Go back

Fighting fellows

Image: Willie B. Thomas, via Getty Images

Competing for a Versus Arthritis fellowship

Versus Arthritis’ career development fellowships provide one of the main routes for UK scientists—as well as medical, veterinary, nursing and allied health professionals—into an independent research career in musculoskeletal disease.

The fellowships, which open to applications once a year, offer up to £750,000 of full-time funding over five years. This year, the deadline for applications is 3 July.

Michael Thor, research programme manager at Versus Arthritis, introduces the scheme and discusses both the essential and desirable elements of any competitive bid.

How long has the career development fellowship been around?

It has been going since 2009. The scheme was maintained when Versus Arthritis was created in 2018 from the union of two organisations, Arthritis Research UK and Arthritis Care.

What are the essential elements of the scheme?

Career development fellowships are aimed at those who are committed to working in the field of arthritis research and are seeking to establish themselves as independent researchers. We aim to provide them with the opportunity to develop an independent research career and progress towards higher-level appointments. In essence, we are looking for researchers who have found their own niche and are stepping out of the shadows of their supervisor’s work. We want to help build a strong workforce of future leaders in the field of arthritis and musculoskeletal disorders, and this scheme helps us do that.

How many fellowships do you fund each year and what is the success rate like?

Most recently, we funded four fellowships of almost £3 million in total. On average, we award between three and four fellowships per year. In the past five years, we received an average of 18 applications per year with a success rate of around 18 per cent, so around one in five.

What would make a proposal stand out in this call?

There are three vital elements to mention to start with. First, it would have to be a great research proposal that has a strong impact on people affected by arthritis and musculoskeletal disorders. Secondly, it should contain a strong plan for a fellow’s own personal development; this should include their growth in leadership and managing people. Thirdly, we are looking for thoroughly considered patient and public involvement (PPI) work plans. There should be a clear involvement of people with lived experience of the disease.

Can you tell me more about the commitment needed from the host institute?

Applications should have a host institute commitment to the fellow’s development and career trajectory. This depends on the institute’s capabilities, so it can come in many forms. But, for instance, the host institute commitment could include a financial contribution towards the fellow’s salary costs, equipment and expenses. Or the host could provide an additional member of staff or a PhD studentship for the fellow. It could also come in the form of a commitment that the fellow will move into a tenure post during or at the conclusion of the fellowship.

What mistakes do applicants make that should be avoided?

One mistake is that the PPI is just a tick-box exercise rather than a way for the applicant to fine-tune their aims to improve their research proposal and shape it into something that has a strong impact. Applicants must reach out to patient organisations in their area of expertise. Most organisations are happy to help shape your application. Applicants also sometimes fail to budget for the PPI properly.

Applicants should also consider the time it will take for their institutions’ finance department to get all the paperwork done and for the institution to get behind the application.

What else can applicants do to prepare?

Look carefully at the support available at your institution. Also look at the opportunities to get training, whether that is training in applying or presenting or leadership skills.

I think it is also important to say that it is never too early to start. You should really be starting to build a collaborative network as early as possible in the process to help you pave the way to your independence.

Are there any elements that are not listed as essential, but which applicants would nonetheless be advised to consider?

Yes. It is not compulsory, but it is recommended that applicants get a mentor. A mentor can be invaluable at this career stage. This is usually someone who is more senior than the applicant, someone who has experience in the field, someone who knows people in the department and across the university.

They can use their experience to provide guidance, feedback and direction to the fellows. It can even help with just getting your foot though the door and network. They can also act as a role model and provide emotional support. Setbacks happen in science, and I think the people who will succeed will have a network of support and the skills to keep going. 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com