my time there.

Had you applied for other fellowships before?

I’m from the UK originally and had been looking for the opportunity to come back. I applied for a couple of others: one at Imperial College London and one from the Royal Society. The year before I got this I applied for an NERC postdoctoral fellowship. [That time] I didn’t even get an interview.

What did you change to help you succeed between applying for the junior (postdoctoral) and senior fellowships?

I suppose it is a bit strange, applying for a junior one the year before I got the advanced one. I had more publications the second time around, which is obviously a big deal. I suspect my proposal was a bit more polished. It was in the same area of research, but the second time it was more clearly defined; the first time it was a bit more woolly and vague. The work I’m doing as part of the fellowship builds on work at the MIT, so I guess I’d done more groundwork too.

When you put in your application, did you have to get the backing of the University of Bristol?

Yes. While I was at the MIT I was working with a researcher at Bristol, so I knew them already. Also, as with any research, there were only a couple of places I could have come to in the UK. When I applied for the NERC postdoctoral fellowship I did it through Imperial, where I did my undergraduate, because I knew the staff and the environment. Maybe one of the things that were looked upon favourably was the complementary activity going on in Bristol; it wouldn’t have been the same at Imperial.

What was the application like—were there any particularly challenging bits?

Obviously the main body of the application is the plan for the work you’re going to carry out, and when you’re in transition from a postdoc to a more permanent position that’s initially the most challenging thing. That’s because life as a postdoc is tackling things task by task, whereas with a fellowship proposal you have to think about what’s going to keep you occupied for five years. I suppose there are a lot of different things, like the financial side, which scientists aren’t always that good at! That was what Bristol brought to the table [and] luckily it was done for me and uploaded onto the application. NERC also wants you to discuss the impact of your project on society and how to interact with stakeholders, so that takes you out of your comfort zone. I think some people I’ve met who are applying don’t take it as seriously, but the panel like to see you’ve thought about it.

What three things would you advise someone to do if they are thinking of applying this time around?

Look at previous successful submissions if you can. I knew a couple of people who were happy to send me their applications, which was fantastic and gave a good idea of what’s expected. But don’t be put off by their CVs! One senior staff member also had details of impact plans and they’re useful to give you a flavour of what’s needed. 
Don’t be discouraged if you get knocked back; keep on applying—you’ve got to expect to be rejected the first few times. When I’ve talked to people about it they say they don’t think they’re ready or don’t have enough publications, but if you want to be an independent researcher it’s worth trying. I probably didn’t have the publication level that was expected for an advanced fellowship, but if you write a proposal that excites your reviewers then you’re in with a shot. I think it’s worth a gamble! The main thing is to get as much input and feedback as you can, from as many people as possible. Make sure you get some support from somebody at the institution and they’re engaged with the project. I can’t stress how important that is.

What should potential applicants avoid doing?

There are lots of things that are quite obvious! I suppose one of the things I hear is that applications can be overambitious. That might seem a bit strange, because you hope someone has big ideas, but if someone was applying for work that would take more than three or five years to complete then it suggests they’re over-promising. There’s probably a tendency to oversell a project, but make sure your goals are realistic or the reviewers are going to jump on it and say ‘I don’t think this is going to happen’.

Did you have any idea beforehand of who would be reviewing the proposal, and do you think that would help?

Not really. Before your interview they send you a list of the interviewees. At that point your written proposal is submitted, but you can tailor your presentation and interview for the interview. You just have to write for two kinds of audience; show off enough knowledge to convince reviewers you’re an expert in your field, but at the same time you’ve got to keep in mind that some won’t be experts. It’s kind of a balancing act.

What are your plans for the future—has the fellowship helped you?

It definitely opens some doors. Especially early on, as you’re seen as quite valuable. If you’re taken on as a lecturer, the university won’t have to pay your salary for a few years. It’s also prestigious, and shows you can think for yourself. And it’ll help you get a permanent job—I have been offered one, but didn’t take it.