Go back

Royal Astronomical Society opportunity profile: Early-career fellowships

Following an across-the-board cut in funding for UK astronomy and geophysics research in 2010, the RAS launched a fellowship scheme for outstanding early-career researchers. Society president David Southwood is determined to help them stay in the game for three years while their career plans emerge.

There’s no preferred subject for the fellowships, or even a balance to be achieved—the choice is solely based on academic excellence,

Southwood says. Events and awards officer Emily Down agrees, saying the society is encouraging applications in all related fields, including geophysics and solar system science—not just astronomy.

Applicants must have gained a PhD since 2008 or have had their viva before the application deadline of 19 October. Southwood says the society is looking for people with a

proven tack record and research independence

, so having a

few postdocs under your belt

could be an advantage, but is not a requirement.

Ben Davies, from the University of Cambridge, spent four years in postdoctoral positions in both the UK and the United States before being awarded an RAS fellowship. Baojiu Li of Durham University, on the other hand, had only been out of his PhD for a year and a half, and was working as a junior research fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge, when he applied for his RAS fellowship.

Both stress that applicants need a good publication and citation record, but Davies recommends applying for fellowships straight out of your PhD, when you've got ideas to gain experience and learn from your mistakes. 

Southwood advises candidates to put forward proposals

very different from their PhD thesis

. He says:

The brighter, more confident candidates who are challenging the science are not likely to want to stay in too narrow a field.

Catriona Jackman, RAS fellow at University College London, believes choosing a different research topic to the postdoctoral work she was conducting at the time benefited her as it showed she wanted to progress.

Davies also thinks his efforts to put in a lot of groundwork and prove that what he wanted to do would work would have appeared

less risky’ to potential funders.

One fellowship for each university

RAS fellowships are made as a grant to the institution, with a further £2,000 a year for conference attendance and items related to the research.

Applicants are advised to think carefully about which institutions to approach, as there can only be one RAS fellow working in one university at any particular time. 
The rules are reasonably strict because it’s a popular call, says Down.

But if there’s an outgoing fellow who’s going to be gone by the time the new applicant would start, they can still apply.

As the RAS only funds directly incurred costs, Davies explains you must have contacted the university you want to work in before you submit your application.

I gave them an outline, and they said they were happy to support it, Davies says.

They did say they would read the full science case and give me feedback, but I decided not to put them through that.

After the university has authenticated the application, it will be passed on to the RAS, where a panel of scientists, from interior Earth physicists to cosmologists, look over the proposals. Last year the RAS received around 70 applications, and the panel will generally interview between six and eight candidates. The panel’s choices are then presented to the RAS Council for final approval.

Application do’s and don’ts

As well as a CV, an abstract explaining the proposed research project and a list of publications, the RAS asks applicants to complete a report on their research that is

intelligible to physical scientists who may not be expert in your particular field.

You need to put yourself in the shoes of the people who will be reading it and they’ll have a lot to read. If you put lots of jargon or equations, they’re going to switch off, Davies says. 

Jackman recommends getting people outside your immediate research group to read through the proposal, adding:

If you can convince someone outside of your field that your work is interesting, that means you have a much better chance of convincing the fellowship panel.

Applicants are also asked to provide two referees, and Li recommends thinking carefully about whom to choose.

There may be a balance of how well they know you and how strongly they would recommend you, he says.

Jackman explains she also tried to raise her scientific profile by convening conference sessions, organising RAS discussion meetings and getting involved in public outreach. 

Her advice to applicants is to

make sure your idea is original, timely, and feasible during the time allowed, but sufficiently ambitious to represent an important step forward.

The future: what can applicants gain from fellowships?

Current fellows say it has given them the freedom to work on what they really wanted to, and to establish themselves as independent researchers.

Both Li and Davies now have permanent jobs. Li has a lectureship at Durham when his fellowship ends and Davies has a faculty job at the University of Liverpool. Davies will take his fellowship to Liverpool for a year, something he successfully pitched to the RAS before taking up the offer.